Thursday, July 15, 2010

“Where do you get your ideas?”

Elizabeth Zelvin

According to many fiction writers, “Where do you get your ideas?” is the most frequently asked question from readers, friends, and family (three groups that are not necessarily identical, although overlap can exist in a number of permutations). Although some writers consider it naïve and others downright annoying, I think it’s a legitimate question. And it’s not annoying at all compared to the corollary non-question, “I have a great idea for a novel—all you have to do is write it.” Non-writers are sometimes naïve about the creative process, as they have a right to be. There’s no reason not to be kind and respectful when explaining that it doesn’t work that way.

There are plenty of tougher parts of writing than getting the idea, starting with placing butt in chair and producing one or two thousand words a day for months on end. Then there’s subjecting your creative darlings to critique and throwing out cherished passages to turn a first draft into a publishable manuscript; the months and years it takes to get an editor or agent; and the public flaying represented by reviews, when you make yourself completely vulnerable to the judgment of strangers who may not like your work and feel completely uninhibited about saying so, sometimes in unflattering or caustic terms. But this doesn’t mean that coming up with ideas suitable for development as fiction is easy.

I know some fiction writers who have been telling stories to themselves—and/or their dolls, their friends, their children—all their lives. When they finish one manuscript, they’re on to the next as a matter of course. They can afford to let one idea go if it doesn’t work out, because there’s always another. This gift is especially useful to unpublished writers. It’s also good for the authors of short stories or extended series. If one manuscript or series doesn’t fly, there are more where that came from. Which brings us back to the initial question.

On one level, the “where” of ideas for fiction is self-evident: stories take shape within the writer’s head. But not every writer finds the material for what goes into the cerebral pressure cooker in the same place or by the same process. It’s become a commonplace that the themes of political, legal, and medical thrillers are “ripped from the headlines.” Some mystery (vs thriller) writers, too, peruse the news, even clip (or print) and file intriguing snippets that might work in a whodunit. I can’t believe somebody isn’t going to grab the recent real life drama of the professor who not only opened fire on her colleagues after being denied tenure, but is now being prosecuted for the murder of her brother years ago. (As mystery lovers know, there’s no statute of limitations on murder.)

I’m one of those who’s not a ripper or a clipper. My creative spark is more likely to be kindled by something in my own experience—not necessarily what I’ve lived through myself (with that limitation, I wouldn’t write about murder), but something within my personal or professional orbit. A number of years ago, I spent time in an extended workshop setting with a group of songwriters. When I told them that I was a psychotherapist who had directed drug and alcohol programs, one of them said, “You must have a thousand stories.” And so I do.

Not all those stories, however, are suitable to be turned into fiction. I drew heavily on that particular material for my series featuring recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler and his addicted and codependent friends. When I started writing short stories, the first few tapped that same vein. But then I started to find different voices inside myself. Diego, the young Marrano sailor on Columbus’s first voyage in “The Green Cross” (in the current issue of EQMM), literally started talking to me and pounding on the inside of my head. I knew what everybody knows about Columbus. I went online and read just enough from the journal of his first voyage to write the story. (As I’ve done more research, writing further about these characters has become more challenging.) I’d read enough historical fiction to know in a general way how the voice of a 15th-century character would differ from Bruce’s thoroughly modern, sardonic New York voice. And I know how it feels to be Jewish in a Christian society. But how did I get the idea of combining these elements into a short story? Don’t ask me—ask Diego. He’s the one who woke me up in the middle of the night demanding to be heard.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for pointing out that a reasonable question deserves a kind and respectful answer. When non-writers ask where ideas come from, they're paying a compliment. After writing for several years, I still wonder where many of my ideas come from, especially those that pop up when I'm in cooking or driving or talking with my husband. If I'm fortunate enough to find my way to publication, I'll be glad to share what I (don't) know with anyone who asks.

Ron Scheer said...

I've heard it said that everyone comes up with ideas for stories. They do it every night as they dream. Writers, I think, are able to keep that dreaming faculty going while awake.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Good point, Ron. I dreamed an amazing and very clever horror story (two terrific twists at the end) last night, something I would probably never write in waking life. I blame it on Alex Sokoloff describing her next three scary books on the Sisters in Crime e-list earlier this week.

Anonymous said...

I'm not even published and I've been asked the "where do you get your ideas" question. I told them, "I think about someone I'd like to kill and ask myself 'what if?'"

People tend to back away at that point. Strange.

BTW- I really appreciated your answer on SEOs on MurderMustAdvertise.

Donna Glaser

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Thanks, Donna. Your turn is coming soon. :) And a desire for revenge IS one of the places fictional murders come from, no foolin'.

David Cranmer said...

I have woken up Amish early and stumbled to the computer with a thought (fraction really) of a tale several times. The most recent involved chess and the old west. Odd combination for sure but original I hope. Typing I am. :)