Learn to distill story ideas like a moonshiner

Moonshine books copy Ok, so let’s suppose you’ve read everything I’ve posted here or at Gliterary Girl on on the subject of writing. (And let’s also suppose you aren’t my mother.) That means you understand the importance of developing a voice, know the tools you need to establish that voice, are prepared to send your work to potential publishers, have established a writing routine, and are now sitting at the keyboard ready to write!


…um, but about what?

As a writer, recognizing and developing story ideas is your bread and butter. Or biscuits and gravy, depending on your proximity to the Mason-Dixon line. The point is, whether you are a romance novelist, sci-fi short story writer or weekly columnist, generating ideas — and recognizing the difference between good ones and not-so-good ones (There are no bad ideas in my opinion, and I’ll explain that in a bit) — is the most important skill you must develop.

While today’s wireless, techno-savvy world of instant access information can be a bottomless well of inspiration for any writer, just like the school immunization records for Brad and Angelina’s children, it can also swallow you whole in its vastness.

Every writer has his or her own technique when it comes to inspiration, and the Internet is only one part of a much larger equation. While I certainly scan through headlines from the larger Portland and Eugene newspapers in an effort to stay up on cultural trends and world events, once I leave the office restroom I generally refer to a collection of ideas I keep in a folder on my desk. In it, I have clippings, print outs, emails and ideas jotted on pieces of paper.

So how do I decide between good ideas and not-so-good ones?

Before we get to that, I will explain why I don’t believe there are any “bad” ideas.

At least when it comes to writing.

Skateboarding down “suicide hill” wearing nothing but swim trunks and flip-flops when I was 10?

Bad idea.

But when it comes to cultivating story ideas — good or “bad” — they’re all part of the filtration process. Think of “bad” ideas as corn mash; it isn’t what you’re after when making moonshine, but it’s a by-product of the fermentation process that leads to the end result.

The trick is knowing when to dump it even though, like whisky, mash can still get you intoxicated.

On my desk is a folder I have cleverly labeled: Column Ideas.

This folder is my “corn mash.” That’s where everything goes to begin the fermentation process. Like a bootlegger, I sift through it regularly, dumping what is no longer usable (because of timeliness or spilled coffee, for example) and adding more in its place.

On those occasions where I come into the office without an idea, I turn to this folder to see if anything is ready to begin the distillation process. Sometimes just a key phrase in something I saved will spark an idea. And even though it may not be directly related to the idea in the folder, again, it started with the corn mash.

I should point out there are definitely things which, even though they are tucked into the folder, continue to pop into my head. For example, I received an email last week from…


He apparently lives in San Mateo, Calif., and has a P.O. box.

These are the kinds of things you really have no choice but to write about. And not just because I might land the lead in “Ned Almighty.”

So whether you keep a notebook to jot down ideas, search the Internet, notice an interesting exchange in a restaurant while sipping coffee, or inadvertently catch site of something suspicious at your neighbors’ house, once the binoculars are put away write it down and let it begin the fermentation process.

As any writer knows, identifying great story ideas is intoxicating.

But please: Don’t write and drive.

Next week: Developing a tough skin doesn’t mean you can’t use moisturizer.

(You can write to Ned at nhickson@thesiuslawnews.com, or at Siuslaw News, P.O. Box 10, Florence, Ore 97439)

Published by

Ned's Blog

I was a journalist, humor columnist, writer and editor at Siuslaw News for 23 years. The next chapter in my own writer’s journey is helping other writers prepare their manuscript for the road ahead. I'm married to the perfect woman, have four great kids, and a tenuous grip on my sanity...

23 thoughts on “Learn to distill story ideas like a moonshiner”

  1. You are so clever and funny, too! I think it comes as a natural to some to write as they talk. I am sure you rattle on and do well in person, as you do on your blog! It is good to give potential writers suggestions and helpful hints! I appreciated and got something out of this post! Thank you!

    1. Thanks so much, and you’re truly welcome. I’m always glad to know when someone gets a tidbit from these pieces on writing. I appreciate the kind words. And you’re right, I do tend to rattle, especially as I get older. I probably just need fish oil to my diet… 😉

  2. Re: (And let’s also suppose you aren’t my mother.)

    I suddenly find myself wishing I had a Darth Vader costume. “Ne-ed, I am your moth-uh.”

    Bwaaa-haha-ha-ha! 😀

    Sorry, I didn’t get any farther than that today. Lol.

    Good Friday, Ned! And Happy Easter!

    1. Hahaha! It’s funny because, today, I’m wearing a T-shirt that has Darth Vader on it saying: “Because I’m Your Father, and I Said So.” 🙂 Happy Easter to you and Mr. Fever as well!

  3. NEVER throw anything away!

    Simple rule of thumb…harder, perhaps, to find storage space…but invaluable to generating good ideas.

    Case in point (apologies if I told you this before), my first screenplay was the result of a silly pun that popped into my head two years earlier and for which I had no use at the time. Still, I wrote it in a notebook and there it stayed until I later read it and the rest of the idea showed up.

    Ideas–or more accurately, whiffs of ideas–are too valuable to simply be discarded for lack of knowing what to do with them, even if the whiff presently stinks.

    As you metaphorize (yes, I made that word up), sometimes you have to let the stink ferment for a bit. Sure, it may one day explode and raze your house…but every once in a while, it will turn into penicillin to cure your STD (story-teller’s disease).

    1. No apologies necessary, even if you had told me before. It’s a lesson worth repeating and an excellent point. I couldn’t agree more. Though I’d add it’s also a good idea not to share your STD (story teller disease) with anyone until it has run its course.

  4. i have an official ‘pile’ i keep on my desk, and throw all ideas onto it, drawing from the pile as needed. kind of like a writer’s roulette. just have to make sure it does not spontaneously combust one day, but then i would just have another story to tell.

  5. Ned, once again you’ve given me two great ideas! The first, to pick up some binoculars. One of the neighbors that walks her dog around the neighborhood is hot, and I want to watch …to make sure she gets home safe…the other is to keep a writing notebook. Honestly, it’s a no-brainer at this point for me, but I still haven’t done it yet. Does that mean I have less than no brains?

    1. Not necessarily. Just think, you’ll possibly be the only survivor of the zombie apocalypse because you don’t have anything they want. Sounds pretty smart to me! 😉

  6. Great idea – very well told!

    There are people in the world who keep stuff and there are those who throw away. The ones who keep stuff ‘just in case’ are labeled negatively which can be unfair – unless the front door is impassable and a high window has to be used to gain entry to the property by everyone (including emergency services).

    I like the keep list. I keep stuff too (in a good way!!).
    Did you just validate hoarding? Thank you!

  7. This is an excellent series, Thanks for putting it together. I have notebooks everywhere for ideas; These notebooks are in my bag, by my bed, even the bathroom, and all have pens with them. You should never search for a pen, especially in the bathroom.

No one is watching, I swear...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s