POINT OF VIEW: When the Word is the Story

I’ve always had a fascination with words. Duh, right? It’ one of the prerequisites for being a writer, just like a love of the law is for being a lawyer, and a love of art is for the artist.

But recently, I’ve found a new, more specific use for this logofile obsession of mine – turning a word into a story.

One of the questions many of my writer friends hate the most is “where do you get your ideas?” My friend Angel’s flippant response is that she buys them wholesale at an idea emporium. Their disdain is understandable – for many writers, we swim every day in a sea of ideas, and pinning down one supposed source is all but impossible, so asking this is like asking us “so how do you breathe?”

Still, there are some interesting places we writers occasionally turn to for inspiration, and words themselves are one of them.

A couple years back, when I was working on the first book in the Liminal Sky series, one of our pastors was talking about John the Baptist, and how he lived on the liminal edge of society at the time.

My writer ears perked up. What was this new word… liminal?

So of course I looked it up:

lim·i·nal
/ˈlimənl/

  1. of, relating to, or situated at a sensory threshold
  2. of, relating to, or being an intermediate state, phase or condition*

Given that Liminal Sky is about the transition of humanity from a planet-bound to spacefaring race, the word seemed amazingly appropriate for the work, and I adopted it as my own. It became not only the series title, but the word used to describe kids born with enhanced abilities in the series, and changed the course of the work.

But I’ll give you a couple more recent, even more direct examples of how a word can become a story.

Another churchy word, eventide, came up in a hymn one week, and again got my attention. I love this word… it’s basically just a synonym for “evening,” but it’s so weighted with antiquity and poetry.

e·ven·tide
/ˈēvənˌtīd/

  1. the time of evening

The word inspired a forthcoming short of mine of the same name, about the end of the universe a la Douglas Adams’ “Milliways” – the restaurant at the end of the universe.

And last month, while reading an Italian language novel called “Quando Tutto Inizia” (When Everything Begins) by Fabio Volo, I ran across the word pareidolia – it’s the same in English and Italian:

pareidolia
/ˌper.aɪˈdoʊl.jə/

  1. The tendency to perceive a specific, often meaningful image in a ransom or ambiguous visual pattern*

Basically, it’s when your brain sees something in a random pattern that isn’t actually there. Like when you look up and see a castle in the clouds in the sky. Or that chicken leg I stared at for years in the stucco in front of the toilet in my mom’s front bathroom.

And bam, my mind was off in another direction, with a story I am currently working on about a boy who not only sees things in random patterns but actualizes them.

There are so many words out there in the English language – 171K by one recent estimate – that the possibilities for a writer are nearly endless. The dictionary is your playground, but some of the best candidates come from folks around you and your everyday life.

To my writer friends – has a word you ran across ever inspired a story, or influenced it in some way? Tell us about it!

*Thanks to Merriam-Webster for the definitions.

1 thought on “POINT OF VIEW: When the Word is the Story”

  1. I read where Ray Bradbury used to write stories based on a word or phrase (“The Night,” “The Candle,” “The Dead Man.” And I’ve written stories based on a title; I used some of Edward MacDowell’s piano pieces as a source (“An Old Love Story,”) so inspiration can strike anywhere! As O. Henry said; “There are stories in everything.”

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