One question authors get asked a lot is “Where do you get your ideas from?”
This is always a difficult question to answer. It’s not like there is an idea shop where you can buy an idea for a bestselling book (not that I know about, anyway). Where do ideas come from?
When I was a child, my siblings used to ask me if certain characters in my stories were based on them. I used to find this question very insulting, because I believed I had made up the characters. I thought of my inspiration as things happening in a valley that was blocked off by huge mountains with no access, and if I sat at a certain point in the mountain peaks, I would be able to look down and spy on the valley and write down the stories that I saw unfolding.
It’s an overly dramatic description of where ideas come from, but it’s one I ‘ve seen echoed in other writers who talk about the need to write down the stories in their heads, or the voices that they hear, or the messages that come to them seemingly from some cosmic flow of creativity.
But where do ideas really come from?
Inspiration can come like a bolt of lightning out of the blue, but, more often than not, we feed, nurture and cajole our minds with the minute of everyday life until some useful idea is formed that can bear fruit. This process can be seamless and organic when ideas are coming to you easily, but becomes more apparent when you are struggling to find something to say.
Recently, in a conversation with author Elle Katharine White (if you like fantasy or Jane Austen, you should really read her book Heartstone) we discussed this very topic. As Elle talked about the influences for Heartstone, and I elaborated on my thoughts about writing, we both got the image of an oyster. Writers are oysters of the mind, sifting through the ocean of daily life, filtering the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touches, emotions and thoughts that we experience at every moment and the grit, the little hard nuggets that capture our attention and are hard to let go, are the particles that make up the pearls of our ideas. No single thing becomes a story, no single person or influence or inspiration, it’s a life time of grit that produces (one hopes) a lovely, flawless pearl.
A short time after our conversation, I read a Facebook post by author Jeff VanderMeer (another author you should read if you haven’t, and read more of if you have!) where he talked about using creative play to jump start the creative process. In his post, he described how a collection of short stories with unusual techniques and a book on music analysis had been filtered through a trip to a different location and helped conjure the right mood for a piece he was writing. The individual influencers are unrecognizable, sifted and distilled through his oyster writer mind to become elements that added lustre to the pearl of the piece he was creating.
So, the next time you wonder where ideas come from, or are desperate for inspiration to hit, perhaps think about how it’s not usually one thing that forms a story, but many, and you can help the process along by absorbing new information, or shaking things up to gain a new perspective, and seeing what ideas come out.
I would love to read your comments on where ideas come from and what forms of creative play, if any, you engage in to help inspiration strike.