Where Do You Get Your Story Ideas? (Part 4)

I have a pretty large collection of children’s picture books, started long before the Boy was even a gleam in my eye and added to long after he’d declared himself too old for them. I love these kinds of books, because the combination of art and words (whether actually written—say, Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak—or simply implied, as in Picnic, by Emily Arnold McCully) really excites my imagination.

I particularly love the work of Chris Van Allsburg, which is paradoxically simple and detailed—and always fantastical. You may know him as the author and illustrator of Caldecott Medal–winners Jumanji (1981) and The Polar Express (1985), but one of my very favorites is The Mysteries of Harris Burdick (1984). It’s a collection of unrelated black-and-white drawings, each with a title and a single line of text. There’s a little bit of story: Harris Burdick, we’re told, is an author/illustrator. He brings these fourteen sample drawings to a publisher, who asks to see the stories from which each drawing is but one of many. Burdick promises to bring them the next day … but he never returns. Mysterious indeed!

You might call it the ultimate writing prompt. Over the years, writin’ folks have been inspired by Allsburg’s enigmatic art, including Stephen King, who wrote a short story based on “The House on Maple Street” (in his 1993 story collection Nightmares & Dreamscapes). And in 2011 The Chronicles of Harris Burdick was published: short stories based on the Harris Burdick drawings from such luminaries as Kate DiCamillo, Cory Doctorow, Jules Feiffer, Stephen King, Tabitha King, Gregory Maguire, Louis Sachar, Lemony Snicket, and others.

Great art has often been inspired by story (Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ, which illustrates Judas betraying Jesus to the Roman centurions being just one example of centuries of art inspired by the Bible)—but there are other examples of stories that purport to tell us what’s happening in a piece of art, most notably Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier. (Google “fiction based on famous paintings” and you’ll come up with things like Susan Vreeland’s Luncheon of the Boating Party and many more.)

It’s a pretty good idea to create a story that explains an image, if you ask me. When a close friend sent me a photo of her grandchildren last summer, my first thought was A person could write a short story about this. Have a look.*

A person could write a short story about this.

 

There is something magical about it—there’s a real adventure in front of these kids. Or is it behind them? Is the story about to begin or has it just ended? What are they looking at (a family pet … a family member … a friend … a stranger … something incongruous and mysterious)? Are they at home? Visiting? These are all things to think about.

I ask myself similar questions when I flip through the pages of my grandmother’s scrapbook, which contains dozens of sepia-toned photographs—every one of them a question. What were they doing here? Whose car was that? Who is the man in the background and why is he grimacing? Why does that guy have his left arm around girl A while with his right he is holding the hand of Girl B? (That one fascinates me.) Author Ransom Riggs, a collector of vernacular photographs, used this idea to create his much-praised—and certainly interesting—Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.

Think about it, anyway. And by all means, check out The Mysteries of Harris Burdick.

I’ve written about story ideas before—here, here, and here. You may think of them as writing prompts if you must, but my goal (and yours, I think) is for you to push on to your next novel. Just sayin’.

* I said recently I don’t use photos in my posts, and—while WordPress has recently made it easy to embed video and I’ve taken advantage of that—I still don’t. This is an anomaly. :)

 

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6 Comments

  1. Ramona says:

    GORGEOUS photo. I could so run a contest with that. Or create a novel.

    • Jamie says:

      And it wasn’t posed. :) I thought about offering to publish the best short story here but I couldn’t figure out all the particulars so I just let it go. Maybe we should talk.

    • Jamie says:

      BTW Did you recognize the place?

  2. Great post…and that picture takes my breath by surprise. I want to be in it.

    I always read your blog. It’s one of the most informative I’ve found. But you set yourself apart with the interest pieces. Loved the Irish slang.

    • Jamie says:

      Thank you! Thank you so much! You just made my day! :) (To be honest, I write what I’m interested in. The tips come up when I’ve finally had enough. Hahahaha.)

      The photo is lovely—I reacted the same way. And it was taken in a well-known place here in Middle Tennessee.

  3. […] 2 suggests gleaning ideas from art. Part 3 is about stories “ripped from today’s headlines.” Part 4 revisits the art idea, with an emphasis on books and photographs. But Dacus has some great […]

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5 Trackbacks

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