Where Do Writers Get Their Ideas?
The real answer is probably “the devil” but let’s pretend there’s other options too
Summer is a tricky time for the creative life, or I think so anyway. The world is so alive and so distracting. It’s certainly a complex time for parents (the activities! the logistics! also does anyone know where the damn goggles are), and for any humans who feel sleepy in the heat. Or humans who love the heat and want to Do Summer Things. So, anyone.
But! Summer can be a wonderful time for idea-gathering, which I think of as magpie work. Magpies are known for gathering objects — especially useless but shiny things — for their nests. Writers can learn a lot from this, if you ask me, someone who knows nothing actually about magpies.
What’s this season looking like for you? Are you traveling? Are you at the shore? Are you in the park with children? Are you living normal life only a little sweatier? Fine, great, just remember to ABC: Always be collecting.
A question that gets asked of novelists: Where do you get your ideas? (I was asked this recently during this fun Thought Fox panel on novel-writing!) I mean, the real question is where aren’t there novel ideas? All I know is where I’ve gotten my novel ideas. Which is, well, everywhere.
Take my first book. I started with a vague question: Why do people make bad decisions? Then I made it specific: What would happen if this one woman made the worst decision at every turn?
Next, I magpied (yes, it’s definitely a verb) a bunch of character ideas I’d been collecting. There was a handsome young man I’d encountered at a bus stop in Minneapolis who I thought was flirting with me, only to realize he wasn’t quite what he seemed. There was a child I’d known back when I was a teenaged camp counselor, who appeared to be a girl but had claimed to be a boy, to the mild amusement of the rest of the camp staff. There was a couple who ran a motel, who I’d seen at a Southwestern motel on a roadtrip in my early 20s and always wondered about. Then I made my bad-decision-addicted woman a surrogate mother for reasons I don’t quite remember, but that I assume had something to do with wanting to address the magical and sometimes surreal nature of women’s bodies, an interest in the unconventional ways that families can form, and, probably, a fascination with and ambivalence about motherhood (I was not yet a mother, though I wanted to be).
What if, I wondered, all these characters — who certainly shouldn’t share a stage — got stuck together at an isolated motel, somewhat against their will? The tightness of the setting and timing appealed to me as useful creative constraints.
I had been living with these story elements for some time. The child (who today I would clock as transgender, but did not, quite, back in 1996), I had been thinking about for years, for example. The Southwestern setting was a place I’d fallen in love with when I lived in New Mexico my first year of college. The bus stop man I met years later, as a graduate student in Minnesota. It was only when I hit critical mass of bright shiny objects — er, ideas — and connected them in my brain with a setting, a main character, and, crucially, an actual story (the surrogate mother wants both freedom and love, but so many things are standing in her way), that it could all transmogrify from vibes into an actual draft of an actual novel.
See what I mean? Noticing. Collecting. Waiting, often, until you know what the shiny bit is for. You wait until you hit critical mass. Often fiction writers talk about that moment when the characters start speaking, so that you can really hear their voices. Sounds batty, but it’s true — you need the characters to talk. This moment is especially important if you have a first-person narrator. (A strong voice was the germ of my forthcoming novel Dear Edna Sloane, for example.)
Follow up question: How do you know when an idea wants to be a short story, or a novel, or a memoir, or an essay, or just a note on your phone? Like the question about getting ideas in the first place, the answer is going to vary from writer to writer. For me, this is mostly a question of texture.
If something happened and it’s so crazy you simply can’t believe it happened, and it’s the kind of thing where you tell people and they go, “wow I also can’t believe that happened,” that’s when I feel it wants to stay basically factually intact and be told as creative nonfiction. When the inciting inspiration is something you’ve noticed or felt or thought or remembered but you’re a bit hazy on the details, or wish the details were different, well then maybe you’re better off fictionalizing.
If what comes to you is a story idea, and it’s a simple story — with just a few central characters and perhaps one important (or interesting or devastating or — ) turn, maybe it’s short-story-sized. If what comes to you is complex and busy and feels like it might take many many pages to sort out, well, sounds like a novel to me.
What about you, where do you get your ideas? How do you know what idea goes with what form or genre? Let us know in the comments. Or, you know, write an essay about it or whatever.
Writing Co-Lab, the educational cooperative I work with, has a whole lot of new classes listed for fall. I’m running Writing for Women on the Verge again (with new material) and also offering a brand-new course called Writing for Mothers on the Verge! We also have classes coming up in poetry, screenwriting, and so much more.
Exercise: Find an unfinished artifact in your writing archives. This can be a note in a journal, an idea saved in your phone, a scrap of paper that’s been sitting on your desk, or a character (or setting, or interaction, or memory, or observation, or…) that’s been floating in your head for years. Write a scene related to this idea, whatever it is.
There are TWO spots still available at the Red Clover Writing Retreat this October! (They are actually in a room together, so they’d be perfect for a pair of writer friends, don’t you think?) Join me and Sarah McColl at the beautiful Red Clover Ranch in the Driftless region of Wisconsin. If you’re feeling stuck in your writing process, stalled on your fiction or memoir project, hungry for creative community, or just ready for a revitalizing break, this long weekend is for you. More information is here.