by Matt Sinclair
"Where do you get your ideas?"
If you've not heard the question yourself, you've probably asked it of your favorite authors even as you keep turning the pages that you spent good money to buy. It's an understandable question—one I've asked in my head a thousand times even though I know where that question leads.
You see, there is no magic "idea store" where the concepts of great novels waiting to happen sit in a box marked "Just add Writer." You're more likely to get an idea by walking to a real store than expecting something to spring up in your mind from seeming nothingness. Despite what I sometimes heard in college English classes, I refuse to believe that only well-schooled, well-read thinkers can create a viable literary idea. In fact, I'm not even sure I believe ideas are "created" per se.
An old friend of mine is a Grammy-nominated music producer. (Nominees get cool medals like kids who finish first in track meets!) Years ago, we were chatting about songwriting and he reflected on how music evolves by grafting things together. It's like a Mendelian experiment: Let's see, if we take these folk lyrics and mix them with a bassa nova beat, what happens?... Hmmm, how about a ska sound instead?...
We grow—physically, intellectually, creatively—by taking what we've done in the past and tweaking it somehow. Sometimes it's by consciously going in a totally different direction; of course, that implies you knew which way you were heading. Other times, it happens by being deflected ever so slightly from where you thought you were going. I've known people who came up with entirely new novels because of a typo!
In my opinion, creativity is about being able and willing to ask questions—my favorite is "What if?"—and then being courageous enough to explore the answers.
You see, the scary truth is ideas are common, everyday things we trip over or avoid like toys in a toddler's playroom. (Where did the idea for that image come from? My daughters' room, which gets rearranged at least a half dozen times a day—not always by them.) Case in point: I'm working on a novel that takes place largely in Antarctica. I have never been there, nor do I have any friends who have. As a result of the research I've done, I have learned a lot, and in the process I've spoken to people who work there as field researchers. From there, the story has gotten better and fuller.
But where'd the idea for the story come from? A press release. I kid you not. In fact, it was a press release about microbes. Not a subject I typically cover in my work, and not exactly what you would expect for a novel about a woman whose parents die in a fiery car crash.
But when I read that random press release, characters appeared in my mind. In fact, they were so vivid and powerful I had to put aside my other work and write stream-of-consciousness pieces about who they were, what was going on in their lives, how they get along, who's married and who isn't and how that affects their relationships... I went on for a good half hour, at least. It could easily have been twice that.
Of course, once I really started writing that manuscript, lots of things changed. The basic idea was there, but as often happens when people are involved—fictional or not, it doesn't really matter—things went in unexpected directions. And that's a big part of the fun in writing: exploration.
So, back to the original question: Where do ideas come from? I recommend you go exploring and find out. I think you'll be amazed at what you find. And please share some of the locations of your favorite idea stores. Perhaps we can find something you left on the shelves.