Rebecca Day

Ideas: The good, the bad, the indifferent

Posted by rwday on September 20, 2007

I was talking to my friend Elaine at the SCA meeting tonight. She’s interested in writing (SF and YA historical, yay!) and asked that question that writers always seem to get. “Where do you get your ideas?” Nobody had ever asked me that before, and I wibbled and wandered around the point and really felt like I didn’t give a decent response.

So on the way home I started thinking about it, and thought it would be a worthwhile exercise to go through a couple of the short stories I’ve sold and analyze where the ideas came from. The first thing I’d say about ideas is that the more you think like a writer, the more ideas come to you. Second thing, ideas alone aren’t enough to make a story. Ideas aren’t plots, though they can lead to plots. So, the idea parade…

My first actual genre sale (I’m not counting the porn here – the ‘idea’ of most porn is pretty obvious) was “Denying the Cuckoo.” I wrote that based on a picture prompt for the Musemuggers LJ community – I think the picture was a broken tombstone in an old country cemetery, so I started writing from the POV of a girl whose mother had died – once I had her voice, the story just unfolded from there.

“Sic Transit Gloria’s Monday” started as a title. I wrote the story to fit the title, something I don’t really recommend.

“Bricks” has to be the most bizarre inspiration I’ve had yet. A brick on the side of the road. That’s it. Next thing I know, the brick is in the hands of a lonely little girl from a crumbling old mansion and she’s burying it to grow a house, a cottage where she and her mother can live happily ever after. And oh yes, her mother is Snow White, forever asleep in glass.

“The Reunion” came from a family trip to Gettysburg and a firsthand account of the 50 year veteran’s reunion. BTW, I have all the psychic sensitivity of a block of concrete, and I still felt something at Gettysburg. Lincoln had it right about the blood of those men consecrating the ground.

“Price of Electrum” was another musemuggers prompt.

“Triumph of Reason” and “Till Ragnarok” both started with characters.

“Hell and Half of Georgia” and “Magic’s Choice” were written for anthology calls. The anthologies had themes, and I started with the themes, brainstormed a list of words that related a la Ray Bradbury and let those lead me into a story. With “Hell” I deliberately wanted something light, as I figured most of the submissions to a “Hell on Earth” anthology would tend to be a bit on the depressing side.

Other stories (published and not) have come from the fire that burned down the house across the street, the flooding of my mother’s family’s land to create Dillon Dam in the 1930’s, a tarnished mirror, an article in National Geographic, one line from a Thea Gilmore song.

For more practical advice on finding ideas, I’d suggest trying Ray Bradbury’s word association thing. It’s discussed in this article, though his book, Zen and the Art of Writing is well worth a look. Pictures make great inspiration too. Poetry. Articles in newspapers, magazines. Quirky facts. Historical curiosities. Good fiction. Bad fiction. Dreams.

There’s really no consistency here, I know. I guess for me (and I don’t claim to have answers for anyone but me) the trick is to be open to the world around me, to allow inspiration to take root. To allow unrelated ideas to percolate in my subconscious so they meld into something that might become a plot. And to write every day, whether I have an idea or not. It may be cliched, but inspiration does indeed follow perspiration.

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