Where do you get your ideas?

Glass half full - Guenette photo

Recently, I was asked this question – How do you come up with the ideas for your books? The person asking was sincere in a desire to understand the inner workings of a novelist’s process. My first thought was that ideas are a dime a dozen. They’re everywhere, free for the taking. As Amy Tan wrote, “It’s a luxury being a writer, because all you ever think about is life.”

Neil Gaimon talks of how every profession has its pitfalls. Doctors are asked for medical advice, lawyers are asked for legal information, morticians are told how interesting their profession must be before the subject is quickly changed. Writers must bear the burden of being asked where we get our ideas from.

I scrambled to pull my thoughts together and make an adequate reply. I considered answering as Hemingway would. “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” From there all will flow. I rejected that idea. By quoting Hemingway I ran the risk of sounding like a literary snob and such an answer would have been unsatisfying to a sincere questioner.

Instead, I talked of how I spend a lot of time getting to know my characters. They are the ones who have all the ideas. I’m with Stephen King when he says that the best stories always end up being about the people, not the events. The only problem with this answer is that it begged the next question. Where do the characters come from?

Where indeed? Even after five forays into creating characters and stories that fill whole books, the process is as much a mystery to me as it might be to someone who has never done it. Fair to say, as Chuck Palahniuk notes, “My writing process isn’t a very organized thing.”

The more I think about how the books came to be, the more the indefinable nature of the work strikes me. It’s almost as if I have fallen victim to a strange reflective amnesia. Where on earth did those first characters in Disappearing in Plain Sight come from? I just don’t know. E.L Doctorow tells us, “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights but you can make the whole trip that way.” He might have been wise to add that when looking in the rear-view mirror, one can see nothing at all.

The writing process is a hard thing to discuss. Virginia Wolfe had it right when she reflected that, “Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of … life, every quality of … mind is written large in his [or her] words.”

All I know for sure is that all my life I’ve wondered about people. I’ve always been curious and I’ve always been prone to wild bouts of speculation. Questions of ‘what if’ have often driven my thoughts.

Maybe George Orwell has the answer. “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one weren’t driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” Orwell could have also noted that having to talk about such a process is worse than going through it!

A new bird in town - Guenette photo

8 comments on “Where do you get your ideas?

  1. melparish says:

    Great post, Francis. I have no more idea than you where my characters come from. They seem to appear when I consider a “what if” scenario and take over the writing until the story is finished at which point some disappear and others insist that there is more of their story to tell and want a sequel. It’s almost impossible to explain this to those who don’t write fiction without sounding a little strange and, possibly, scary! Yes, I do hear my characters’ voices in my head……..

    • I agree completely, Mel, on the difficulties involved in trying to explain this odd way characters make themselves known to us. I have had characters who I expected to trip along in secondary roles who then took over large portions of the action and would not be held back or contained. By the same token, characters I envisioned to be central have suddenly taken a back seat. During active writing phases, I definitely hear their voices. Yes … upon reflection, just a tad scary. Though it all seems as it should be at the time.

  2. Behind the Story says:

    Ideas don’t come easily to me. They never come fully formed. I like E.L. Doctorow’s comment: “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights but you can make the whole trip that way.”

    • In my experience, stories certainly need space to evolve and become fully formed. I am a planner but too much planning or too much commitment to a certain way of going sabotages things. The process is such an organic one – branching out and going where it needs to go. I love Doctorow’s quote, too 🙂

  3. Roy McCarthy says:

    Yes, I like the Doctorow quote too. But far beyond the car headlights you have a good idea how the journey ends. It’s the bit in between that tests our skill as writers, some doing better than others.

    • Once again, agreed 🙂 It is true that we are not off on a random, midnight road trip. The middle is tricky. I might know where I want my characters to end up but they are the ones who determine how they’ll get there. It takes a lot of patience to be open to their voices.

  4. Lani says:

    I liked how you wove famous writers quotes in here, and I kept waiting for your answer! Hahhaa. But I suppose you did answer it when you said, “ideas are everywhere!” because they are!

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