Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Hey, I have an idea!

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By Dennis McCloskey
January 3, 2009

I am writing this blog while on vacation.

Okay, so that’s not entirely true. Writers are never on vacation. We’re either writing or we’re thinking about writing and when we’re not doing that we’re reading to find out what the competition is writing about.

Right now, for example, I am sitting on the balcony of a rented condo in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, staring at the endless ocean. I am conjuring in my mind a story idea about a white whale of tremendous size and ferocity that destroys a boat and bites off the leg of a sailor who intends to take revenge. I’m thinking Ahab would be a good name for the one-legged seafarer and maybe Moby for the fish. Okay, so that sounds a little too familiar, so that story idea is dead in the water. But there are hundred billion gazillion other story ideas I could come up with, so I’ll just pour another Heineken and get right back to work.

Writing is a solitary occupation, and each writer has his or her own “writer’s cave” in which to carve and shape words that may last longer than the writer. I like a view. Such as an ocean. Or a large lake, just like the one I can see from the loft of my cottage on Lake Manitouwabing in north central Ontario. At home, I write in an upstairs office with a view of a wooded ravine. I get a lot of ideas just gazing out the window at the birds coughing in the trees (we live in a Toronto suburb) or the endless blue sky. At times, the contemplative solitude is interrupted by a conversation with my wife, Kris, in another part of the house:

Kris: “Dennis, what are you doing?”
Dennis: “Working!”

Story ideas are a big part of a writer’s life and it’s the key that starts the engine. But the fuel that powers the manuscript are the words that follow the initial idea. It’s like a car doing laps around a race track: you write one word at a time and each word follows another and as you gain speed, so does your story. (I apologize for the motorsport analogy but I am 20 minutes away from the Daytona International Speedway and I am looking forward to tomorrow when I will join my car racing enthusiast buddy, Dennis DesRivieres, to experience the ear-splitting roar of the sleek and stylish Daytona Prototypes as they prepare for battle, fender-to-fender, in the upcoming Rolex 24, the most demanding twice-around-the-clock challenge in the world of auto racing. I just know I’ll get plenty of story ideas as I did last year when Dennis and I wandered the pits populated by international stars of NASCAR and IndyCar.

I’ve always said that story ideas are everywhere and they are strewn on our path—like omens and signs—and we just have to recognize them. People are always coming up to me and asking: “Where do you get your story ideas from?” Well, people don’t actually “come up to me”... sometimes they ask the question in an e-mail of over a beer at my local pub. I love the answer provided by science fiction writer Spider Robinson who once replied that he gets his story ideas from Schenectady, NY. He said they come every Monday morning in the mail in a large manila envelope.

I often give a flippant answer like that but last month I spoke to a group of young people who are members of the Richmond Hill Newcomer Youth Leadership Corps. Their leader is Megan Thomas, Employment Programs Manager for the YMCA of Greater Toronto. Megan is an extraordinary teacher and facilitator, and the respect and attention she received from the kids that night told me this was no time for flippant replies, like: “I get my ideas in my dreams.” Megan allowed the group to ask 2 questions each about my writing career. When a young girl asked the inevitable and familiar question: “Where do you get your ideas from?” I was ready. I explained that story ideas are all around us and I gave them a practical example of stories I once wrote about people and events in their region. I told them about a time in the 1980s when I wrote freelance articles for the Toronto Star’s weekly newspaper Neighbors North. In a year-long period, my job was to write two stories a week about people, things, or happenings in the community served by the paper—York Region. The YMCA youths expressed surprise that there would be enough interesting material in their region to write about, until I told them that I wrote over 100 articles in a year, and the topics spanned the alphabet from A to Z. I was prepared for their outward signs of incredulity, so I had come prepared with the list of articles I wrote and sold to the Toronto Star that year. I listed some of the subjects to the surprised young people. The topics I wrote that year included stories about: an acupuncturist, air ambulance helicopter, alarm system salesman, Amnesty International member, antique car buff, archery factory, auctioneer, auto delivery service, author, auto wreck yard, ballet teacher, barber shop singers, beer garden, bicycle motocross racetrack, bicycle tour organizer, bingo card manufacturer, bridal fashion business, cable TV interviewer, cash-a-cheque mobile service, chief librarian, Children’s Foundation founder, Christian holiday tour organizer, comic waiter, community helpline volunteer, cool jobs in the summer, creative writing club, credit counsellor...and right on down the list to a yoga teacher, and how local residents were raving over the malt beverage, Zima.

None of those ideas came from Schenectady, NY, or a race car track, or the big, blue ocean. Story ideas are everywhere but they are not easy to cultivate. It takes time, effort and risk. And WORK!

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Dennis McCloskey

Dennis McCloskey is a journalist and editor and the author of numerous books. Several hundred of his human interest and business articles have appeared in over sixty-five newspapers, magazines and corporate newsletters in Canada, the US and Europe. His latest book, My Favorite American, is published by General Store Publishing House.

Go to Dennis McCloskey ’s Author Page