What to write about

What to write about?

Last night at the Original Writers Group we talked about that difficult subject of finding a story.

I asked who carried notebooks and was surprised at how many writers didn’t. Ideas can come at any time, anywhere. They are inspired by the world around us. Usually, they happen at the most inconvenient time, like when you are out jogging in the park or drinking champagne at a party or shopping in the supermarket with a kid hanging off the trolley.

Develop the habit of writing down your ideas. Most ideas will disappear in three seconds. Hold on to them while you get your small notebook out of your pocket.

Know yourself. Use your obsessions, infatuations, and confusions in your writing. What interests you? Write a list of all the things you believe and those things you don’t. Once you know this, you will know where to look to find your stories.

Writing should never be an obligation. Let it be your passion. If you are passionate about your stories, you can live with them as the months roll by and the seasons turn from autumn into spring and through summer to autumn again. Sometimes it takes years to write a story. Be a long-distance runner. Be prepared for the long haul.

Harry Cohn of Columbia Pictures used to ask his scriptwriters one question when they presented a new project: “So what?” by which he meant “Why should I care?”  Everything should pass the Harry Cohn test. Ask this question about your idea. Ask ‘Why is this idea special?’ In every story, something of consequence has to happen.

There will be times when you lose interest in your story. It will be like falling out of love. Divorce yourself from the idea. Take what you can. Chairs, sofas, tables – scenes, descriptions, characters. Put these in a folder and move on. You never know. Someday in the future, these might become useful again.

Where are your stories?

There are stories in the discoveries you made, the truth you saw, the tales you overheard.

There are stories about the people you love and hate.

There are stories about the things that make you angry, the things that make you laugh.

There are stories in jeopardy when people have something to lose: family, friends, ideas, opportunities, reputations, dreams.


Write about the memories that haunt you.  Maybe a person you once knew, a story you read or an event that changed your life.  We all have experiences we can use in our writing. Look for those moments when your world was threatened. Memorable moments when you overcome obstacles. Use your memories creatively. Take stories from your life and the lives of your friends. Graham Greene said when asked about using memories in his stories, that they were ‘yours to remember and mine to forget.’

Reconstruct events and dialogue.  Take a slice of life and ask ‘What if?’  ‘What if’ drives everything when it comes to writing stories.

Build lists in the back of your notebooks

A list of interesting things and subjects and topics.

A list of your obsessions. Obsessions make great stories.

A list of your fears.

A list of those things, people and places you love.

A list of those things, people and places you hate.

A list of the times when something memorable and interesting happened in your life.

What to write about Writing

Write the truth as you know it.

Truth is grey, not black and white. What we believe to be true can change over time. There is an inscription above a door at the German Naval Officers School in Kiel that reads:

Say not ‘this is the truth’ but
‘so it seems to me to be as I now see things I think I see’

There will always be someone who believes the opposite to what you know to be true. Don’t let this stop you from writing what you believe. Truth is strongest when time is spent to investigate, explain and verify the facts. The problem is that sometimes it is easier to come to a conclusion by distorting, hiding and twisting facts.

So what to do? Be honest. Don’t pull your punches. Don’t worry about being blunt. Tell us the truth as you know it.

What to write about

Fear is the key

What to write about? Write about what frightens you. Fear is a map. It tells us where we lack experience. It shows us where we perceive our boundaries to be.

What to write about Writing

Risk all

It is your business to write what other people think but don’t say. Go for the throat.

Start with anything that bothers you – be honest, be angry.

Remember how people react to a car accident. Highways choke up as drivers slow down to gawk. It comes as no surprise that news programmes concentrate on bad news first.  That’s what interests readers.

Good stories question the status quo.  In Romeo and Juliet, two teenagers question the status quo of their two families at war.