Tag Archives: story ideas

Fun Writing Is Fun—And Successful

I had a spot of good news this week. I had a short story accepted for inclusion in an anthology that’s due for publication this fall. Although I’ve been writing professionally for years (i.e., getting paid to write), this is my first fiction piece accepted for publication professionally, so naturally I’m fairly excited.

The story was written specifically for the call for manuscripts for this anthology, which is being published by the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers (RMFW) organization. The anthology will include stories that explore Denver’s Colfax Avenue, “the longest, wickedest street in America,” according to Playboy magazine. When I first saw the call, I thought it sounded interesting, but I didn’t have any stories or ideas for stories that would fit. So I passed the call off to the members of my writing group, prepared to ignore it myself.

Fortunately, the historic nature of Colfax and its multifaceted personality continued to swirl in the back of my brain. A few other ideas from unrelated sources came into the mix. Then suddenly, a couple days later, I had a story. And I knew I had to write it, whether or not it would make the cut. By that point, I wasn’t even sure I could get it done in time to submit for the deadline. Continue reading

Warts & All: J. Tull & My Early Creative Writing

I’ve pretty much been writing stories for as long as I can remember. It’s the only way you can get away with lying all the time. You know, if that sort of thing appeals to you. I did quite a bit of writing when I was first in college, right out of high school, in the late ‘80s. That was also the same period when I first listened to the music of Jethro Tull. It turns out that even back then, my stories were influenced by the music I was listening to.

When I started listening to Tull, they had already been around for nearly 20 years. In fact, the second time I saw them in concert, in 1988, was for their 20th anniversary tour. I was only 21-years-old at the time, so naturally, they seemed really old: I mean, they’d been performing for basically as long as I’d been alive. (Their first album was released in 1968; their best-known album, then and now, Aqualung, was released in 1971.)

As part of that 20th anniversary, Jethro Tull also released a box set of rarities and live performances. Among those tracks were a few songs from their famous abandoned album (from 1973), known as the “Chateau D’Isaster Tapes.” Due to technical difficulties, illness, and other problems, they scrapped a nearly complete album, but those recordings were still around; this was the first chance to hear a bit of what the band had been planning, warts and all.  Continue reading

Yellowstone: The Story Generator

I blogged last week about some of my fascination with Yellowstone National Park. In response, I heard from one of my writing friends that I should write more about Yellowstone. In fact, it doesn’t take much encouragement for me to do so. As I mentioned, I frequently write stories set in Yellowstone, although I didn’t go into details about any of them in that post.

I started writing about Yellowstone about fourteen or fifteen years ago, which was also when I started working on my MFA in creative writing. My MFA thesis ended up being mostly Yellowstone-based, although it wasn’t the complete collection I’d envisioned, for both length and the needs of satisfying my advisor in order to graduate. In my last post, I mentioned that a picture from the Yellowstone Facebook page called to mind a scene from one of my stories—that story is called “Feather Tracks,” and it’s the lead story in my thesis collection.

My overall intent for the collection is to have a series of stories from a variety of Yellowstone historical eras that explore the nature of storytelling. Several of the stories are “stories within stories.” For instance, “Feather Tracks” is about a park ranger in 1945 awaiting his son’s return from the war; he becomes obsessed with a historical paper trail about a cavalry soldier who went missing on patrol in the park in 1894. The ranger uses the story of the soldier as a means of helping him understand and come to terms with his own son.  Continue reading

Bobby Socks Trees, Lake Music, and the Evocative Nature of Yellowstone

Because I often write fiction set in Yellowstone National Park, it should be no surprise that I follow the social media streams from the park. Of course, it’s also a favorite vacation spot, although my aversion to cold keeps me away at this time of year. A few days ago, the Yellowstone Facebook page posted a lovely picture that called to mind a scene from one of my stories and also introduced me to an interesting new term.

Bobby socks trees at Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park

Bobby socks trees at Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park

The picture showed a scattering of standing dead pines covered in morning frost and in the background just a faint hint of a dark forest tree line through a thick fog. According to the caption, the photo was taken at the Lower Geyser Basin; the location around thermal features explains the dead trees as they don’t tend to thrive in the hot water, steam, and excessive minerals typical in such locales.

These dead lodgepole pines are known as bobby socks trees because of their white bottoms, which is caused when the trees soak up the mineral-rich water of the thermal area. After the water evaporates, they appear to be wearing white ankle socks because of the minerals left behind, and thus the name. With all my many trips to Yellowstone over the years, it seems like I would have heard this term before, although if I did, it certainly didn’t stick.

I like the term bobby socks tree because it’s so wonderfully evocative: The name describes the thing. I tried to discover how common or scientific this term is through a variety of online searches, and although there isn’t a wealth of source material, it is in fairly common use, even by the National Park Service. (Along the way, I also got to learn a bit about the history of bobby socks themselves, and why not?) It just makes me wonder why more scientific terminology doesn’t follow such obvious or descriptive naming conventions—I’m sure we’d all find it much easier to remember our science lessons if so.

You can see the picture that sparked this musing here. Although I might not have known the term, I find I’ve been taking my own pictures of bobby socks trees for quite a while. They frequently provide an interesting foreground for some larger and more colorful background, such as the Mammoth Hot Springs area of the park, which is where my photos that accompany this post were taken.

Bobby socks trees form from minerals in the water around thermal features

Bobby socks trees form from minerals in the water around thermal features

Yellowstone contains a wealth of evocative names. Dragon’s Mouth Spring. Frying Pan Spring. Dot Island. Fairy Falls. Castle Geyser. Even Old Faithful, for goodness’s sake. They’re names that describe the feature or perhaps have some significance in its history. And they’re names that call to mind fantastic stories, which goes a ways to explain why I’ve spent so much time writing about this place.

I learned a new Yellowstone term this morning, also from the park’s social media. From a post called “Unexplained and Unreported Phenomenon in Yellowstone” on the park’s In the Shadow of the Arch blog, I learned about “lake music.” Apparently, this is a phenomenon where people hear a buzzing sound above Yellowstone Lake and Shoshone Lake, and it was reported as far back as the 1880s. Something else I’d never heard of—or heard!

I’ll be listening for lake music on my next Yellowstone trip, and I imagine this phenomenon will have to end up featuring in a story at some point. I haven’t decided about Bigfoot yet.

Follow B. K. Winstead on Twitter at @bkwins

Top 5 Musical Choices to Write By

A couple of weeks ago, I posted the following on Twitter: “Why do stormy summer afternoons always seem to go better with David Byrne’s The Forest?” One of my long-time friends soon replied, “Nearly everything goes better with David Byrne’s The Forest. It’s one of my favorite albums to write to.” And I thought, of course! I, too, frequently choose this CD when I’m writing.

But that got me thinking about what other musical go-tos I have. When it comes to choosing what to listen to while I write, the selection can have profound effects on what I turn out, so having the best music playing is a must. What I’m working on can sometimes dictate an appropriate musical choice—something that sets a certain mood or evokes the right setting or emotions. Other times I might just want something to shut out the noises of the rest of the world and help me focus on the page in front of me.

However, several CDs have stood out as recurring choices. Let’s get this out of the way: Yes, I think of musical selections based on the whole CD. I’m that old. Actually, I’m old enough to think in terms of the vinyl album, and sometimes I revert to that terminology, but the CD is so much more convenient in many ways (even when I’m actually playing all my music from digital sources on my computer). My point is that, although I do create playlists or play random from time to time, I’m much more likely to select a specific CD/album to listen to in its entirety.

My top choices are largely, though not entirely, instrumental, as that presents less possibility of distraction (i.e., I’m not going to find myself singing along instead of concentrating on what I’m writing). See what you think of these, and let me know if you have any great favorites of your own that help you get in the zone for writing.

5. Fire in the Kitchen, The Chieftains

CD cover for Fire in the Kitchen, The Chieftains & various artistsThis CD has Irish legends the Chieftains performing back up for various Celtic music artists of Canada. The featured artists include names such as Natalie MacMaster, Ashley MacIsaac, the Barra MacNeils, and it was the first place I ever heard Great Big Sea. The collection is a great taste of Celtic music, at times sublime, at times raucous and reeling. It’s that variety in the music that makes this a good choice for writing for me—a reminder, perhaps, of the constant need for tension, one thing playing off another. About half the tracks on the CD include vocals—but some of those are in Gaelic, and since I have no understanding of the tongue, the singing ends up just sounding like another instrument in the mix.
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4. Divinities: Twelve Dances with God, Ian Anderson

CD cover for Ian Anderson's DivinitiesThis CD is a bit more subtle and consists primarily of flute and keyboards. Ian Anderson is best known for his work as front man for classic rockers Jethro Tull, and if that’s all you know of him, this solo work might come as a surprise. Entirely instrumental, the tracks that make up this one are heavily influenced by and evocative of Asian, particularly Indian, culture. And of course it features a healthy dose of Anderson’s unique flute playing style. I find this particularly good music when I’m working on any writing in the fantasy genre.
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3. Fantasia 2000 (Disney movie soundtrack)

CD cover for Fantasia 2000 Disney movie soundtrackAlmost any classical music can serve as a background to writing, but what I like about the selections from Fantasia 2000 is that it’s the sort of music that tells a story even without the visuals that the Disney animators provided. It’s music that going somewhere: it has a goal, a purpose, momentum. It’s telling a story; I’m writing and trying to tell a story—these things go well together. Over the course of the CD, you’ve got a variety of musical styles, alternating through calm, restrained passages and loud, thundering sections. That diversity helps keep my brain awake and actively creative.
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2. Wish You Were Here, Pink Floyd

CD cover for Pink Floyd's Wish You Were HereSometimes writing calls for rock and roll. As I wrote in “Writing Rocks: How Stories Come Together,” writing about a fictional band got me listening constantly to a real band, Voyager, for that particular story. Sometimes, a story can call for a particular band or type of music. But if I’m looking for some rock, maybe a little psychedelia, this Pink Floyd gem works better than anything to help my writing shine on. Although this CD has some good songs for singing in the middle, much of it is instrumental—and I’ll often find that if I get in the writing zone, I won’t even notice when those songs pass by.
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1. The Forest, David Byrne

Now we’re back to The Forest. This truly is my default choice; when nothing else seems appropriate to help me on my way to writing success: The Forest. I’ve been listening to this CD for more than 20 years, and it never fails to inspire. The music is orchestral and instrumental, with occasional vocalizations or chanting; only one short song has a sung lyric. The whole composition is dramatic and theatrical (owing to its roots as part of a theater piece). Yet no description of the music will accurately capture it: You just have to listen.

CD cover for David Byrne's The ForestI will always remember the first time I heard this music. It would have been the summer of 1991, around the time the CD came out. For an evening’s entertainment, three of my friends and I went to the Tower Records in West Covina. Upon entering the front doors, we each went our separate ways to look for our various favorite artists. After half an hour or 45 minutes, we began to regroup. And we all commented on this strange, bizarre, yet somehow wonderful music that had been playing overhead on the store sound system all the while. It was like nothing we’d ever heard, and certainly like nothing any of us were listening to before.

That changed that night, of course. And thankfully so. I was writing and listening to The Forest back in 1991 and am still pleased to do so today. Give it a try and see what it inspires for your writing.
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Follow B. K. Winstead on Twitter at @bkwins

Writing Rocks: How Stories Come Together

For many years, I had a story idea sparked by the Falling Rock warning signs you see placed along mountainous roads. Actually, it was an idea without a story, which is at least one of the reasons I didn’t write it for a long time. It required a few additional elements before the story evolved: reading a novel by Robert McCammon, a specific discussion with my writing group, and discovering a new band with a new flavor of music.

Head East road sign album cover

Album cover for Head East’s self-titled 1978 album

The basic idea went something like this: What if a rock band chose the name Falling Rock, and then their fans started stealing all those warning signs from the roadways of America? A what if can be an interesting place to start, but it doesn’t inherently lead to the elements necessary for story: characters, conflict, and so forth. As a side note, the idea owes something to the classic rock band Head East, whose self-titled album from 1978 had an album cover made to look like a road sign with two arrows pointing in opposite directions and the band’s name spray painted over them; although you might not recognize the band name, you almost certainly know their most famous song, “Never Been Any Reason (Save My Life).”

I started thinking more seriously about how to write my story after reading Robert McCammon’s novel The Five, which came out about two years ago. First of all, McCammon has long been one of my favorite authors; I recommend his books unreservedly. (What, you haven’t read Boy’s Life? Then how did you think you knew what a story was or what it takes to be a writer?)

Robert McCammon, The Five

Cover of Robert McCammon’s novel The Five

In The Five, a small touring band embarks on what might be their last tour together before familial and other obligations pull them in other directions. They’ve each got ulterior motives that prompt them on the journey, and of course they encounter tragedy, heartbreak, and terror. Along the way, something really magical and creative happens. I loved this book—beautifully written and engaging throughout.

What The Five gave me in inspiration for my Falling Rock story was a glimpse into what the life of a small touring band might be like: that constant struggle to do the thing you love—play music—but also needing to make it pay. The novel also helped begin to answer the what if I’d started with. The band in the novel gains notoriety through tragedy such that suddenly they’re a hot ticket. What if, I thought, my band becomes popular because of stolen road signs?

That’s still a situation, an idea, not a story. At that point, I brought up the idea with my writing group. I don’t normally talk about my ideas or what I’m working on before I write them, but in this case I didn’t have a story, and I guess I was afraid I would lose the impetus to write it if a story didn’t come about soon. So, I laid out the idea.

The lesson here is really how important it is to have a suitable group of writing companions that you can work with and share ideas and stories, give and receive criticism and encouragement, whether online or in person. After I described what I was thinking about, my group members saw the potential and immediately started asking the right questions—or more importantly, getting me to ask them.

The biggest question was: Whose story is this? It might seem silly that I hadn’t figured that out—and naturally that was a big stopping point in being able to write it. I’d had a vague sense that it was a story about the band itself (although I hadn’t figured out who the band was). But my writing group got me thinking about other possibilities. Was this a fan’s story? Was it a story about someone stealing the signs? Or someone trying to stop the sign stealing?

By the end of that short conversation, I had plenty of ideas that could develop into a true story, characters to build story around. Because each of the possibilities seemed to have life in it, I began thinking of a fragmented, multicharacter story to use all the ideas. As my former MFA workshop mates could attests, I’ve always had trouble telling just one story at a time.

For a variety of reasons (you know them—work, life, procrastination), it was still a couple of months before I started writing anything. Once I did start writing, I needed a name for my rock band. Initially, I thought the band would be called Falling Rock, but I decided instead that should be the name of their latest CD, which would be designed to look like the road sign. Because the band would be at the center of the story, the reason all the other characters and their stories were swirling around, I wanted a band name that somehow represented that movement, that journey. Unfortunately, Journey was already taken.

My first thought was Voyager, as I knew of no band with that name. I checked online through Spotify, however, and found such an artist. In fact, what I found was a recently released CD titled The Meaning of I with a very striking cover:

Voyager, Meaning of I CD

Cover artwork for Voyager’s The Meaning of I

When I see artwork such as this on an album or CD, I have a good feeling that the music might be something I’d be interested in. I’ve always believed in the old adage, Always judge a book by its cover. But only as it applies to books, or in this case CDs or albums. I’ve been hooked on progressive rock since I first discovered Pink Floyd back in high school, and I’m always on the lookout for new artists to add to my collection. These are the sort of artists that typically makes an artistic statement with their album/CD artwork to complement their music.

Voyager, from Australia, was described as progressive metal, so I figured I’d give them a listen. I certainly wasn’t disappointed. Intelligent lyrics combined with a nice vocal style—and a hell of a lot of drums and guitars. Pretty soon, I was listening extensively to all the available Voyager music (they’ve only released four CDs to date, although according to their Facebook fan page they’re working on number five now).

Voyager became a spiritual model for my fictional band, and their music was frequently my inspiration while writing. It’s a rock and roll story, so I wanted to stay in a rock and roll state of mind. And by the way, my band ended up with the name Go Forth Traveller, in case you were wondering.

That’s pretty much it. All the pieces were in place, and I was able to complete this story, “Falling Rock.” Of course, from the beginning I envisioned it as a short story, and that’s what I tried to write. The final result, with four intertwined storylines, came in at about 15,000 words, which is novella range by many definitions, or at any rate a very long short story. And it’s currently out in the world looking for a publication home.

You just never know how a story is going to come together. Sometimes an idea sticks around for ages before it connects with some other piece or pieces and a story develops. Other times, the story forms almost instantaneously. And then there are the stories you think will work that lose momentum altogether and die. It’s all part of the writing life, I suppose. And the writing life is all about searching for the meaning of I.

Follow B. K. Winstead on Twitter at @bkwins

Krummholz: Transition, Tenacity, and Mystery

Last week, I took a drive over Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park, which is a beautiful excursion above the tree line with some truly majestic vistas. Every time I travel that road, there’s a spot where a certain word pops into my mind. It happens where the road rises to transition from the subalpine forest to the alpine tundra, and the word is krummholz.

If you know this word, the reason it springs to mind at that point is probably obvious. I don’t remember when I first learned the word, but I’d guess it was on a trip to a national park—perhaps even RMNP when I was about 8 years old on a trip out to Colorado from California. Krummholz refers to the trees and other vegetation in the transition zone between subalpine and alpine, plant life which is typically twisted and deformed by the struggle to survive in extreme winds and temperatures.

alpine tundra in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Vista of alpine tundra and distant mountains from Trail Ridge Road, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Krummholz trees frequently include pines and firs. They cling to rocky ground, dwarfed, bent, and gnarled. Those that still survive frequently have green branches on only the lee side, away from high winds, forming flag trees. Those that fail leave white twisted tree corpses. It’s a stark yet beautiful landscape, as well as a reminder of the tenacity of life and the unforgiving climate of the high mountains.

I love the word krummholz. From German, it translates literally as “bent wood” or “crooked wood” (and keep your off-color jokes to yourself!). It sounds like it should be the name of a character from a Charles Dickens novel, some old curmudgeon, or maybe even a cagey and twisted villain. I’m not opposed to the Dickensian naming convention in my own writing, so I could see using some variant of Krummholz someday for a baddy.

alpine tundra, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

On top of the world, Trail Ridge Road, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Part of what gives the word power, to me anyway, is its existence at that transition point. The krummholz zone, though fairly small, is a grand visible sign of metamorphosis: one thing becoming another, a tree-covered land rising to where no tree can survive. Transitions are powerful—more powerful than the states on either side, which are static. As a fiction writer, it’s the transitions that matter, that are important to demonstrate. Maybe that’s why krummholz has always stuck in my mind.

When I looked up the proper spelling of krummholz (and actually there are acceptable variants), I found another word, a synonym, that deepened my appreciation for this transition zone. In 1903, an English translation of the German Krummholz was rendered as elfin-wood. The term elfinwood survives as an acceptable variant for krummholz. As a fan and writer of fantasy fiction, how could this word not spark the imagination?

I don’t believe I’ve ever written fiction about the krummholz zone—although thoughts are churning now. What sort of elfin creatures could live in this stunted wilderness? What would they look like—twisted and gnarled like the landscape itself or somehow resistant to the elements? Why do they live there, and for how long has this been their home? Good questions to start with, and perhaps if I choose to answer them, a story will evolve to solve the mysteries.

elk herd, Trail Ridge Road, Colorado

Elk herd along Trail Ridge Road, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Follow B. K. Winstead on Twitter at @bkwins