Learn to distill story ideas like a moonshiner

Moonshine books copy Ok, so let’s suppose you’ve read every weekly Nickel’s Worth On Writing I’ve posted here during the last two years. 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.

I thought about marking it as SPAM, then decided it wasn't worth the risk of eternal damnation.
I thought about marking it as SPAM, then decided it wasn’t worth the risk of eternal damnation.

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.



(Ned Hickson is a syndicated columnist with News Media Corporation. His first book, Humor at the Speed of Life, is available from Port Hole Publications, Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble.)

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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...

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

  1. Very gratifying this morning to see my process validated. The “drafts” section of my Dashboard serves as my distillation folder and it works quite well … other than the fact that my moonshine somehow ends up much weaker than yours. Oh well, it’s good to have heroes. ❤

  2. i have a padded box i throw ideas written on sticky notes, articles, scraps, cocktail napkins and diapers into. you never know what will come out of there. when i open it i feel like i’m letting the genie out of the bottle.

  3. Ha! Cool – “fermenting”. When I drove long-haul a lot of fermenting went on. I hadn’t actually thought about creating a manual compost pile in a folder. Good tip Ned, Thanks.

    1. You’re welcome, Paul! And I do some of my best creative thinking while I’m driving long distances, so I can see how the fermentation process would work then. As long as I don’t get pulled over.

  4. Well sadly I have not be reading your blog long enough to soak up all your tidbits of information, I do like the idea of keeping a folder of ideas to write about, I should really get on that.

  5. Lately, I’ve taken to using my voice recorder and the voice recording app on my phone when ideas pop up (like they did 2 days ago). Now I just need to go back and listen to the ideas and write about them! Definitely worth at least a nickel for this bit of advice- thanks!

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