Where Do Story Ideas Come From?

Marylee MacDonald is the author of MONTPELIER TOMORROW, a novel about caregiving and ALS. Her short story collection, BONDS OF LOVE & BLOOD, was a finalist in the Foreword Reviews' INDIEFAB Awards. Her fiction has won Gold and Silver Medals from Readers' Favorites International Book Awards, the Barry Hannah Prize, the Ron Rash Award, and many others.


“So where do you get your story ideas?”

My old friend’s question stumped me.

Recently she had begun writing short stories based closely on her own experiences, and she’d just finished reading my story collection, This Far Isn’t Far Enough. An army grunt in occupied German after World War II; a failed actor caring for his famous actor-wife now suffering from Alzheimer’s; an angry daughter who uncovers her dead mother’s secrets; these characters and these situations didn’t spring from what she knew about me. None of the stories in This Far Isn’t Far Enough come from my life. 

“You start with images, right?” she said, a logical assumption, since I’m a fine art photographer and had taught photography in an art school for many years before I began writing fiction.

“Almost never,” I answered, but my answer surprised me. Why don’t I start with images? I’m a visual person. I learn visually. I’m trained in the visual arts. How is it that I’m not inspired to write by things I witness? Bothered by my answer, in the weeks after that conversation, I tried to figure this out. Then in an airport, hurrying past a book display, I found my answer. Start with Why.

That’s it! I start with “why.” I overhear an odd remark, a pointed exchange between two people, or an angry curse, and I wonder why? I smell something strange floating up an elevator shaft, chocolate burning, and I wonder why? Or I see a fork missing from a fancy flatware set in an antique shop, and I wonder why one is missing?

Antique silverware

My curiosity about the missing fork stayed with me. I kept thinking about what might have happened. Stolen in the shop? Lost or stolen from the owner? Had its loss upset the owner?