People always ask writers where we get our ideas. Usually I say “the idea fairy” and leave it at that. Ideas come from any and everywhere, something I read or a story I heard or a headline in the media. Once it was my father watching a Cessna on floats taking off from Lake Hood and saying disapprovingly, “That is the sound of someone not flying their own plane.”

I looked at him and said, “You just wrote the first line of my next book.”

These days “writing prompts” seem to have overtaken visits from the idea fairy. I just googled it and there were 180 million hits. Every liberal arts dot edu and every writing magazine and every online craft workshop has a definition and examples and exercises, and if you’re a professional writer de facto you are deluged with invitations for writing prompt contests in your social media feed.

At present I’m outlining the next four Eye of Isis novels. Since they are set 2,000 years in the past, the ideas for plots for them are mostly going to come from stuff I read.

Although this image at the Met in New York inspired
the character of Uncle Neb. I takes my ideas
where I finds ’em.

A couple of years ago I started listening to a book review podcast hosted by Lewis Lapham. He turned me on to Sonia Shah’s The Next Great Migration and Simon Winchester’s Land, both of which inspired plot lines in the Kate Shugak novels. Finally I got interested enough to look up the guy, and it turns out he publishes a journal, Lapham’s Quarterly. Four times a year he picks a subject like friendship or technology or scandal, curates all the best writing on the topic, and publishes excerpts in a single volume.

So I found the website page where all the issues are listed (and from where you can order them) and I saw one called Trade.

Well. Tetisheri’s day job is merchant trader. The journal was only $26 plus shipping and, glory be, they even shipped to Alaska. (Not everyone does, but that’s a rant for another time.)

It arrived and I leafed through it. It isn’t only excerpts from Aristotle and Friedrich Engels on the worth of a commodity as opposed to its use or on the curse of capitalism. It is an item titled “Cross Pollination: Unintended consequences of cultural exchange,” including half a dozen items, the first one Spam in the Pacific Islands. It is “Miscellany,” a two-page spread of individual paragraphs on various buying and selling topics like, oh, say, trademarks, where you learn that Erasmus’ day job was as a proofreader. It is another item called “Found Objects: Long-distance trade routes revealed by archeology,” where you learn shark’s teeth from the Atlantic have been found in Indigenous burial grounds in St. Louis, Missouri, seven hundred miles from the coast

I went back to the beginning and started over, and by the time I got to the end I

*knew why Cleopatra wanted Tetisheri to go to Numidia in Isis4
*knew how Tetisheri and Uncle Neb were going to organize their new fleet and what they were going to name the new business
*knew who would be running that market in Numidia and what was for sale there, and more importantly, what wasn’t
*had written the last scene of Isis4, which leads directly into the first scene of Isis5
*ordered two of the books he excerpted (which wasn’t easy or cheap as both were long out of print)
*and much more.

Now that’s what I call a story prompt.

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Chatter Eye of Isis

Dana View All →

Author and founder of Storyknife.org.

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