One of the most frequent questions asked of writers is: Where do you get your ideas? Often writers respond with sarcasms like ‘I pick them up at the store’ or ‘I steal them from other writers.’ I don’t think that is fair.
A writer may have heard the question a million-and-one times, but I have learned that people who don’t write, are truly curious and sometimes in awe of how writers get ideas for novels. No matter who asks the questions, nor why, it deserves an answer.
The answer is:
Where do I get my ideas? Nowhere. Everywhere. No, I’m not trying to be evasive. It’s true. It’s a way of thinking, a way of seeing the world. You may not be a writer, but I’m guessing there is something that you do that is equally awesome.
As a child, my son’s curiosity as to how things worked drove me wild. If a toy could be taken apart, you can bet he found a way to do it, down to the last teensy-tiny screw. I would try to reconstruct the toy, but alas, that is NOT my talent. By the time my son was six or seven years old, he put the toy back together himself, in better working order than ever. Soon he began creating something new and different with the parts. He still has that ability today.
I have a friend who can take a basic recipe and add a dash of this and a dab of that. She is able to do this because of the way her brain works, because she has practiced an awareness of foods and what cooking methods produce what results. Her end result will always be something unique and tasty. And no matter how many cooking shows I watch, nor how carefully follow a recipe, my results are not as good.
My husband is an artist. He sees things in an entirely different way than I do. He sees line, color, composition, and things I don’t see or understand. He takes these things he’s observed and presto-chango: he creates a drawing. Ok. It’s not really magic. He has studied and practiced drawing. He expresses his way of thinking in a picture.
A new story idea?
Anytime I hear a song, a phrase, read an article, or observe something interesting my brain automatically tries to make it a story. It takes a bit of this, a bit of that and knits it together in a way that makes me curious, makes me want to explore the idea and characters in words. It typically invents the feeling of the story first, the emotional pull or ending. The layers of character, plot, and setting are discovered as I explore the feeling.
Telling you about those three people above, I’m struck by a feeling that there is a story there: they are a family, each interpreting an important event so differently that they are driven apart. The struggle to understand each other’s point of view might drive such a story.
At this point, the idea is derivative. But working that idea around for a while, I am bound to come up with better conflicts, motivations and character arcs. You see, I’ve studied story structure, how other writers write, and I’ve practiced writing. Thus, when the initial idea or feeling of a story occurs to me, I will massage it, twist it, and test it until it is something I can’t wait to write.
I believe that everyone has a talent: an interpretation of things observed, read, or felt. Some people have ignored or hidden their talent, some dismiss their talent as useless, others use their talent and create. I’ve discovered my talent: writing stories. What about you? Where do you get your ideas?