The Idea Machine

Recently, someone asked where my story ideas come from. Under tough, direct questioning, I was finally forced to reveal my secret: I keep an Idea Machine by my desk. When it’s time to write a fresh story, I simply slide a quarter into the slot, and out pops an idea ticket.

I wish.

The truth is, the 33 feature articles I’ve written for Arizona Wildlife Views magazine in the past eight years have come from many different places, including some that may sound unlikely. Department meetings unrelated to my magazine work, for example. Boring, right? Not when I treat them as (unofficial) story brainstorming sessions. As I listen to the Game and Fish Department’s biologists and wildlife managers talk about current events and issues, I glean ideas for articles.

Similar sources include the department’s annual awards ceremony, internal network, and vast website. It’s a big, diverse agency, so I’m constantly working to keep up with what’s going on. When something strikes me as particularly intriguing, I add it to my story idea list.

I started keeping the list when I joined the magazine staff. In those first few months, I read dozens of past issues to get a sense of what our magazine has published in the past. The immersion sparked story ideas, which I jotted on a pad of paper. When that list outgrew one page, I moved it to a Word document. The list remains my memory-keeper. It’s like a garden of young seedlings, any one of which might grow into a full-sized plant.

I also get ideas from wildlife magazines published by other states. It’s helpful to see what our peers in Wyoming, North Carolina, Montana, etc. are up to. I check their tables of contents and read whatever sounds intriguing. The point is not to steal ideas, but to keep our magazine up to date. And every now and then, one of their stories sparks one of mine.

In addition to keeping up with what’s going on in the department, and in our peer magazines throughout the country, I have one other source of story ideas. It’s the real Idea Machine: the one between my ears. I work for a wildlife magazine because I’m interested in wildlife. I’m curious about animals and why they behave as they do. I have questions about how humans relate to other species, and the management of those relationships. So it’s my own curiosity that generates most of my story ideas.

The real question is, how does a writer or any creative person keep that curiosity alive and healthy?

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