Many SFF writers say they get asked this.
Neil Gaiman has said he’s responded ‘from a little ideas shop in Bognor Regis’. On the same lines, Harlan Ellison is reputed to have said ‘Schenectady’. Another response that I’ve come across in my reading is to name a fictitious source – like the ‘Idea-of-the-Month-Club’ – but then add that you have to be a published author before you can get any ideas from it.
The truth is there is no single source of ideas and for many writers the only answer is ‘I don’t know, they just happen’ Or, as one writer said, ‘I don’t get ideas, they get me’.
I think that, when people ask the question, what they are really asking about are plots rather than ideas. But I’m going to take a look at ideas because a plot is what happens when you start asking questions about the idea.
So, where do ideas come from?
People who ask the question sometimes seem to think authors lie about where they get their ideas, as if it’s a big secret and there’s a conspiracy to obfuscate. If there is I haven’t been invited to join it.
One piece of advice commonly given in books on writing is ‘write about what you know’ but I’m not sure how useful this is. Fine for an SFF writer who happens to be an astronaut, scientist or witch, but that doesn’t describe many of us. I think what this advice means is take some life experience, particularly one with emotional connotations, and transfer it into the world you’ve been building.
You don’t only need one idea, the one that kick-starts the story. Also needed are many other ideas that help the flow, that put obstacles in your protagonist’s way, and tell you how (s)he reacts.
Another frequently mentioned potential source is dreams. Stephen King attributes many of his ideas to dreams and, as the advice books suggest, he keeps a notebook by his bed to make sure he doesn’t forget them. That’s fine, as far as it goes, but it doesn’t do me any good – I never remember dreams when I wake up. In any case, I’m not sure how useful dream ideas might be, dream logic isn’t plot logic.
Answering ‘what if …’ is supposed to be another way of getting ideas. The trick here is to recognise when there is potential in asking the question and then doing something with the answer. Neil Gaiman said that ideas aren’t the hard bit, you can get ideas from being bored and it’s harder sitting down and putting one word after another.
Everybody gets ideas. The difference between a writer and a non-writer is that the former does something with the ideas they get and the latter doesn’t. That may sound glib but there is a corollary in that the writer has to decide at some stage if a particular idea is worth following up, a situation the non-writer never experiences. It’s in the following up that the story develops.
The first time I was asked the question I was rather chuffed as it made me feel part of the authorial community.
An idea can be stimulated by almost anything. Here are some of mine;
Short story Missing Apolcalypse (my first published story) – reading about the Chixulub impact that wiped out the dinosaurs made me wonder ‘what if it wasn’t an impact after all but an experiment by intelligent dinosaurs that got out of control?’
Short story Up or Down – Combined my love of scuba diving and the concept of genetic modification to produce a race of mermen.
Novel – The Empty Throne (my first novel) – An image of an armoured man standing guard in front of an unoccupied throne. I don’t know where I saw it, or even if I saw it at all instead of imagining it. Essentially I wrote the book to find out why he was there and why the throne was empty.
Novel – Quaestor – The initial concept came from a weekend creative writing course when the class was asked to write about a place with a personality. Mine was an inn that had multiple doors to many other places. At the end of the course I parked it in the Ideas folder on my computer. Many years later I resurrected it for Milford and attached it to another idea about a vampire who doesn’t drink blood but takes magic from its victims.
I haven’t found any commonality between the ideas behind any of my works, completed, junked or in progress.
So, where DO you get your ideas?
David M Allan was born and educated in Edinburgh. He became a radiologist and moved to England to work (and to help civilise the English). After working for the NHS for almost 40 years he retired and took up writing. His home is on a houseboat on the Thames.