Thursday, July 22, 2010

Where do ideas come from?

I was talking to my brother in law down at the beach last week about ideas.  He's a fourth grade teacher and one of the things he teaches his kids is creative writing.  I always find talking to him fascinating because he so often has to get at the origin of things.  It's one thing to talk to a teenager or an adult about writing a story because they've been exposed to them so much -- they know the basics -- but he often has to start at the very beginning and I'm not sure I'd know how to do that.

So we ended up talking about ideas -- how to find ideas to write about which is something he talks to his kids about.  It got me thinking, how do you find ideas?  It's a question a lot of writers get asked and the answers vary from "Walmart" to "my dreams" to "who the heck knows?"

I think my ideas come from wanting to know more.  I see or read or hear or feel something and it doesn't leave my head -- it tugs at me for a bit like a little string unravelling and I have to follow it.  Sometimes the string is short and sometimes long but I never know in the beginning.

For example, I don't even remember what kind of research I was doing when I stumbled upon a link for "brazen bull" on wikipedia.  I realized I didn't know what a brazen bull was and that if it had it's own wiki page, there had to be something there.  So I clicked.  Turns out it's a horrific torture device.  Like crazy crazy cruel (don't click that link unless you have a strong stomach!)

The first thing I did was email the link to my husband, JP, saying "There's a story there. I don't know what it is, but it's there."  I couldn't describe why I felt that way, it was just that when I read that article I could see the whole of things; I could see more than just the object, I could see the people who created it and feared it and died in it.

What I find interesting is when something that sparks my imagination clearly sparks someone else's.  The other night JP and I were talking about the brazen bull when he brought up something else he hadn't know the origin of.  Once he told me what it meant an entire book unfolded in my head.  I'm talking from title through the setting, the climax, the end.

I've never had a book so powerfully come together in my head that fast.  I started to get excited and then JP said "Er, I think there's already a book about that," but I wasn't to be deterred.  Just in case, though, I looked to see if there was a book and yep, sure enough.  Not just a book but one with a Newbery nod.  Sigh.  Clearly I'm not the only person who'd been sparked by that idea (I'm still hoping I can find a way to make that idea work down the road).

Sometimes these little sparks of ideas fizzle out -- there's not enough there to sustain interest or to hold up the plot of a book.  Sometimes they spark other ideas and steamroll into something totally unexpected.  The Forest of Hands and Teeth all started with the idea of what it would be like trapped in a village where zombies were the norm, not the new horror.

Sometimes the sparks just add flavor to a current project -- I found a working title for a new project when I was following interesting sounding links doing research and I came upon a definition of something that just perfectly fit the book (and no, not sharing - sorry!).

So if you're casting about for a new idea try to pay attention to those little things that grab at you.  The little things that make you wonder "who" or "why" or "how."  Maybe they won't turn into the perfect new idea you're looking for but they could lead you in the right direction :)


Tyhitia Green said...

My ideas come from everywhere. And I love those sparks you mentioned. Sometimes they are the whole story and sometimes they do add a little flavor. Awesome.

Cannot wait to see what you've come up with as far as a new book. :-D

~Tyhitia (Con Carolinas)

Jeana Nielsen (Alberta, Canada) said...

My ideas can come froma anything, but I find that reading your books always sets a flame of inspiration. So does reading novels by Garth Nix and Stephen King. All I know as a writer is this: In order to have ideas you must create from what has already been created, instead of trying to create something that nobody has touched upon...which is kind of impossible. Not in the sense of stealing another writers work, but using something that you find that gets you writing, allowing you to take that idea and throw your own characters, plot and spins on it.

Ideas are a crazy thing, and truly they can come from anywhere or anything. You are an inspiration and your writing takes my breath away.

Ella Preuss said...

This is so true! I've started carrying a little notebook around so I can write down anything that comes to mind, wherever I am.
Sometimes I get down thinking "oh, I'm sure there's already a story about this out there", "my idea's probably not as original as I thought", and stuff like that, but I see now that it doesn't really matter if someone else's already written it. What matters is what you do with that idea, how it unfolds when writing it.

Mary Gray said...

Thank you for the post! I, too, find ideas from pursuing topics I'm interested. My current WIP references seven classic romantic tragedies just because I was so interested in their ends!

Amber said...

I used to be a 4th grade teacher also, and I agree that the whole writing process is something difficult to teach. Some kids have those crazy imaginations that can take a little spec and grow it into somehting amazing. And some kids you have to pull teeth to get them to write a sentence with more than three words. Each of my students had a writing notebook that they would use to write down even the smallest ideas. That was one of my favorite parts of teaching, showing kids how to use their imaginations.