It’s now a cliche, to ask a writer, “Where do you get your ideas?”
It’s been a long time since anyone bothered to ask me that, and most of those were not out of any particular admiration – generally more along the lines of, “Where on earth do you come up with this wierdness, anyway?”. I decided I’m going to answer it anyhow, because it’s an essential part of the whole process. After all, you don’t get far writing unless you can think of something to write about. I’m reluctant to comment on where anyone else gets their ideas, but I do know where my own come from – and I know that I had a struggle with myself over one major source and its validity. In fact, this subject ran into another, turning this into two closely linked ones. The second part of this will be posted on Thursday. Meanwhile, since this is a more complex issue than I expected before I sat down and started to think about it, please bear with me if I seem to wander off-track at moments.
So. Where do I get my ideas? Part of the answer is, everywhere. From books I read, either fiction that sparks a thought of a variation, or non-fiction that triggers an “Oh, that’s neat!” reaction. From my own real-life experiences. From things people around me say. A major part of the answer is, from other ideas: starting to experiment with one idea leads to others. Trying out variations by changing a factor or two at a time and testing the results can lead in fascinating and unpredictable directions within the internal logic of the concept.
Those are the sources that I acknowledged and accepted very early-on. The very first “real” story I remember writing was a rip-off, with changes of my own, of a movie; the second, of a novel, though I took it to absurd extremes (hey, I was in Seventh Grade!). Then I hit on an idea that was my own, a rather silly wishful-thinking story that involved a trio of of loner teenagers, two of them finding out they were shapechangers (I never did figure out why) and a third who could actually change the world with what she wrote, and forming a friendship based on that (hey, I was in Eighth Grade!). From there, to one that was extremely long that involved someone (a fairly popular and outgoing boy) cursed to be only halfway in this world, ghost-like, and one psychically-sensitive and shy girl who was the only one able to see him (for the record, this was two years before Swayze’s Ghost). More wishful thinking, but it started to come to life in a whole new way.
In Ninth Grade, a school project I’d done the year before (“Create a world!”), combined probably with something I’d read, gave me an idea for a story set within it. That became my first attempt at a novel, and my first experience with having characters come so strongly to life that they took off running with the story and all I could do was try to keep up. It amazed me constantly that these ideas were all pouring out of somewhere, tumbling over each other – a casual sentence by one character, a brief description of something, an incident that seemed trivial, all kept triggering new scenes, new knowledge of the world, of the history or motivations or feelings of the characters, of what was going on. The flood of sheer creative possibility was intoxicating and ecstatic. I wrote in my spare time. I wrote in class, too, but since I was getting straight A’s and I was quiet, my teachers didn’t interrupt when they saw my rather battered clipboard come out.
Where did the ideas all come from? Everything I’d ever experienced, read, watched, listened to, discussed, learned, all dumped into a single cauldron and stirred and then poured onto the tiny seed of two characters in a world of my own making to water and feed it.
Having happened once, it happened again, and again: some tiny grain would tickle my mind and nag at me until I built characters around it and began to explore it, and the torrent of ideas and potentials would begin as a light shower and grow with every page. It fed off itself, and off everything within me, and some of it I had no idea where it could possibly have sprung from (it’s remarkable what you absorb around you that you aren’t consciously aware of). The original seed often turned out to wilt before it had grown very large, but by that point, it frequently had spawned further seeds of its own – what if I did this instead of that, and turned such into so, what would I get? (I am aware that I’ve used three different metaphors in this paragraph, but all illustrate different aspects, so I believe I’ll leave them in place.) It was addictive even while it was inexplicable.
Somewhere in there, I learned how to edit, and my left brain learned how to do its thing, but this is about ideas, and I’ve already covered that elsewhere.
Up until I admitted to myself that I’m not heterosexual, anything remotely erotic was fiercely repressed. (Patience, please, this really is deeply relevant.) I had to, to keep myself from looking at what turned up. Those fantasies joined me in bed at night, though, lovely erotic daydreams that, rather than being just vague imagery or famous people, were specifically about my own characters. There are very crudely-done power-dynamic themes in my older work, and some over-the-top violence, and some vampirism that clearly had subliminal undertones, but carefully nothing involving sex or gender. The glaring exception is something that I was working on only a few months before coming out, and I was deeply embarrassed by the bizarre turn it took and hid it, even though it kept creeping back into my daydreams.
When I was 19, and came out, and stopped trying so frantically to hide from myself, my writing exploded. Allowing the guilty little fantasies to infiltrate the text added a new depth and a new vibrancy to it and gave me a much less limited scope to work with (ramblings relevant to this in this post). More relevant to the current subject, however, some of those fantasies became whole new seeds in themselves that took me in whole new directions and suggested possibilities that I’d never have looked at otherwise.
Which isn’t to say that I found it easy to admit to myself, even after coming out, just where some of my most vivid and powerful ideas were coming from…