Thursday, September 30, 2010

It All Began With a Picture...

By: Stephanie S. Smith, Fiction Blog Editor

I have a question for all you writers out there: how do your stories begin?

Do they begin inside you, with a striking thought, image, or hope? Do you observe something in the world that makes you want to put in onto paper? Do you imagine your characters to life, or do you see them on the street, at the Farmer's Market, the corner coffee shop?

Many of my favorite authors, it seems, birth their stories like this: a curious image arises in their mind, an image they see and cannot forget, and they write to discover the story behind the image. 

Beloved author C.S. Lewis says that his enchanted world of Narnia began with a picture of a faun carrying an umbrella in a snowy wood.  "This picture had been in my mind since I was sixteen. Then one day, when I was about forty, I said to myself: ‘Let’s try to make a story about it'.”

Kate DiCamillo was lying in bed one morning, her life in a state of depression, when she suddenly saw a magician, joined by an elephant.  The tale of these two characters entwine in what became The Magician's Elephant, a beautiful story about magic, homecoming, and belonging.  

Sue Monk Kidd's award-winning novel, The Secret Life of Bees, began with an image of a girl going to sleep in her room amidst a swarm of hovering bees.  Right now I'm reading Traveling with Pomegranates, the author's memoir which gives the reader the backstory behind the creation of her bee novel. I find myself fascinated with the way Sue Monk Kidd collects the smallest of details and finds a home for them in her book.  Simple things like a pink house she saw in a magazine, a childhood memory of bees that hummed through the walls of her old house, and a story about a black Madonna struck something in her and she wove them into her novel. 

As much as I love reading and writing, fiction has always been the hardest thing for me to write.  Characters do not appear to me in dreams, or start talking to me in the shower, or hover over my bed in the form of elephants.  But I do often see images in real life that I pause over and tuck away, and lately I've decided to brave a short story, weaving in bits and pieces of things that catch my attention and make me curious. 

Here are some of them:

A man sitting on a porch that is covered with windchimes.

The way a book in my hand vibrates with the live music of a cello playing in a bookstore.

A newspaper clipping of an elderly man who was killed by a church steeple as it fell onto his parked car.

A verse in Exodus about the bells the priests of the tabernacle would wear on their robe, so that outsiders could know by the noise whether or not the priest was still alive in the holy presence of God.

An odd menagerie, I know! But if it works for Sue Monk Midd, hopefully I can tell a tale with these details, too.  What works best for you? How do you translate an idea onto the page?


  1. For me, I jot down the image/idea as soon as possible. As I receive more images, I connect them into a movie, and then create a one sentence outline. The Lord gave me a romance story when I pulled behind an old blue pick-up truck at a stop light. Thanks - Kimberli

  2. Hi, Stephanie - I love your list of story starters.

    For my crime fiction, I tend to start with a "What if" scenario, sometimes by inspired by an event in the news or a story I read or watched -- whereas that story went one way, I start to wonder what would happen if the first act took different turn altogether.

    For my mysteries with Barbour, I started with a character. I knew I wanted someone who didn't want to associate with people, and rarely left his home. As I continued to noodle on that, I ended up with a grumpy old man in a wheelchair with a somewhat mysterious past. He lives in a retirement home but doesn't even know his neighbors. When he's forced to solve a murder at the home, the investigation forces him to get out of his apartment and meet people for the first time in years. (And he meets a certain lady who baffles him to no end.)

    Thanks for the blog entry, Stephanie! It really made me stop and think about the process.

  3. Chris, thank you for your insightful comment. I like the way you approach a new story with a question! I think writers make an art of asking questions, whether conciously recognized or not, but it sounds like you are tuned in to your process of storytelling.

  4. For me, that's a bit of my struggle right now, opening sentences. As a new writer wanting to write something sensational and readable...I keep wondering about a good hook line to open my story. Any suggestions about where to find materials on examples or books, I'd appreciate knowing. Thanks for allowing this novice a say.

    Barb Shelton
    barbjan10 at tx dot rr dot com

  5. Hi Barb, welcome to our blog! I think getting started is one of the hardest things about writing. I dug up this old blog post for you which talks about a few first-liners from classic novels as well as new novels, see what you think!

    Also if you google "best first lines of novels" you can find some really interesting examples. Best of luck!

    Stephanie S. Smith, blog editor


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