The beginning of an idea and a good imagination is all you need to get started on a story. The more stories you write, the more you'll find that the idea for them can be triggered by absolutely anything - a phrase you hear, a headline in the paper, some incident you see on the street.
One quiz question from ‘So You Wanna be a Writer?' by Jane Wenham-Jones is:
You are in the high street and an old lady gets knocked down by a biker:
a) Call for an ambulance and commence mouth to mouth
b) Scream loudly so someone else does the above
c) Get out your camera-phone to photograph the scene, make a quick diagram of bloodstains on the back of a cigarette packet and start interviewing the bike rider, as it's all good background for chapter 27 of your novel (or your short story!)?
Sometimes the first line just swims into your brain and it's such a good one you have to carry on and see where it takes you! Here's where you can look for ideas and first lines.
Inspiration in the ordinary
Some people sit in a doctor's waiting room, glance briefly at the people waiting, and start flicking through the magazines lying next to them. Others (the writers, that is) will look at the couple in the corner and wonder which one of them is ill, why are they looking so worried, what the outcome of their visit will be.
Some people stand at the supermarket till and overhear an interesting snippet of conversation, but not think twice about it. But when the writer hears, "So I told her if she didn't get rid of Dan she'd only have herself to blame if he did something really awful," the writer wonders: Who is Dan? Her boyfriend? Her husband? Her dog?
What's he going to do? Bite someone? Set the house on fire? Steal her identity and clean out her bank account?
Isn't this fun - this little snippet could go whichever way you want it to.
Sometimes you read a story and at the end you think "What a let-down. How much more satisfying it would have been if the heroine had a) run away b) murdered him c) Had a sex change."
Rewrite the story your way! Use a different point of view - see the whole thing through the child's eyes instead of the mother's.
The Internet is full of wild and whacky ideas to give you inspiration to write. One website suggests surrounding yourself with blue and green colours: "These reduce your stress levels by 30% or more!"
My advice is, if you're stressed, don't write stories. Wait until you're in the mood. That's the advantage of writing short stories - there is no deadline, no one demanding that you finish 1000 words before midday.
Another odd piece of advice I found was "Stand in a fruit store and smell strawberries or oranges."
Well, smells can be very evocative and trigger memories of things you thought you'd forgotten and maybe you'll find a story lurking there - so maybe this isn't as crazy as it sounds.
Keep a notebook
Here's a warning: sometimes on your way to work you get a great idea for a story. But during the day, life overtakes you and by that evening all you can remember was that you'd had this wonderful idea!
Keep a little notebook and write down just a one-liner to prompt you. The idea will come back as soon as you switch on your computer that evening.
James Scott Bell, in his book, "Plot and Structure," advises writers to "come up with hundreds of ideas, toss out the ones that don't grab you, and then nurture and develop what's left."
Creating an idea box or book for all these ideas will help you save the things that spark your imagination for dry spells. Writers are by nature magpies. Don't feel bad about taking things from life. Scribble down whatever inspires you and store it away. Then when you're stuck, you'll always have a place to turn.
Everyone knows that old saying about genius being 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. To write a story, your good idea is the 1%.
The determination to sit down, write it, polish it, re-write bits and send it off to an editor is where the 99% perspiration comes in. What are you waiting for?
Ginny Swart started writing short stories in 2001, and to date has sold over 400 short stories to women's magazines all over the world.
Her more serious work has appeared in literary publications in South Africa, Canada, and New Zealand and on the Web. In 2003 she won the esteemed UK The Real Writers Prize from over 4000 entrants.
Ginny tutors the Short Story Writing Course at International Writers College