Where do you get your ideas?
That’s a popular question to ask writers. Some, weary of answering, claim to have hired a service to send ten or fifteen a week. Harlan Ellison famously answered: “Schenectady.”
I can track down the inspiration for some of my stories; others surprise me as much as, if not more than, they do the reader. Some quick examples for ones I know about:
In Sure and Certain Hope came about because the phrase got stuck in my head one day, as phrases and phrases of music do. I began thinking about the phrase and the resurrection it promises. This is what we tell ourselves and our children about death: that there is another life after this one. I wondered what would happen if a child, understanding imperfectly (or, perhaps, too perfectly), took that thought to the next logical step. Also, our dogs liked to kill chickens. It was simple to marry the two ideas.
Neighborhood Meeting came from the headlines and a not-unreasonable guess as to how some people might react to losing their homes. The Master of Rusbridge Manor came about because I wanted to tell a ghost story; ghosts inhabit old homes, and England has the best stately old homes worth haunting. I saw a chance to contrast the old beliefs of superstitions and hauntings with the advancing sciences of the Victorian era.
Many of the rest of my stories I can’t explain. I simply “had an idea” and began writing, making sure I typed long enough to get through all three stages — beginning, muddle, and end. Often, “having an idea” is a non-linguistic event, rather like the light bulb over a person’s head in the comics. Only it’s more of a feeling of anticipation, of being in the presence of something very interesting if I’m careful and don’t scare it away.
James Webb Young said, “An idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements.” Jack Foster told us all new ideas result from combining or linkage or juxtaposition or synthesis or association. If you prefer to get your advice from a poet, Robert Frost said, “An idea is a feat of association.”
Remember that chance favors the prepared mind. If you’ve got your brain stuffed to overflowing with disparate things, the odds are in your favor that two or three of them will suddenly click together.
To help you find things to piece together, there are books and websites of story prompts; there are random word and phrase generators; there are innumerable images — photos, art, video — to look at. Daydream. Read the news. Read history. Read great literature and give us a new take on it. Go people watching; make up stories and backgrounds for the strangers you see. Look in your own life for moments that are good stories on their own or that can be turned into good stories.
Ask questions during this process. The most powerful question to ask is “What if?” What if this stops? What if it continues? What if one aspect of this thing or event were to change? What if it had different dimensions or were a different color? What if you needed a license for it? What if you didn’t need a license? What if she said “yes”? What if he said “no”? “What if?” is your best springboard to a story.
TV and movie producer James L. Brooks said that he once saw a father and daughter walking together. He wondered, “what if” the father had committed a crime? That idea led to the movie Say Anything.
Author Neil Gaiman has an excellent post at his blog concerning ideas; he talks about “what if?” and other helpful questions. He notes that having the idea is only the starting place; then you have to do something useful with it.
And finally, Charley Gilkey has an article at Productive Flourishing on Demystifying the Creative Process that you might find quite useful. I’ll add just this to what Gilkey says: without a strong showing in the first two parts of the formula, the latter two will never happen. You have to follow the recipe, and you can’t substitute for any of the ingredients.
So, with story ideas just waiting to be plucked like apples in an orchard, why are there times when we can’t find anything to write about? That, friends, is a subject for another day.