How does a writer generate ideas for a story? In my current quest to create the ultimate backdrop for a series targeted toward younger “young adults,” I’ve reinvented a minor character from my original story world and drawn Rachelle Peterson to center stage to prompt a round robin of quarantine tales.
Every time my husband and I drive out from the city to our new house lot, we encounter the barricade cordoning off the beach side of the village from the barren hillside where we’re building. I’ve wondered about the folks who live on the “other” side. They aren’t prisoners, of course, but IF they leave, they’re not allowed back.
What if…a group of late vacationers ended up stuck there for the duration of the quarantine? It’s dragged on in Chile for more than three months now, and no end in sight. What if…they were forced to stay because, say, they had no ride out or no better place to retreat to…?
The scenario, with its closed seaside setting, reminds me a little of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. Not that my quarantine tales will scheme to knock everyone off one by one. But I adore mysteries. And ghost stories…and campfire sagas.
As the story opens…
The character Rachelle—AKA Raquel in Spanish, or just Keli—was a chubby toddler in my first book, Destiny at Dolphin Bay. Now a young woman in her early 30’s, she’s given charge of herding a group of younger cousins back to their homes at summer’s end.
…But then the panic-stricken people of their coastal hamlet institute a strict blockade after an outbreak of Covid-19 hits a nearby town. That’s when the Quarantine Tales commence.
“The stories we hear in our childhood are the ones we remember all our lives.” –Stephen King
My job as a writer is to magically spin straw into gold. I take memories and mementos and transform them into tales. Conjure experiences from dreams and desires and daily news clips. Weave adventures out of what-if’s and wishes.
Here I pull up an already established world, populated by a (somewhat) familiar cast. Estella, the baby born during a winter storm in Pursuit of the Pudú Deer, and Micaela, once the letter-writing orphan of Swan Island Secrets, share leadership responsibilities with Keli.
Together they’ll have to keep 10 younger relatives safe, sound, and entertained for an indefinite period. Though family, their personalities and interests range as widely as their ages:
- Estella’s siblings, Esteban, 20, and Emilia, 18.
- Keli’s cousins, Nach, 17, and Marina, 15.
- Their cousins, Lucas, 17, Joanna, 14, J. M. and Ricky, both 10,
- And Sebastián and Stasi, 14 and 12.
In a Dramatic Set-Up
So let the drums roll, the waves crash, and the driftwood crackle… At an evening bonfire, Keli proposes a game—with a twist.
I don’t know if you’ve ever seen or heard any version of this one, but here it’s a hostess’s go-to icebreaker (second only to “Matches”—ask me about that another time). The game director lays out a random array of household items—perhaps a potted plant, a keychain, a tube of lipstick, a marker, a teacup—as many as there are guests or as the hostess decides to give time to.
Each person in turn chooses an item and shares some short anecdote related to it. Or as the group or occasion dictates, perhaps a Bible verse, a childhood memory, a song or poem. Bashfulness never impedes in a culture that loves to talk.
“We’re all just stories in the end. Make it a good one.” –Dr. Who
Keli announces a contest to discover the best tales of the quarantine. Everybody will select an object from the (green-friendly ?) bag she’s brought, invent a story, and immediately present their blurb. A spontaneous trailer, so to speak, so that no one gets more time to overthink a premise, no matter what order they eventually perform in.
It can be truth or fiction, any genre. It can be a short story or as long as a novel. The only conditions are 1) all must feature the chosen object in some way, as well as themselves as the main character, and 2) they must finish the tale. No running out of yarn, hoping someone else will pick up the thread.
At the end of this homebound Artist Series, the group will vote on the most original of the quarantine tales.
Pineapples to Plots
Whatever happens next over the next weeks or months, you can bet those kids will never forget it.
Keli utilizes what memory researchers call the Pineapple Principle: If you want to make your presentation memorable, carry something unusual—attention-capturing—onto the stage with you. Like…a pineapple.
Or in Keli’s grab-bag, you could find…
- a box of watercolors
- a bunch of grapes
- a model ship
- a pair of cardboard “eclipse” glasses
- a white silk scarf
- a handful of coins in a small wooden coffer
- a mineral sampler
- a leftover cheese empanada
- a candle
- a coffee mug
- a set of beach toys
- a snow globe
- a clam shell
- a paperback novel
- a pair of slippers
- a leather mate cup
- a soccer ball
Yes, there are more than thirteen items. She wants to add variety, offer some options. Pick one and start a story.
“Great stories happen to those who can tell them.” –Ira Glass
Objects like these Association Triggers often lead to a treasure chest of remembrances—stories just waiting to be told. Researchers indicate that our five senses—especially smell, taste, and sounds—and our childhood homes elicit the sharpest memories.
Next best are photos and keepsakes. Ordinary objects, such as those listed above, key into the highlights of our lives. They stimulate creativity and joy, evoke lingering imagination.
In her Electric Lit essay, Maya Sonenberg refers to the “magical objects” in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books and “the pleasure and longing associated with storied possessions.” Little things such as the china shepherdess, which makes a cameo appearance in every book, “represent a transcendent desire.” A yearning—the highest goal and deepest point of any plot.
Motifs to Themes
I call Keli’s game “Magical Objects.” Our personal and family mementos can become seed plots for stories. And in a book, these images or words that pop up repeatedly are the story motifs—recurring thematic elements embodied in a concrete picture or pattern.
That’s what haunts us about a story: emotional connection. Nostalgia, I’m told, is the unique emotion that starts in sadness and ends in gladness.
“The world is shaped by two things: stories told and the memories they leave behind.” –Vera Nazarian
So what quarantine tales would you tell? How would you design a plot around a paint box or a plastic sand pail?
I’m reminded how Ma Ingalls doled out the precious magazine stories over The Long Winter. And of Scheherazade, who strung her tales out for One Thousand and One Arabian Nights.
Connecting our souvenirs with the stories of our lives enhances their value. Sharing transforms them to unforgettable treasures.