Stuck for an idea? Read the obituaries

I’m not kidding. Although most people skip the obits unless somebody they know died recently, they can be a great source for writers. The terse listings of birth and death dates, names of survivors and funeral information don’t offer much, but the longer stories are full of possibilities. In my newspaper days, I wrote hundreds of obits. They often intrigued the storyteller in me. An obituary is the story of a whole life told in a few words. So often, comments in the obituary can tweak the imagination. If you put on your creative writing hat and ask yourself why, how and what was that like, the stories will come. You don’t have to write about that particular person. You can, if nonfiction is your genre, but you can also use the obits as prompts to get you thinking about stories from your own life or make up characters who lived some of the same elements.

Take this guy Chuck in yesterday’s local paper. His family wrote that he “went ‘forever fishing’ when his heart stopped on Saturday April 26 at the age of 69.” He grew up in Minnesota but headed for the Northwest right after high school graduation. Why? Did he come alone? How did he travel? What did he bring? Did he know anyone here in Oregon?

Chuck worked as a plumber in Washington and Oregon and also worked on the Alaska Pipe Line. How did that come about? What was it like? He was also an avid fisherman who traveled all over on his boat. He was an active volunteer and a dog lover. But he was never married. His survivors are siblings, nieces, nephews and friends. He was a good-looking guy, well-employed. Why no wife? Why no kids? Instead, the writer said he was everyone’s “Uncle Chuck.”

Chuck’s ashes are being scattered at sea next month. Folks are invited to meet at the Eagles’ Lodge afterward. “Shorts recommended.” What will that party be like? What if you started a story with that scene?

The obituary offers basic information, but it leaves a lot of room for memory or imagination to fill in the blanks. Does Chuck remind you of someone in your life? Write about it and see where it goes. Or use Chuck’s obituary as the start of a poem or a story. Give him a new name and start writing.

If you don’t usually read obituaries, you might want to start. They’re full of stories waiting for you to tell. If you come up with something about Chuck, I’d love to read it.

Now go write.