One of the most common questions people ask writers (especially speculative fiction writers) is, “Where do you get your ideas?” For me, the answer to that question is, everywhere. The hard part is turning an idea into a story-worthy conflict with three-dimensional characters, and making sure the idea doesn’t overshadow the actual content of the story.
I’ve picked up the habit of keeping all my ideas (woefully unorganized), even the ones I will probably never use. Notebooks with scribbled ideas in the margins, grocery lists with character concepts scrawled in next to the shopping, cut and pasted files in my writing directory on the computer, scrap files taken out of other stories…ideas everywhere.
Why? Because having all that junk to look over helps me combine ideas, and combining ideas is fun, as well as useful for brainstorming full plotlines out of things that, alone, wouldn’t make much of a story. It’s like going antiquing for a room you’ve only partially furnished – you browse around, find some good stuff, get ideas of what you do and don’t want for the room, remember something you saw over at the dollar store that would fit in perfectly, realize you want to re-paint the whole room, whatever.
The Life & Death (But Mostly the Death) of Erica Flynn, when I first came up with the story, was a combination of a dream, a question, an interest in mythology, and my desire to write something in a world where I could make all the rules from scratch but still have a modern, conversational narration style. When I knew there was a book in my head was when this alternate-dimension dream I had combined with the hypothetical question, “What would you do with your last hour if you knew you were going to die?” Once I had the basic setup in mind, I thought about what kind of book I wanted to write, what setting I wanted to spend a couple years in while I wrote it and revised it, and what kind of protagonist I wanted to spend all that time with. The domino effect took care of most of the rest of the concepts for the book, since the tone required a certain type of narrator, the establishment of that character drove the action and events, the action and events would require these types of consequences in this world, etc. It was really a very easy book to plot, for the most part, because I knew what I wanted the parameters to be before I even started it.
Now, the book I’m planning for NaNoWriMo is much more complicated – it’s not as linear, it’s a much broader scope, it’s in multiple points of view, there are interlinked subplots, and it’s the first of a trilogy. Oddly enough, the first idea that sparked my desire to write it has now been cut entirely out of the book. As it stands now, the things I’ve left in the plotline came from the following sources: two characters I cannibalized from (terrible) novels I wrote as a kid (age 10 – 12), ideas from I Ching readings I did for my original character concepts, a brainstorm session of conflict mapping, research sessions on the historical scientific and technological effects on the development of societies, photos of Florence my mom brought back from her trip to Italy when I was young and impressionable, and – again – a clear idea of what kind of book I want to spend my time writing and what characters I want to spend my time with while I’m working on it. Some of them, I want to spend time with the way you can’t help looking at a car wreck, but still, the fact remains that I’m drawn in by them. If I’m still curious, even though I already know what happens to them and what choices they’ll make, I consider it a good sign that readers will be interested in them, too. Let’s hope, anyway – haha!
Long story short (too late!) it’s not just where you get your ideas that’s the pertinent question. A better question to ask a writer is, “How do you connect your ideas?” Go brainstorm. It’s fun. 🙂