Whence Came an Idea

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.

Darynda Reveals the Truth

Darynda Reveals the Truth

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?

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11 Responses to “Whence Came an Idea”

  1. Nicholas Wells Says:

    Most of my ideas, at least so far, tend to come as lightning strikes. Some random thought will wiz by like a Nascar …er… car (I have never found a way to say that and have it sound right, anyway…), half the time it’ll go so fast I won’t remember the thought, but a full blown story arc will be there within a few second. Core items only. Beginning, the climax, a few highlights, characters and some minor info on the world, more than enough to work with.

    Though some stories were spurred by longer thoughts. I admit I can’t feel comfortable sharing any detailed examples without giving away the story idea. Though in one case, I can say this. It began when thinking about the dragon from Shrek from another angle I doubt anyone has thought about before. It simmered for a good year or two before a full story-line came to be. It’s one I can’t wait to delve into, but it has to wait it’s turn.

    My current project oddly enough began as a way to comment on the dangers of dropping the protections on wolves. It wasn’t long before many of the emotional scars I had began sneaking in. The story grew, evolved, the characters demanded things I couldn’t deny (despite my best efforts), and it soon grew into something less controversial, and far more emotional. It stopped being about wolves surviving humans, and changed into a particular wolf surviving a different kind of trials.

    The rest of my ideas, eh, no idea. Just out of the blue it flops onto my writer’s desk saying, “Here I a, write me!” To this day I have no clue where the plot for my sci-fi came from. It just… came.

  2. Heteromeles Says:

    Happy monsoon, Jane! We’re even getting some rain and thunder over here for once.

    I’ve got two techniques, and annoyingly enough, I’m working on two books that emphasize each.

    One technique is the mashup. For years I’d played with the idea the Great Powers finding Lovecraft’s Dreamlands, and starting some form of the Great Game there. I’d thought about writing something like Rudyard Kipling’s Kim in the Dreamlands, but it was boring. Another story about a scarred, orphan, white boy who discovers a magical world. It’s been done quite a lot, hasn’t it? Then my mind kicked up Kim as the most common Korean surname, and I started wondering what would happen if a Korean found his way into the Dreamlands. Of course, there’s no place for someone like him in Lovecraft’s orientalist fantasyland (notice how he treats anyone who isn’t a WASP), but there’s no reason why Lovecraft’s area has to be the entirety of the Dreamlands either. Nor is there a reason why the denizens of the Dreamlands have to be passive fantasy creatures molded utterly by human fantasies, and in due course I figured out why they need our dreams so badly (it’s sort of the same reason that Disney courts our attention too). Now I’m deep into a story about what happens when someone gets caught up in other peoples’ dreams and just wants to get back to his own.

    The other technique? Well, I wrote an essay that’s longer than Jane’s original post, so I think I’ll save it for some other time.

  3. dnprice01 Says:

    It’s strange, but my inspirations for art tend to come and go fairly sporadicly. What’s really odd is that when I am not inspired I am really rubbish at artwork, whereas when I am in the zone I can feel quite talented. This tends to leave me with a lot of unfinished pieces.
    I think the inspiration comes from an intense feeling or emotion, at a moment when I have a lot of free time. Then the art pretty much pours out of me.
    Also sometimes the genius of others can be inspiring. A good book, a particularly haunting song, someone else’s art even, can bring the muse around.

    • janelindskold Says:

      I feel exactly the same way about my stories! If I push them, they’re horrible, but if I wait until the inspiration is there I feel as if I’m in another place…

  4. darynda Says:

    What a great post! Thanks for the shoutout and very kind words. I think I joke about where ideas come from because it’s such a vast ocean. They come from anything and everything. I can’t walk to the bathroom without getting a story idea. It’s just really hard to answer so I kid instead. It’s a defense mechanism! Lol.

    Love this!

  5. janelindskold Says:

    I really love hearing how stories (or any art) take shape in people’s heads. I was at a gathering of writers recently and found myself listening to various anecdotes and saying “You could turn that into a story by…”

    Finally one person said affectionately, “You need to go home and write!”

  6. Julie Hagan Bloch Says:

    Sometimes I’ll get an idea for a drawing or print in a dream. Sometimes I just start doodling and something I draw grabs my attention and I develop it further. Sometimes I see a pattern that strikes my fancy and I work with some element from that. And sometimes, when I really want to work on something but feel totally uninspired, I tell myself that now I am going to do a really bad, poorly drawn, sloppy, boring, stupid drawing. I go to do that, and a lot of the time I end up doing something that I *do* want to work with, and it actually turns out pretty cool.
    The funny thing is, though, that if my studio is a mess, it’s really hard for me to work. And most of the mess (usually) is because of things that don’t have a home and thus require decisions. It’s like I have the internal stuff necessary to draw, or to decide, but not both.
    Weird how externals affect internals, eh?

    • Jane Lindskold Says:

      Absolutely. We’re alike in this. I keep a relatively tidy office.

      I also like your permission to be sloppy just to get started. That’s a trick many writers would benefit from!

  7. khavrinen Says:

    I have a collection of short stories by Barry Longyear — best known for writing the one that got made into the Dennis Quaid/Lou Gosset, Jr. movie “Enemy Mine” — that’s titled “It Came from Schenectady”. He explains in the introduction that the title comes from his standard response to that “Where do you get your ideas” question:

    “Members of the Science Fiction Writers of America are supposed to answer that question with a post office box number in Schenectady. You send in two dollars and a self-addressed stamped envelope, and you will be sent back an idea.”

    Then each of the stories in the collection has a short foreword where he tells where that idea came from.

    • Jane Lindskold Says:

      I like this… Several years ago at Bubonicon, a friend of mine and I put up signs advertising “Jed’s Idea Emporium: Where Writers Get Their Ideas.”

      I’m hoping/planning to do a short story collection relatively soon. You encourage me to follow my impulse to write a short piece to go with each story — including, if I remember, where I got the idea!

  8. Paul Says:

    The late author Nelson Bond used to say developing an idea was like holding onto a bird – too tight and you crush it, too loose and it flies away.

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