Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

That’s a question every author expects at one time or another. If you’ve read my FAQ’s page, you may already know my answer: “I don’t get ideas-they get me!” Cute, but also true. All my novels, even the unpublished ones, have sprung from some compelling place, time, or incident that reached out and grabbed my unsuspecting consciousness. I have ideas that will never see the light of day, because a novel takes quite a bit of time and research and there may just not be that many years in me.

BUT all this is no help to someone who has to finish some kind of “creative writing” assignment by early next week. It would be nice if some idea would just grab you. As it is, you wouldn’t even mind running one down if you could spot it first. But ideas are hiding from you. They’re mad at you, or something. Or else you never had much of an imagination, so ideas just don’t like you.

ideas

Enough self-pity. Everybody has an imagination, and I can prove it. Can you recall your grandmother’s face? Can you picture the lake or pool where you learned to swim? Do you remember what the squeal of brakes sounded like when your brother took that curve too fast in the family Buick? If your answer is “yes” to any of these or a similar question, congratulations! You have an imagination.

Imagination is only the ability to picture in your mind something that’s not right before your eyes. I say “only,” but imagination is really a terrific gift poured out on the human race. And ideas are bits of memory, observation, knowledge, or sensual impression that do creative leapfrogs in the imagination.

Contrary to the common impression, “imaginative” people do not float above the common herd. They have their feet firmly planted in ordinary human experience while their heads are busy making extraordinary connections. A fantasy writer who imagined totally fantastic worlds would be unreadable.

Consider this sentence:

The gravity on Planet Y approached negative 20. Calvin skullied along the velastic, watching for pritidids.

Attempting to write completely outside the realm of ordinary human experience amounts to writing in another language–a supreme failure to communicate. Compare that with this:

Calvin oozed like an amoeba over the frigid tundra of Planet Y, wincing as the rough, spiky texture clawed at his soft white skin.

The second example uses real-world phenomena to conjure an imaginary world: amoeba and tundra are common knowledge; frigid and spiky are first-hand experience. Combined in such an unusual way, they work together to create a fantasy we can easily imagine, even though we’ve never been to Planet Y.

 

So where do ideas come from? Four main categories:

  • Knowledge (facts learned from outside sources)
  • Observation (particularly of people and natural or fabricated surroundings)
  • Memory
  • Emotion

 

WARNING: The best, most original ideas come from your personal head, drawn from your personal experience or knowledge. But our culture is so media-saturated that it’s hard to keep out images drawn from TV, music, or movies. We pick up facial expressions, gestures and phrases from the media without thinking, and stock situations and scenarios to creep into the imagination before we’re even aware of them. Try to avoid media clichés while developing your own ideas.

 

Here are a few idea-gathering exercises to put your imagination to work. These can just be thought experiments, but if you have a creative writing assignment in the near future, one or more of them will be worth writing up.

  • Think of a memorable or pivotal incident in your life. Recall the incidents leading up to it, the sights, sounds or smells that struck you at the time, your chief emotion and how you experienced it. Those are the ideas. Once they are all in place, imagine the incident turning out differently: for better, or for worse. How would events develop? What would your response be?
  • Think of a place that has gone relatively unchanged for the last 50 years or so, such as your old elementary school, the creek behind your house, or Main Street in a very small rural town. Now imagine some distinguishing mark there, such as a broken windowpane, a gouge in a tree, or a liquor flask half-buried beside a porch. Imagine a dramatic incident that took place in this very spot at least 50 years ago, connected with that feature.
  • Spend some time in a public place where people linger, such as an airport, a library, or a coffee shop. Choose one person to observe for at least ten minutes. Don’t stare–it’s rude. As you steal glances at this person, construct a personality profile for them and imagine their main occupation: homemaker, golf pro, beekeeper, FBI agent? Imagine what the rest of their day will be like when they leave the place.
  • Recall a time when you felt intense joy or fear. What caused the emotion–what did you see, hear, smell or feel? How did your chest, face, fingers and toes respond? (I often feel emotion as a peculiar pinching of the nose, but I don’t know how common that is . . .) Now transfer the exact emotional response to a totally fictitious experience incident that takes place on top of the Washington Monument, or Mt. Hattie, Virginia in 1863, or Planet Y in the year 2123–or make up your own setting.

nuisance
Once you start getting ideas, they may start getting you. In fact, they may get to be a nuisance!