Six impossible things

Meeting the Muse

“Where do you get your ideas?”

Every writer I know is sick of being asked this question. Many writers have developed snappy non-answers: from a post office box in Schenectady, from a secret subscription service, from an idea-fairy who leaves them on the desk whenever I leave out a saucer of whiskey. Others struggle to explain that ideas are the easy part, that they are all over, that it’s a matter of how you look at and think about everyday stuff, that it’s about stopping and paying attention.

People keep on asking, though. Obviously, this is an aspect of writing that a lot of people want to know about. Equally obviously, people aren’t satisfied with the (entirely true) answers that ideas are the easy part, they’re all over, etc. So I thought I’d take a crack at it from a different angle.

“Getting ideas” is a fuzzy, changeable concept. Every writer gets ideas in a different way; most of us seldom “get an idea” in the same way, or from the same kind of source for two stories in a row. Nevertheless, if one looks long enough, one can spot patterns in the ways different people come up with ideas for their books.

One of the most common beginning points is other stories, especially other stories that the writer loves. A lot of highly imitative books that get sneered at as rip-offs were actually not written as money-makers; they’re a labor of love on the part of the author that’s a bit too obvious about the source material. (A lot of others are, quite obviously, fan fiction.) Whole genres have developed because multiple authors read and were sufficiently inspired by a particular book (the modern category fantasy is a direct descendent of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, as Westerns developed from The Great Train Robbery.)

Often, the writer is attracted to a specific aspect of the story. It is very common for a writer to be very taken with a character (usually a secondary or even a minor one) who, in the writer’s opinion, merits more attention than the existing story gives him/her. These characters often end up being nearly unrecognizable by the time the new writer has changed the setting and given them their own story to be hero of. Other times the writer can’t help wondering how the story might have gone if the main character had done something different, like waiting for the city guards instead of charging off after the villain alone (or vice versa). Sometimes, the existing story has a throwaway line that catches the writer’s interest – they want to know just what the Incendiary Cat Plot was and whether it worked, and the existing story doesn’t say. At least two writers of my acquaintance have gotten acclaimed trilogies out of wondering about specific backstory incidents mentioned as throwaways in Lord of the Rings…and by the time they were finished with their own versions, almost nobody recognized the source material unless they were told.

Another place that writers get ideas is from stories that are based on a great idea that is handled clumsily or that just doesn’t reach its full potential. Almost nobody besides scholars remembers who Shakespeare’s sources were, because Shakespeare did far better things with their ideas and plots and characters than they did. Watching someone else butcher a great idea can incite other writers to spend many hours at their computers, demonstrating how they think it should have been done.

Which brings me to Really Bad Fiction. B movies, hackwriting, old pulp fiction, soap operas, second-rate cartoons and TV series…all have been catalysts for writers who have looked at them and said to themselves, “Well, I can certainly write something better than that.”

Writers get ideas more directly from each other. We talk about writing and our works-in-progress; sometimes, that means that Writer A takes a suggestion made by Writer B, while other times, it means that Writer A says “No, that idea won’t work” and Writer B then says, “Well, if you aren’t going to use it, can I have it?” Sometimes writers throw off comments in conversation that kickstart someone’s backbrain. Talking to Dragons started because of a discussion about book titles at a party, for instance.

Real-life events provide ideas, too, but usually not in the way most non-writers think they do. OK, some writers do go trolling for ideas in “News of the Weird,” but more often a writer hears about some perfectly ordinary event – the kid from down the block having a bad allergy attack, or the grocery store running out of peanuts – and they think “Nobody in fantasy fiction ever has allergies” or “Lots of people are allergic to peanuts; I wonder if somebody bought out the store in order to murder a bunch of people?” and they’re off. Or they catch a glimpse of a person and think “They would be a great character.”

Writers who are very visual frequently get ideas from pictures – photographs, paintings, particular stills or scenes from movies – or from places or objects they see in person, like a silver teapot or a car with a dented fender. And there are the writers who make stories out of the way they felt watching a lightning storm or a sunset – not trying to recreate the images in words (though that may happen), but maneuvering their characters into situations where the characters will feel like that.

Ideas also show up nearly every time a writer asks someone in exasperation, “Why would anybody do that?” It doesn’t matter whether “that” is spending time solving Sudoku puzzles, running marathons, or robbing banks; what matters is the follow up internal dialog that goes something like, “Yeah, why would somebody do that? I wonder if I could come up with a satisfactory explanation…”

And then there is the idea-trigger that is possibly the most common of all: the moment when the writer looks at his/her bookshelf and says, “I really, really want to read another novel like X, but there aren’t any more! I’m going to have to write one myself.

22 Comments
  1. There is nothing quite like thinking, “Well, you really wasted a good idea there,” because that one has the advantage that you have to file off the serial numbers in the process of putting it to good use.

  2. I agree that ideas are the easy part. Making them your own and unique, well, that’s a whole ‘nother story.

  3. I also love the story-stew notion about why certain plot elements continue to be ladled out over and over again by generations of story-tellers, too!

  4. sorry- forgot to say *Tolkien’s story-stew notion

    • That’s okay, I think we all recognized it.

  5. A lot of my ideas come from books I love – in fact, the novel I finished recently came about because I was channeling both Tamora Pierce and The Raven Ring! I’m not aiming for publication at the moment, so it doesn’t matter as much if it’s a bit derivative, but I’ve still tried to make it sufficiently my own.

  6. I had an idea once from not buying a book when I really liked the front cover, and then having to spend several month coming up with a story that could have fit that picture, just so I could stop thinking about it.

    • Love that!

      Done a few covers myself. Personally, I find it tends to be a short story unless it catches onto other ideas, but YMMV.

    • Personally, I’m still wondering what the story is that goes with the title, “Hold Me Closer, Necromancer,” because according to my roommate, it’s not the book that originally came with that title.

  7. “It is very common for a writer to be very taken with a character (usually a secondary or even a minor one) who, in the writer’s opinion, merits more attention than the existing story gives him/her. These characters often end up being nearly unrecognizable by the time the new writer has changed the setting and given them their own story to be hero of.”

    Unless the reader is/was also a fan of whatever the author got the inspiration from. I know of a trilogy whose hero is clearly (to me, at least) based on Mr. Spock. Nothing else comes from the Trek universe at all … just the character.

    Hal says, “Ideas are what you trip over on the sidewalk.” He, unfortunately, can only come up with one at a time, so when he says “Why don’t you write a story about …?” I have to say, “Yes, that’s an idea; now give me about forty more, because that isn’t a plot, that’s a plot element.” Hal is, however, really good at making me make the science work.

  8. My North-lands, the setting for so many of my stories, were born from the paintings of Kay Nielsen in the collection of Norse folk tales titled East of the Sun and West of the Moon. I looked at those magical landscapes and said to myself, “That place looks fascinating. I want to know more about it. What is it really like?”

    The title story in the collection generated my novel Troll-magic, because I wondered if it could happen to the daughter of parents who truly loved her. How could they ever consent to her being carried away by an enchanted polar bear?

    Even more of my stories are generated by throw away lines or secondary characters from an earlier story of my own.

    One sentence in my Rainbow’s Lodestone – “The star-dragons and the wind sprites, her usual playmates, could not visit her here.” – made me wonder so much about the star-dragons and the wind sprites that I wrote Star-drake.

    And a cameo first appearance by Sarvet in Troll-magic got me so interested in her that I wrote Sarvet’s Wanderyar.

    Like most writers, I now have so many story ideas that I don’t have enough time to write them all. 😀

  9. It is worth noting that the much-mined Tolkien universe came about as a philological exercise: He invented the Elvish language (based largely on Finnish) and then decided he wanted to know more about the sort of people who spoke it – so he wrote a history for them. As he himself said, “The tale grew in the telling.”

    • Quenya was based on Finnish, phonologically, anyway. Sindarin was based, again phonologically, on Welsh. Then he had the fun of figuring out how Sindarin descended over many ages and not a few sound-changes from Quenya … remember that Finnish and Welsh are not at all in the same linguistic family.

  10. Songs are another good idea-source. I frequently get ideas from snippets of song lyrics — often ideas that are tangentially related at best to the source lyric, and frequently so idiosyncratic in interpretation that I can’t explain to anybody but me how that song led to that idea. (Sometimes I can’t even explain it to me….) There’s something about the mood created by the music, and then a handful of words collide in my brain, and we’re off….

  11. Are there any successful science fiction & fantasy writers who find it hard to come up with ideas?

    I’m one of those who finds ideas to be the easy part. Except… the hard part is finding the right idea, the idea that fits the story, the idea that turns a partial plot-fragment into a complete plot.

    • I don’t know about successful (yet, anyway), but I do that all the time. I don’t think I’ve ever come up with an idea for a story more than three pages long that didn’t start out as a plot-fragment. Gluing on other fragments, or extending & expanding the initial fragment, or whatever it takes to turn that starter idea into a complete plot — that’s the hard part.

    • I think you’re conflating two parts of the process: there’s getting ideas, and then there’s developing the ideas you have gotten. But yes, there certainly are professional SF&F writers who have trouble with one or the other, or both. Fortunately, most novelists only have to go through the whole idea-developing process about once a year, given how long it takes them to write the book after having a developed idea.

      • It was more a matter of my starting two hares. The first hare was my wondering if any pro writers had trouble with the initial getting-ideas part. Because, as you wrote, that is the easy part for (most) authors – and I was wondering about exceptions.

        The second hare was that I do find it easy to come up with initial ideas but then find it hard to do what you call “developing” the ideas I get. To me, developing an idea for a story feels more like coming up with a second and third idea that fits the first one. To use CS Forester’s barnacle analogy, I can grow a crop of barnacles easily enough, but they’re mostly story-start barnacles with only a few story-middle barnacles and hardly any story-ending barnacles.

        (Are there techniques for converting story-start ideas into story-middle and story-end ideas that I’m being clueless about?)

        • Given there there’s probably more such techniques than writers, no one can know them all.

          I think the three main questions are “who is this?”, “where are they?”, and, most of all, “what happens next?” (Significantly because those questions produce more questions more than they produce answers.)

          I will not help you kill the king.

          Wait, why could they even ask? That’s not a casual question! Brothers? No, cousins.

          Who wants to kill the king? Lugan? Who’s Lugan? Beowulf read natural history at Oxford, right, thank you, brain.

          Who’s the other person? Belmar? Too flash for a pirate, OK, that might not be as helpful.

          Where are they? Berserker bar. Like a biker bar with more bearskins and no beer. Big heavy glass tumblers of clear and flammable liquids.

          Ok, but what happens next? Why is Lugan upset enough to contemplate regicide?

          And that’s kind where the book came from. But it does need the focus on next, rather than what could happen. It has to be the next thing from where the narrative has already gotten.

        • My three main questions are:

          1) Where is it?

          2) How is the culture structured and what are the mores that are most likely to give severe trouble to some individuals?

          3) Who is the person who is most troubled by the most troublesome issue? That’s my protag, who I must then find out more about.

          But every writer’s questions will be different.

  12. “At least two writers of my acquaintance have gotten acclaimed trilogies out of wondering about specific backstory incidents mentioned as throwaways in Lord of the Rings…and by the time they were finished with their own versions, almost nobody recognized the source material unless they were told.”

    OK, I am curious. What are those two trilogies?

  13. I was talking ideas with two of my writer friends this afternoon. They were surprised to hear that I have more ideas than I can ever write in my lifetime. I’ve always been bombarded with them, though sometimes when I follow them I find that two or three of them merge into one book, and that I don’t need to follow the others separately.

    My problem is having TOO MANY ideas. I always get a new shiny just when I should be concentrating on the WIP 🙁

    I like the ones that all swirl together and become one Big Thing with twists and turns. As Hannibal says: “I love it when a plan comes together” 😀

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