TalkWrite: Where Do Stories Come From?

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Where do writers get their ideas? We discussed the theme at our first Monday evening TalkWrite group for 2018.

Inspiration can come from the world around you:

  • Locations: a creepy house; an idyllic location can inspire thoughts such as “what happened there?” or “what could happen there?”
    • ie: “What if there was a body?”
  • Experiences: for a lot of writers, their day-to-day lives may influence the stories they want to write. It might be funny anecdotes around your work, or you might visit a place or have some sort of experience that you wish to share – either through fiction or as a memoir.
    • ie: what sort of interesting/weird things could happen at a science fiction convention?
  • Something that makes you wonder:
    • companies with interesting names
      • ie, Merlin’s Couriers (what do they deliver?)
    • advertisements
      • ie, car advertisement, costs $19,999 plus ORC (What if your new car actually came with an orc?)
  • Newspaper articles: often they only tell you the outcome of an event – so what caused it? Why would someone act in such a way?
    • Also Newspaper headlines: sometimes these sound more interesting than the actual story proves to be. So, write the more interesting one!
  • Conversations: either overheard, or that you have participated in.
  • Historic events/people: if you have a passion for a particular period or figure from history, that works as a great starting point for a story and fictionalised stories around real people are quite popular.
  • Dreams: keep a notebook beside your bed, and remember, that’s where Stephenie Meyer found Edward.
  • Songs: either the lyrics or the general theme of a song can prove inspiration to writing, just beware of breaching copyright by following or quoting the lyrics too closely.

Write the story you would enjoy reading

If you’re really stuck on what to write, sit down and make a list of the things that you enjoy the most in the books you’re reading and the movies you watch. Chances are, you’ll be able to find a shape of a fresh, new story within them. A prime example of this is Eragon by Christopher Paolini. It has elements of Tolkien, Star Wars, and, whilst being somewhat generic, became phenomenally popular and was actually a really good read (although I confess, I never finished the series). Do you enjoy cozy murder mysteries and like to knit? Well, why not combine the two? (This is a surprisingly populated genre).

Twists on Familiar Stories/Ideas

  • Retell a fairy tale with a new setting, time period or from a different character’s perspective.
  • Write the story of a side character in an out-of-copyright classic novel (ie: Captain Hook).
  • Take a fairly standard/cliched plot and twist or parody it
    • ie: the standard “quest for the McGuffin” narrative of some fantasy novels
  • Social or political commentary can also be used to create a powerful fantasy novel, a heart-breaking romance, a tense thriller, or a black comedy, depending on your personal genre tastes.

Many stories begin with a “What If?”

  • What if cats really ruled the world?
  • What if my neighbour began worshipping me as a god?
  • What if aliens have been amongst us all this time?

Writing Prompts and Word Lists

There are various resources on the internet for finding inspiration. These may work for some authors – particularly those who just wish to ignite their writing fire.

  • Images: they do say a picture paints a thousand words. Spend some time on pinterest looking up your favourite themes (or just “Story ideas”), but I’d recommend setting a timer. Find a picture that inspires you and see what questions you can create around it that might be turned into a story.
  • Writing Prompts: these are generally a sentence or two about a situation ending with a few questions. Great for getting inspired to write a short story – or possibly taking it all the way to a novel!
  • Word Lists: We did an exercise in a writing class where we were given three words (which included “rickshaw” and “encyclopedia”) and asked to write a short story around them. It was fun – and everyone’s story was completely different! Random word lists can be found on the Internet.
  • There are also numerous dice and card decks available to make you think and create.
    • Rory’s Story Cubes
    • The Reckless Deck: to create spec-fic mash-ups
    • The Storymatic: Pick up a card and watch the story unfold before your eyes!
    • Dixit: Not specifically for writing inspiration, but has plenty of strange and beautiful illustrations.
    • Once Upon a Time: Another game that can be used for inspiration, they even have a book available with how to use it to write your own fairytales.

Want to try and write a story based on prompts? Find below a picture (from Pixabay and a Creative Common) and a list of random words I’ve generated using an online generator.


Cemetery, cave, stem, compartment, suntan, candle, solid, rib, courage, constitution

If you write a story based on one, or both, let us know in the comments below!

Or if you have other ways of “finding your story”, we’d love to hear it.

Talk Write Schedule for 2018

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Members of the Christchurch Writers Guild, plus any interested local writers, are invited to attend our monthly Talk Write sessions. These are themed discussions, intended to inspire, encourage and motivate our writers.

When: the second Monday of every month (excluding January) – see specific dates below
Where: McDonalds Merivale, 217 Papanui Road, Merivale
What Time: from 7 pm, themed discussion begins at 7.30.

We can generally be found in the boardroom, but occasionally a double-booking will see us seated at the long table near Papanui Road.

Here is our schedule of discussion topics for 2018:

Feb 12th: Where do stories come from/finding your story
March 12th: Beginnings
April 9th: The structure of story
May 14th: Setting the scene
June 11th:  Show VS Tell/Writing deeper PoV
July 9th: Writing multiple PoV characters
August 13th: Mind mapping
September 10th: Putting the fact in fiction
October 8th: Writing creative non-fiction
November 12th: Adding conflict/avoiding the “saggy middle”
December 10th: I’ve finished my book … now what?

Please note: This list is subject to change, and our AGM will be scheduled (on a different date) in May.

These meetings are open to newcomers, and you can attend as many or as few as you wish.

Hope to see you soon!

Hope to se

Another day in the life of a NaNo-Nut: Preparation

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nanowrimo_2016_webbadge_participant-200 As November looms, so thousands of writers worldwide start to prepare for the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). A month when they will throw themselves into the annual challenge of writing a fifty-thousand-word novel. That may sound impossible, but for many, they’ll achieve it. For others, they’ll take that enviable step of actually realizing their literary dream.

This year will see me undertake my fourth NaNo journey. With each year my writing has grown, and with each year, I’ve realized there are things I need to do to improve the next years’ experience. And so, as I prepare this year, I’ve separated preparation and planning, both personally, and professionally where my writing is concerned.

Angela asked me to write about my NaNo experience, so here goes.

Preparation (a personal perspective)

1. Make sure you have a creative space to work in.
It’s not always easy. Whether you live alone, or with a family, there’s always distractions. Whether it be the urge to tidy up and vacuum, or having to listen to your teenage sons’ music. As a result, if you are going to write, you need a place you can feel comfortable in.

Do you need an uncluttered workspace? Do you work best with your family around you? Do you work with chaos around you? It’s all up to the individual. I know writers’ who work in the kitchen in the midst of their family. And writers who need to escape from the chaos that’s home. Everyone is different.

If not at home, then possibly a local coffee shop, the library. You need to feel comfortable where you write to avoid distractions, and the urge to procrastinate.

Preparing meals for NaNo.

2. Pre-prepare meals
As a mom of six, understandably meal-times can be a little like feeding time at the zoo. However, I’ve found that during NaNo, if I prepare meals and freeze them, it makes for a far more efficient dinner time. As a result, during October, every time I cook a meal, I make double the amount and freeze the extra for the following month (why I don’t do this all year round I don’t know!). I’ll make cauliflower cheese, lasagna, spaghetti Bolognese, shepherd’s pie, curries. I’ll prepare veg and then put it in freezer bags (I could probably buy frozen veg, but I’ve always preferred my own). I’ll have baking days, where I make muffins, potato wedges, anything that I know the family enjoy. So that when they’re hungry, they can merely take it out of the freezer and heat it up. Meaning they leave mom alone!

3. Make sure your family and friends are aware of what NaNo means to you, and them.

I’ve traditionally used a personal contract to reinforce my commitment to NaNo. I commit to my fifty-thousand-word goal, and have in the past reached as many as 125,000 words. This has only been possible by communicating with my family. They know what writing means to me. But during November, they’re aware that they don’t come into my study. They leave me to write. My husband bought me a hat, which he jokingly referred to as my writing hat. It’s become symbolic, in that if I’m wearing it, the family leave me alone to write.

Talk to your family and friends. Explain to them what NaNo is. What you intend to do. Why it means so much to you. Help them to understand why the month is important. If you’re going to commit, then you need the support of those around you. To be honest, my family become my own personal cheerleading squad. Watching as my daily tally grows. Urging me on all the way. That kind of support is invaluable to any writer.

4. Know what you want to achieve from NaNoWriMo

It’s all well and good committing to NaNoWriMo, but what do you want to achieve? Is it a novel you’ve always known you wanted to write, but never had the time? Is it your memoirs? Perhaps it’s a thesis? A collection of short stories? As you prepare for NaNo, set your goals. Know what it is you want before the month begins.

5. Buy yourself stationery.

stationeryMost people these days’ use computers, but one of the things I’ve found vital are notebooks and pens. I have small notebooks that fit in my handbag – each one labelled differently. Character notes, ideas, quotes, sources. I also have a large notebook that I use as journals and plotting diaries. I keep record of my progress, documenting how ideas evolve. How a character has changed; why I decided it needed to happen; if I decided to change a setting. All things that contribute to the evolution of my story. Not to mention picking up interesting snippets when I’m out and about.

6. Create a schedule

Identify what time of day is most effective for your writing. Are you a day writer? An early morning writer? Or do you like writing late into the night? In identifying it, you’ll be able to create a schedule for NaNo that most effectively uses your time for creativity. Do you want to just write for a couple of hours each day? Just an hour? Do you want to join a local write-in with the your local NaNo group. Research what’s available early, so that you’re not distracted during NaNo.

7. Set your goals.

Set yourself SMART goals (small, achievable, realistic targets). It might be a word count goal. I generally aim for 2,000 words a day. But I’m lucky enough to have the time to commit to having my bum in the seat far longer than many others may be able to commit.

To achieve 50,000 words in a month, then the average would be around 1650 words a day. You’ll find some days that is easy. Others will be a struggle. But they will generally average out if you’re on course for the fifty-thousand-word goal.

If you have a goal, you have something to reach for. A direction. So commit to that goal.

That’s pretty much everything as far as the preparation is concerned. I hope this helps with others planning their NaNo journey. It’s an exciting time of year, and with only a little over two weeks to go, preparation is well and truly underway for 2016’s NaNoWriMo.

Part 2: Planning to come!

emlowe2Emma Lowe moved to North Canterbury from Dunedin three years ago. She promptly joined the CWG and was overwhelmed to discover not only a network of writers, but a group of people who have become close personal friends. She has been focusing on her writing ever since (at least when she’s not juggling kids and the family business). She predominantly writes romance, and is also a member of Romance Writers of New Zealand, amongst other writing organisations.

Book & Resource Recommendations for NaNoWriMo’s.

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For NaNo Newbies

No Plot, No Problem
Chris Baty
No Plot, No Problem
Chris Baty
Write your Novel in a Month: How to Complete a First Draft in 30 Days and What to Do Next
Jeff Gerke
The Everything Guide to Writing Your First Novel
Hallie Ephron

For Writers

Scene and Structure
Jack M Bickham
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
Stephen King
Save the Cat!
Blake Snyder
Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story
K. M. Weiland
The Emotion Thesarus
Angela Ackerman & Becca Peglisi
(their Thesaurus series have a several other books that are invaluable to writers – available both in hard copy and e-Book)
Recommended by: Judy Mohr, Em Lowe



Facebook has several pages dedicated to including the main NaNoWriMo group as well as municipal groups.

Writing Non-human Characters

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Back in July, I did a presentation on “How to Write Non-human Characters” as part of our Character Building Workshop, and I thought it time I shared a little of it here for those of you unable to attend. I have written several novels, and numerous short stories (including fanfiction), about birds, lemurs, animal-people (“furries”) and fantastical creatures such as goblins and Pokemon. Whilst I do, on occasion, have human characters in my story, they are generally not the main protagonist.

Pierre, Ophelia and Aurelia, characters from my novel-in-progress “Tail of Two Scions”

So, why do I favour non-human characters?

First and foremost, I love animals, plus I have a zoology degree and I’m not afraid to use it, to educate while I entertain.

Other reasons you might choose to write non-human protagonists:

  • Challenge, to explore the world from a different perspective.
  • Adds an extra quirk to a fairly mundane or traditional plot idea.
  • Allegory or parable.
  • FUN.

Non-human characters can range from realistic style animals (Incredible Journey, Watership Down), through to the aforementioned furries. Generally speaking, I prefer to read animal-protagonist novels in which the animals behave much like their wild counterparts, but with increased insight and complex communication, or truly anthropomorphic ones, where the characters still show some of their natural animal traits. The movie, Zootopia, is an excellent example of this. However, shows like Arthur, where the characters are basically just children that happen to look like animals, don’t interest me.

Of course, “non-human” can also refer to werewolves, elves and many other near-human species.

For the purposes of this post, I’m going to deal predominantly with mostly-realistic animal characters.

The first thing to do when writing an animal character is RESEARCH. I watch documentaries, read books, look up information on the internet. Remember, if you get one facet wrong there is someone out there who will notice and most zoologists aren’t shy about correcting errors! Of course, the more popular your animal is, the more is known about them, so not only will you have a plethora of information at your hands, there will also be more folks out there looking to correct any errors you might make. If you are making up the species, as I did with my goblins, then you can create as crazy an ecology as you like, but remember to keep it consistent!

Next you need a plot, and with that, CONFLICT. Is your character wild or domestic? If domestic, you could write a family drama from the animal’s perspective – The Last Family in England (aka The Labrador Pact) by Matt Haig is an excellent example of this. Murder mysteries seem popular too: why have several cats in the neighbourhood been found dead? Sit down and brainstorm a list of possible adventures that your domestic cat or dog could get up to. For both domestic and wild animals, there is the classic theme: trying to get home/find a new home, in which either the original habitat is destroyed (Animals of Farthing Wood) or the animal is taken from his/her home and must find her way back (Far From Home Cats). Survival in general is also a popular theme, (ie: Black Beauty and Bambi), but you will still need the plot to build to something – whether it be the battle for dominance to claim his position as head of the herd, or that final hurdle before being reunited with her owner or finding his forever home.

Even animal characters need PERSONALITY. They should always be a character first, animal second. They should have needs and wants, hopes and dreams – and forces (be it another character, or nature) acting against their achievement of these. Cliches are fairly common in animal-driven narratives: cats are sly and manipulative, dogs dependable and loyal, but it is fun to twist the stereotypes. After all, hyenas are generally portrayed as scheming and malicious thieves and rogues, but did you know that they do regularly hunt their own food (not just steal it), have a matriarchal society and form strong clan bonds, not entirely dissimilar to the oft-romantisied wolf?

Whether your animal character is predator or prey, pet or stray, it can be fun to delve into the world, look at it from a different perspective (don’t forget the senses!) and challenge yourself to write something different!

avatar-angAngela Oliver is a writer and illustrator, a reader and a dreamer. She has independently published two novels via Amazon’s CreateSpace, Aroha’s Grand Adventure, about a weka (a flightless NZ bird) and her adventures as she makes her way home across the island, and Fellowship of the Ringtails, which she describes as “epic fantasy with lemurs”.

Writing Fairy Tales

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(A Guest Post by Shelley Chappell)

southernstarRecently I put out a call for submissions for an anthology of radical retellings of fairy tales for young adult readers. I’ve always loved fairy tales and I released my own collection of novelette-length retellings, Beyond the Briar, back in 2014, followed by some shorter fairy tale retellings. I’m keen to see what other writers might do with fairy tale retellings and, in particular, to gather together fairy tale retellings by Southern writers – citizens or residents of New Zealand, Australia or a South Pacific island – and explore what synergy we can create in our retellings.

Wish Upon a Southern Star will be a collection of quirky and profound reinterpretations of our favourite tales. The contributors will all be citizens or residents of New Zealand, Australia or a South Pacific island. The stories will each retell a single fairy tale, which may be from the European fairy tale canon or a lesser known original (including non-European fairy tales). I’m really looking forward to reading the submissions and selecting some thought-provoking stories for fairy tale fans to read.

As many writers have never experimented with fairy tale retelling, my fellow writers at the Christchurch Writers’ Guild have asked me to share what I know about fairy tales and my suggestions of how to rewrite them. My recent blog series covers this subject in depth, tracing why I love fairy tales, what fairy tales are, the history of fairy tales and fairy tale retellings, fairy tale critics, approaches to fairy tale retellings and a writing exercise on how to radically retell fairy tales. But that’s a lot of reading! For those of you who just want a quick overview as you’re chomping to get started, here are the essentials:

What is a fairy tale?
A fairy tale is a kind of folk tale which takes place in a magical, other realm, contains archetypal characters, repeated motifs, and a plot structure involving journeys or quests, tests, magical help, transformations, punishments and rewards.

What’s important about the history of fairy tales?
Fairy tales have been around for thousands of years but they took on a new lease of life with the writings of the French around the turn of the seventeenth century followed by a range of collectors and writers in the nineteenth century, including the Grimms, Hans Christian Andersen, and Andrew Lang. To retell fairy tales, you have to know the originals. You can read a huge range of fairy tales from around the world online.

How do you retell one?
Fairy tale retellings can be standard and close to the original or they can be radically different or ‘fractured’. How radical or fractured a fairy tale retelling is depends on how many of the key elements are changed – characters and their roles and motivations; settings; plot events; motifs and objects; genre; narrative perspective; themes and messages. If you want to write a radically retold fairy tale, you’ll need to work out how and why you want to change each of these elements – what you want to keep (so that the fairy tale is still recognisable) and what you want to transform.

If you’d like to contribute to Wish Upon a Southern Star, please read the details in the Call for submissions and contact me if you have any queries. I can be reached on my Facebook page, my website, or by emailing wishuponasouthernstar@yahoo.com. Happy writing!

once upon a time closeShelley Chappell wrote her PhD on the motif of fantastic metamorphosis in children’s and young adult fantasy literature and has taught literary analysis at a variety of institutions. In her spare time, Shelley writes fairy tales and other fantasy fiction for all ages. She is the author of BEYOND THE BRIAR: A COLLECTION OF ROMANTIC FAIRY TALES.