Monday, April 4, 2016
Ideas come from... everything and everywhere
by Meredith Cole
Practically every panel at every conference I've ever been to has had someone in the audience get up and ask the dreaded question, "where do you get your ideas?" Authors tend to flub it off. "At the idea store," they say. Or something else equally flippant. Or they offer, "newspapers, my crazy family, my last job..."
But it's perfectly understandable that readers, especially when they've read some fantastical tale and wondered how on earth an author (who looks like a normal, reasonable person) might have thought of such a thing. So why do authors dread the question so much?
I think authors find the question annoying because it requires an explanation for a process that at times feels rather mystical to us. Why for a short story did I combine a swimming pool I used to go to all the time in Brooklyn with a reluctant swimmer (my sleuth) with a competitive swimmer with a love affair gone bad and an undetectable poison? Well, it's just where my mind went. I needed a setting for my sleuth. I needed a murder and I needed a reason. But that doesn't feel like a reasonable answer.
The other author secret that no one likes revealed is that we (at least the prolific and effective writers among us) are unabashed thieves. Sit by us at a dinner party and we'll pick your brain. Sit near us at a cafe and we'll listen in on your conversation. Tell us about your third cousin once removed's strange life experiences, and we'll file away the details. That's how we learn about the world. That's how we come up with interesting ideas. Parts of your life may end up in a book of ours--but hopefully you'll never recognize it once we're done with it.
Can anyone really explain where creative ideas come from? Or how we can tell a good idea from a terrible one? I don't think so. But when asked, I counsel my students to always remain open and vigilant to the possibilities all around them, to take their life experiences and observations and then alter them as they up the stakes in their book. And then, once they're published, prepare a good answer to the question, "where do you get your ideas?"