Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Exploring the Idea Store

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.

16 comments:

Darke Conteur said...

My idea's come at me from just about anything; songs, news articles, television shows. It can be annoying at times, but I am very greatful.

Christopher Hudson said...

I would provide something witty in response ... if it wasn't for that danged writer's block!

RkLewis said...

My ideas usually come when I least expect them. The idea for the protagonist in my crime series came from looking at a piece of short fiction on my corkboard, and a short story I had up there, too. They were both my strongest pieces and they ended up meshing together in my head as I sat there. Just came to me.

GREAT post, M!!

Sophie Perinot said...

Awesome post and a topic well worth considering.

I suppose writers of other genres think those of us who write historical fiction "cheat" a bit -- after all we have the massive and intricate tapestry of history to pluck ideas from. And make no mistake the parts of my manuscripts that seem the most far-fetched are often lifted directly from actual events. But the truth is history itself is generally the framework not the plot in most works of historical fiction. So I have to bash my head against the same wall as everyone else. Waiting for a stray press-release (as in your case) or some other random tidbit to get my imagination rolling.

Jemi Fraser said...

Intriguing post! Ideas seem to mostly just pop up for me too - usually based on an emotional reaction to something. For some reason I always start with the emotion - everything builds from there.

Matt Sinclair said...

Thanks everyone! It's been one of those days where I've barely had time to breathe, so it's a joy to come look at the blog and see a bunch of great comments.

RK: Very cool how it can happen like that! Juxtaposition can be a great idea source.

Sophie, I think writing historical fiction might be harder than most genres because that framework seems fairly rigid. I'm in awe of anyone who can write historical fiction and make it seem believable. I'm really looking forward to seeing your book come out!

Matt Sinclair said...

Darke, for me, music breeds other music. If I wrote down all the songs that other songs inspired in my brain, I'd probably double my output (or be dead because they usually happen while I'm driving).

Jemi, emotion certainly is a great way to get inspired. But for me the moment of intense emotion wraps me up in that emotion; I can barely think. So I tend to get ideas after the emotional response. One of those "What if I had done this instead" moments...

By the way, Jemi, great post earlier this week!

Matt Sinclair said...

Chris, thanks for making me chuckle!

Leslie Rose said...

My sci-fi MS took shape because I saw an otherworldly picture in the National Geographic week by week calendar. I immediately started imagining the people who would live in the exotic landscape and their backstory just bubbled out of me.

JeffO said...

Most of my ideas that reach the page are the result of several things that kind of bubble and simmer in the brain for a while. I think even when I have the "Ah HA!" kind of moments, there's something that's been working away in the background for a while, until the last, critical ingredient is thrown in the pot.

That said, a lot of those 'final ingredients' seem to be added while driving.

Matt Sinclair said...

I know exactly what you mean, Jeff. If you're like me, you're "writing" even when you're nowhere near a piece of paper or a computer. Those thoughts just simmer. Thanks for your comment!

Jean Oram said...

For me, the initial idea is easy. That big 'What if?' It's fleshing it out into a full-fledged story that gets tricky.

R.C. Lewis said...

That's funny, Jean—I'm the opposite. Coming up with an idea that feels fresh and interesting enough takes me a while. Once I get one, though, the story takes shape pretty easily.

J. Lea Lopez said...

For me, it's also the what-if question. My imagination works overtime asking this question every single day, complicating otherwise innocent and plain situations. Every now and then one of those what-if scenarios really grips me and a story is born.

Matt Sinclair said...

Thanks, ladies! I never get enough of the What If question. To be honest -- and I almost included this in the original post -- I have often thought of fiction as like dropping different things into a terrarium. What if I took this type of person and plopped another type of person into this little contained world. What would happen? Would they befriend each other? And if so, to what end? Would they attack each other? And then see what happens as the world gets larger and larger. Oh, and you always have to throw a cricket in, because they make lots of noise.

Jean Oram said...

Too funny, Matt. I love the idea of dropping them in a contained world. That could really focus your thinking and bring out some interesting actions.