Gary Larson once said the most common question he was asked was, "Where do you get your ideas?" (A close second was, "Why do you get your ideas?") Larson said the question tickled him; every time he heard it, he had a mental picture of himself sifting through his grandparents’ dusty attic, opening a creaking chest and blowing a thick layer of dust away from a heavy tome titled, "A Thousand and One Weird Cartoon Ideas."
I wish it was that simple. The reality for most writers is that inspiration is much more complicated and prosaic.
Inspiration can strike anywhere and any-when. It’s sometimes personified as a damnable muse, a tantalizing whisper that echoes in ones ear, triggering a story. (My own muse is just a symbol of my guilty conscience, yelling at me when I am goofing off instead of writing. She doesn’t help at all.) Others describe inspiration as a lightning bolt through the brain, where the story practically writes itself before the thought is even complete.
I can’t speak for any of my fellow writers but I like to take my inspiration from any number of real-life sources … which is odd, because almost all of my work is speculative and at least 2/3 of it is set off-Earth. I don’t write much about the the real world, because I don’t like it (see my last post) but it is an incredibly fertile ground for story ideas.
Popular media. I love song lyrics. At times, the words sing to me (pun intended) and just find a home. Consider these stanzas:
I wanna love you but I better not touch
I wanna hold you but my senses tell me to stop
I wanna kiss you but I want it too much
I want to taste you but your lips are venomous poison
And in the streets: the children screamed,
The lovers cried, and the poets dreamed.
But not a word was spoken;
The church bells all were broken.
Two different songs with disparate meanings and styles but both of them give me an idea for a story. Lines in movies and books work the same way.
Listening to other people. In the stairwell today, I overheard the following clip of conversation:
Person A: The package is ready but it’s been at the Pentagon for weeks.
Person B: This is going to get messy.
How delightful. You can take this any number of directions. People-watching accomplishes the same goal.
Read a Newspaper. Or, since we are in the 21st century, read their websites. Below are the headlines from some major news web sites at the moment I type this:
CNN – Live: Shuttle Discovery’s Final Launch
Interesting … how about the final launch of a scarred, veteran ship into battle, or a desperate voyage to save the world?
Fox News – Senate Dems Eye Cuts as Budget Shutdown Looms
Ohhh, any number of gov’t intrigue plots would work. What about the rationing of magic power between hostile factions?
MSNBC – Despite 9/11, U.S. increased visas to Saudi students
Thoughts of inter-cultural clashes leap to mind. Racial scapgoating for the dwarves among elves … or a culture’s blindness to obvious infiltration? It doesn’t have to be political, just good storytelling.
New York Times – Qadafi Strikes Back as Rebels Close in on Capital
Civil war always makes a good story. Galactic rebellion against a tyrant (Star Wars)? Or two leaders want to take the country’s rare dragons in different directions (exploitation vs. cooperation) and have enough followers to throw down.
ABC News – Jennifer Lopez Explains Break Down
That didn’t give me an idea, just a little jolt of schadenfreude. :p
Go to the well. If all that fails, take something that works and spin it. What else is Pride and Prejudice and Zombies? I re-wrote Snow White from the Queen’s POV. I took some pieces of the Disney version, some piece from the old Germanic tale, and added elements of my own. It was a blast and I encourage everyone to try it. Snag an old obscure Grimm Brothers story, an Uncle Remus tale, the theme from one of the Little Golden Books we read as kids (you were deprived if you didn’t). Give it a shot.
Okay kids: did any of you have an idea? A thought? A pulse through your tingly bits? I love coming up with ideas and I find them around me every day. It’s fun. Getting them on paper: that is the hard part. Getting them on paper and doing it well … well, now that’s even harder. Thus are separated the good from the great.
Okay, enough chit-chat. Get out there and get inspired. Go now!