Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Where do ideas come from?

Whenever I read author blogs or FAQ’s the one question that always appears is: Where do you get your ideas?

Since my problem isn’t one of finding ideas, but of sticking with one and seeing it through to the (bitter) end, I immediately skim over the question. Invariably, I return to it later in the day because I will never have enough ideas. Besides, like everyone else, I am interested in hearing how that particular idea occurred to that particular author to make that particular best seller.

If it were just a matter of coming up with a great idea and writing it, we’d be out of a job. Fortunately/unfortunately, writing is not that simple. We don’t just need ideas at the beginning of a novel. Great ideas should consistently appear throughout the entire story because that’s what makes the story appealing to readers…the continuing conflict and the character’s struggle to over come that conflict in order to achieve her goals. So while I may have a firm grasp on what the story I'm writing is going to be about, I am constantly thinking about how the story will unfold—how the primary characters will act, the decisions they could/should/will make, how secondary characters and their actions will contribute in an interesting way, etc.

I have never heard any author admit that she sat staring at her computer screen for a week and then was suddenly and magically inspired with the million dollar idea. So forget about waiting for inspiration to hit (or for the illusive muse to knock on your door), go out and find it.

Since ideas—even those that appear to have no realistic basis—usually have a basis in reality, here are 5 great ways to become inspired by reality (in no particular order):

1. EAT OUT – If sitting in front of the computer all day wasn’t cause enough for calories to glue themselves to your waistline (especially if you are like me and your computer desk is right next to the pantry), here is another way. Have dinner out. Go to a place you don’t usually frequent; situate yourself where you can see what is going on around you. I’ve found that people tend to be themselves when they are out with friends, especially if food and wine are involved. Enjoy the fact that you don’t have to cook or do the dishes and call it research! (Oh and don’t forget to jot a few notes down.)

2. TAKE THE BUS – Public transportation is rife with interesting characters and there is no better place or time (since you aren’t driving) to unobtrusively observe them. If you are from Regina and you ride the bus, you’ve probably encountered the elderly woman who wears her blue eye-shadow all the way to her hairline. Why? Who knows…but just thinking about the why can get the creative juices flowing.

3. READ NON-FICTION – You’ve heard the adage “stranger than fiction” right? Newspapers. Psychology text books. Self help books. Personal blogs. True stories. Instructional books on writing—I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stopped reading a How to Write… book at page 11 because I was smacked in the head with an idea I just had to put on paper. The more you read, the more likely the story ideas will be chasing you down.

4. LISTEN TO MUSIC – Stephanie Meyer actually posts playlists on her website—the music she listened to while writing the novels in the Twilight series. Every time I hear the song Paralyzer by Finger Eleven this character pops into my head. I don’t know what his story is yet, but I’m looking forward to seeing it come out eventually. In this case, it was the music not the lyrics that inspired him (or me to create him).

5. DRIVE ALONE – Sometimes it is good old fashioned silence that inspires me. I was ready to pull my hair out with on particular story when I decided to drive two and a half hours to visit my parents. I talked to myself the entire way, verbally mapping out where the story could go. My parents thought it was strange that I was nearly hoarse when I got there but I was happy to have the plot issues resolved.

Bloggers and fellow writers, what inspires your writing?


Jennie Marsland said...

Great post! I've gotten inspiration from many places - music, photographs, and simply out of the blue. Eating out - especially eating out alone - is great for gathering ideas too. I remember sitting quietly in a deli in Montreal years ago, eating a smoked meat sandwich and watching the couple at the next table. The woman was talking when they walked in, she talked continuously for the hour they were there, and she was still talking when they left. I don't think the man spoke more than three or four times. I wonder if they ever went out again.

Anne Germaine said...

Hi Jennie! Great story--you can really learn a lot by people-watching!

Vince said...

Hi Anne & Jennie:

Anne: like Yogi Berra said, "You can observe a lot by watching".

Jennie: I think you described the perfect, ‘opposites attract’ couple. He is a man of few words; she is a woman of too many words. It averages out. I bet she won’t be after him all the time for not expressing his feelings. (Did you notice that he didn’t have his hearing aid on?)

The idea behind the idea.

I have found that having a Guiding Principle (GP) is a great way to generate useable ideas at every point in your WIP. This is part of having something important to say in your book.

In my “Characters in a Romance” , the guiding principle is: all the great philosophical problems that man faces also exist in the relationship between authors and their fictional characters.
Since the book is a romantic comedy, this allows me to deal with complex philosophical problems in an unthreatening and humorous way. Just asking: ‘How do I instantiate the GP in this chapter’, generates ideas like sparks off a shaping stone.

Does anyone else use a GP?


Karyn Good said...

I don't know why but a lot of my ideas come from the newspaper! One time I had an idea for a trilogy come to me while I was researching names for a different wip.

And music! Have to listen to music! Many times I have worked through tough spots and been inspired by listening to music.

I'm glad someone else talks to themselves, too!

Anne Germaine said...

Ah...the magic of music. I am constantly amazed by musicians--all that emotion packed into 3 or 4 minutes!

Helena said...

A great list you have given us, Anne. It's a good idea to occasionally break out from our writing corners to find ideas out in the wider world. I've tried most of the ones you mentioned.

And to think there was a time when I felt I couldn't write because I had no ideas for stories. Now I don't know if I'll get them all written! But I have to remind myself that the germ of an idea is not the same as a full-blown plot. Lots to sweat before that happens.

I'll bet Jennie's couple was married!

Anita Mae Draper said...

Excellent post, Anne. You said, "Great ideas should consistently appear throughout the entire story..." That is so true.

Ref Jennie's comment - I observed some people at the Costco lunch tables one time and the memory has stayed with me. What caught my eye was the way one woman glared at another couple a few tables away. Well, I guess she wasn't looking at the couple but at the man. The man in question gave no indication of awareness to her hostility so I don't know if he knew her or was just ignoring her. But fierce emotions similar to hatred just poured from this woman. I made a note in my idea file because this was something I could use in one of my wips. :)


connie said...

Hi Anne,

When I was a teen, I had THE job for a writer. I worked in various tourist 'joints' in Niagara Falls. I saw it all: strange, kind, weird, nice, elderly, exotic, newly weds, families from everywhere. (I loved the teens who didn't want to be there with (yuck) parents). I just asked them about themselves and sometimes, I offered to show them around for a day 'just because'. Once, I swear I saw Jack Sprat and his wife.Alas and alack - especially alack - I don't remember much about them all.
What a place! I'd say go there but it is phenomenally expensive now and not safe at night (want to do a story about druggies and, as hookers call themselves now, Sex Trade Workers.

Bus stations, train stations, playgrounds with single dads, Walmarts (though singles are few and far between) older people can motivate streets with boutiques, sports centres, malls - all sorts of places.

I tell myself a story whenever I drive any distance. One made it to paper.

What great ideas you have given us all Anne. Good Blog!

p.s. the three little words every woman wants to hear are: "Let's eat out".

Jana Richards said...

Hi Anne,
I'm with Karyn about the newspaper being a great story idea factory. I've even found good ideas in the Ms. Lonelyhearts column!

Another good place for interesting stories is talk radio. I've heard interesting stories that have inspired story ideas for me.

Anita and Jennie's stories remind us that people watching is the best story generator!


Anne Germaine said...

Great comments everyone and some interesting stories! We all find our inspiration in different locations but we all have the same purpose--to learn as much as we can.

Thanks Jana and Karyn for your additions. Talk radio and newspapers should definitely be added to the list. Connie--great suggestion about the playground and single dads.

Anne Germaine said...

Anita - I would have loved to hear the story behind the woman's animosity towards that man. What did he do to tick off a complete stranger? Were they strangers or was he just pretending he didn't know her??? Hmm....

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