I’ve been to a few meet and greets with authors, and invariably a fan will ask in the question and answer session, “Where do your ideas come from?”.
Every single time, a word miraculously disappears from the question when it’s answered. The question the author usually tries to answer is not “Where do your ideas come from?” but “where do ideas come from?”. I’m never sure whether it’s bad acoustics in the meet and greet hall, or just a sensitive and personal question that the author isn’t quite comfortable answering.
I’ve never asked the question myself…usually a fan beats me to it…but even if I were first out of the gate, I don’t know that I would ask if I didn’t know the author personally. After all, the stories in my head are very close and personal to me, and to separate me from them would be, as Miguel de Cervantes put it so eloquently in Don Quixote, “like ripping fingernail from flesh” (the man really did know how to turn a phrase…that one still gives me the shudder factor 28 years after the first time I read it…).
If I were to ask the question of an author, my meaning would be different, though I would probably use the same words. I would want to know if other writers, those other people who also have stories in their heads fighting to get out, find their stories in the same way I do. When I first pondered this at the ripe old age of 12, I wondered if there were other people like me…if I were that much more different and awkward and geeky than everyone else because I built characters and worlds inside me.
Now that I’m more comfortable in my skin, I would ask the question to learn how other writers practice their craft. You learn from everyone you meet as they say. And what works for one will not always work for another. For example, my friend has complete, fully formed scenes of snappy dialogue, action and descriptive setting hit her in the middle of the night, usually while she’s snoozing. Me? No such luck on that front.
So where do my ideas come from? Well, when I was little, they came from books, movies, and TV. At that time, it hadn’t dawned on me that I could create my own world, so I added my characters into the shows and books I loved, usually as the ‘spunky little brother’ of my favorite character, be it Radar O’Reilly, D’Artagnan, or Han Solo. I grew. I read. I read some more. And suddenly realized, thanks to some really good friends, that I didn’t have to play in someone else’s sandbox. That realization hit like lightning and I didn’t look back.
Most of my ideas are sparked by a snippet and then explode with ‘what if?’ (the two most important words in my vocabulary…little things, but they absolutely rock!). Many of those snippets come from music. My iPod is filled with all sorts of stuff…no rhyme, no reason…everything from classical to movie scores, hard rock, metal, swing, steampunk, classic rock, flamenco, alternative, prog, hip hop, kids songs, humor, you name it, it’s probably in there.
I also walk the hamster trail at break, usually putting the pod on shuffle. When my brain is busy working at trying to keep me moving in the right direction and not bash into walls, and the music is flowing, even a sound or a phrase in a song will spark something. I’ll remember what song started the flash and pop it into a play list for a scene. Eventually that play list will tell a story…at least to me. As I said, what works for one author will not always work for another.
But, if you’d like to try it, see what you can make of this combo (not necessarily in the right order) – it ended up turning into a short story:
- In the Air Tonight – Phil Collins
- Christmas Eve in Sarajevo – Trans Siberian Orchestra
- Name – Goo Goo Dolls
- Me Like Hockey – The Arrogant Worms
- Born to be Wild – Steppenwolf
- O Come All Ye Faithful – Trans Siberian Orchestra
- Toccata in Fugue – Vanessa Mae’s Cover
- Don’t Pay the Ferryman – Chris DeBurgh
Or put your own iPod in shuffle…no iPod? Radio works just as well for me (in fact, the set above started on the radio one dark Christmas Eve before sunrise on the way to work when I heard Christmas Eve in Sarajevo for the very first time and didn’t even own a cd player, let alone an iPod … ), especially if it’s one of those stations that plays anything and everything from Frank Sinatra to Metallica.
But the most important part for me is to not be afraid to let those sparks and snippets play and grow…of course sometimes they grow into an 800 pound gorilla demanding to be set out on paper… (I love me an 800 pound gorilla… There is nothing but the story. Your head gets in the zone. Your fingers fly on the keyboard or on pen and paper, and when you finally look up, that gorilla grins at you and says, “yeah, that’s the ticket” and you sit watching the sunset together and sharing a banana.) Those are rare and wonderful moments to be savored like a Super Double Double Root Beer Malt from Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlor…
So, where do my ideas come from? A little this, a little that and a whole lotta music. And with any luck, those ideas will turn into something others will enjoy! Well, that’s all for now. Stay tuned for the next installment of Wild and Woolly Wordsmithing “Write What You Know.”