Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Unwrapping Story Ideas - Guest Post

Photo Credit:, photo by iphis

I grew up in a big-city, ethnic neighborhood where men gathered at smoky bars for a beer after working all day in the factory (to earn a wage that put bread on the table but rarely put their kids through college), where women shared gossip during a rousing game of bingo in the church basement, and Saturday night bowling leagues were an essential social requirement.

Our family bought rye bread from a bakery, bologna from the butcher, and penny candy from a grouchy old man in the corner store. He would visibly cringe when I laid a quarter on the counter and began a child’s ceremony of choice—two bb bats, one atomic fireball, four flying saucers that melted on the tongue to reveal tiny balls of sugary goodness hiding inside, two red shoestrings, one caramel (for Mom), two bit-o-honey, four candy lipsticks (to share with my sisters), and on and on until the entire twenty-five piece assortment was placed inside a brown paper sack and I scooted happily outside.

The elementary school had a big playground that doubled as an asphalt parking lot; we lost a lot of balls to the busy street below. When the shrill school bell rang, adrenalin would shoot from the top of my head down to my toes as I raced to class, sad that I had once again missed an opportunity to erase chalk from the blackboard. Today, in the early days of spring, when the snow melts and the sun shines strong, I can still catch a whiff of remembrance; drying winds that lick rock salt off roadways can mimic the chalky smell.

Once a week, my fellow classmates and I went to the school library. It smelled like old paper and lemon wax, and books were shelved on oak bookcases large enough to sail through the Atlantic with a crew of glib librarians. But everything seems bigger when you’re just a little kid.

Photo Credit:, photo by click

At first, I looked only at picture books. To my mind, Dick and Jane were real people. Several years older and wiser, I searched titles for interesting language. My favorite was one cataloged under Religion called Purple Violet Squish. I eventually bought—and still own—this David Wilkerson book.

The title of another book eludes me, but I remember some of its content. This work of science fiction, the first science fiction I ever read, inspired me to think outside the box. Over forty-years later, it still does.

For example . . .

My protagonist, we’ll call him Jim, enters a time portal and catapults through decades before landing in his own school cafeteria. He’s shoved into line and picks up a tray as he stands before a flat screen with pictures of edible selections. His finger touches a glossy of beef stew, and instantly, the machine spits out a duplicate on an index card.

He takes it to a table (made of transparent acrylic so the lunch monitors, which are beams of light, can see everything), sits on a hover chair, and wonders if a waitress will bring him his food. But the moment he places the card on the table, the picture emerges into a 3-D version of beef stew.

Within seconds, the aroma of grilled onions wafts from the paper to his nose. Savory celery chunks appear. The rim of the picture becomes the brim of a bowl full of bubbling hot stew.

At this point, a real human hands him a spoon. He dips it into the bowl, lifts a carrot to his lips, and swallows. Something in his brain is immediately comforted. At the same time, an idea registers that he must control his consumption to maintain mental acuity and physical prowess.

He takes another bite. Creamy potatoes fill his mouth with memories of happy family dinners. As the soft lump slides down his throat, he notices a perfect pea pop to the top of his dish. He bathes his spoon with gravy to retrieve the pea, and slurps it down with gusto. His eyes grow wide. That single pea tastes like his grandmother garden looks, bursting with color and steamy summer heat.

And there you have it—one potential scene in an other-worldly story, derived from the recollection of reading my first science fiction book. Some of the best story ideas are those that have incubated in memory—a vague remembrance of elementary school, a camping trip, the dog that chased you down the sidewalk . . .imagine the possibilities.

For me, story ideas from penny candies and childhood innocence build when I ask lots of questions. What if the grouchy candy man was not human (in reality, I often wondered if he was)? What if the candy had been replaced with alien produced drugs? What if the man was merely trying to protect young customers from buying the dangerous food? What if we bought them anyway?

A creative writer must constantly dream up new scenarios, and asking “what if” is essential.

At the moment, however, the question I ask myself is, “Why can’t candy still cost only a penny?”

~Amy Nowak

Historical Novelist Amy Nowak has lived in and researched the American West for over thirty years. Her exploration of prehistoric ruins and study of European expansion has inspired her to write candid stories that embrace bygone events, while her approachable characters arouse vitality, spiritual contemplation, and hope. She loves to cook southwestern style food and dithers between red sauce and green, but she’ll take either with a squeeze of lime. Be sure to check out her website.