First… For those of you who missed it, I’ve started a new feature on this site: the Friday Fragments. I intend this to be a weekly list of what I read or am reading, perhaps with some commentary. Hope you’ll take a look at it.
Now for the main feature…
Inspiration comes in odd packages. Every writer knows this, but this week I had a really vivid example this week that I want to share.
If there’s a question that writers hear more than any other, it’s “Where do you get your ideas?” I’ve heard answers both flippant and serious – including a simply wonderful one in the short essay Darynda Jones included in her talk for the Jack Williamson Lectureship, which I encountered reprinted in the Bubonicon program book.
The piece was set up as a mock question and answer session.
The question (from Crystal) was “You have several explicit scenes in your books. Do you draw from personal experience to write them?”
The answer followed: “Yes, Crystal. Yes, I do. Why else would I keep my husband around? All authors do everything in their books in the name of research. I’m actually shelved under mystery and most if not all mystery authors have committed murder. It’s not like we can just go ask someone. It’s not like we can go to some magical place where they have lots of books and find answers. It’s not like we can look it up on some shiny box with a keyboard. We have to experience this stuff first hand to be able to write about it.” (Darynda Jones is the author of the Charley Davidson books, several of which I have read and enjoyed. You can learn more at http://www.daryndajones.com.)
In case you aren’t familiar with her work and don’t realize that she’s very funny, Darynda meant this humorously. However, it is amazing how many readers do think a writer has done everything that happens in their books – or if not done it, at least daydreamed about it. I guess it’s the influence of that old “write what you know” thing, combined with English teachers who insist on teaching fiction as if it’s nothing more than thinly veiled autobiography.
But I’ve promised you my own latest “Where I got my idea…” anecdote. It’s not as funny, but it’s for real. This past weekend, Jim went out of town to visit his parents. For various reasons, I had to stay home. And, no, none of these reasons include not liking my in-laws. I do. A lot.
So as the week went on, I felt sadder and sadder, contemplating that Friday morning would see me driving Jim to the airport, then watching him walk off through Security without me. I comforted myself with the idea that he’d be home quickly. In fact, Sunday mid-afternoon would see me at the same place, waiting eagerly to catch a glimpse of him coming up through the walkway.
Wednesday night, after I had crawled into bed and was listening to Jim finishing off his end of the evening routine (okay, and was thinking how quiet the house would be Friday night, I admit it), an idea popped into my head. I found myself wondering about places that are continuously charged with emotion. I mean, everyone talks about how murder scenes have bad vibes. But what about places that are continually bombarded with emotions? Airports, funeral parlors, churches, sports arenas, hospitals…
When I had finished my manuscript for the forthcoming non-fiction Wanderings on Writing, I’d switched over to seeing if I could come up with an idea to fulfill one of the projects to which I’d promised a short story. I’d done a lot of scattered reading and brainstorming, but nothing had jelled. Now this had come, answer to a prayer.
I was too beat to get up, but I grabbed a piece of paper from the notepad next to the phone and scribbled a few lines. These weren’t because I was worried I’d forget – the idea was now solidly rooted in my imagination – but to give my mind permission to let go so I could get some sleep.
The next day, despite noisy construction right outside the office window – we’ve finally had the sunporch roof repaired! – I started writing. The first day I managed about five pages. The next day, I took these basics and loosened them up, adding more dialogue and getting rid of the summary. I only added another page or so, but now I could see the story’s shape.
Aside: Recently, I was re-reading a few of my older never-sold stories. Partly, I was looking to see if there was anything I could use, partly I was looking to see if – given all the attention I’d just put into Wanderings on Writing – I might have an insight into why these stories hadn’t “worked.” As I read through these efforts, many of them more than twenty years old, I realized that in many cases these pieces never went beyond the “Idea” and became a full-blown Story. It was as if I had sprouted seeds but never put them into the right sort of containers or given them the right care to enable them to flourish. Often they had a good central character or interesting setting, but not enough plot.
Anyhow, by Friday afternoon, I came to a natural stopping point. I had a few questions for myself. I decided to mull over the weekend, with the intention of resuming on Tuesday. (I planned to take Monday off to play with Jim, since I’d have him back again.) The mulling worked. Next week I’ll try to remember to tell you if the story got finished…
But whether or not the story works, I had that golden moment where an Idea came and took root. Would it have done so if I hadn’t already been receptive? Possibly. Like most writers, I have a list of ideas that I hope will someday fit into a story. However, in this case, I think there was synergy between my mental state and the parameters for the short story I needed to write.
How about you? Where do you get your ideas? I know that in addition to writers, we have visual artists and songwriters who occasionally weigh in. Is the process different with different arts? Or is it similar and merely takes a different shape in the end?