Where do you get YOUR ideas?by Mary Verdier
Have you ever been to a writers’ conference or author reading, or read an interview with an author where at least one person didn’t ask this question? Authors are patient and accommodating and will almost always answer this question. After all, they want you to buy their books. Often, seasoned writers want to help newer writers as an act of kindness. You have heard their answers, which tend to be fairly similar: “An idea just pops into my head” or “Many ideas come from what I’m writing about in my journal.”
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never really been satisfied with these answers. Perhaps I just become frustrated with the question itself. It seems obvious to me where other writers get their ideas. Ideas come from noticing things – and thinking about them. Writers are curious. Unfortunately for me, I’m the writer who jots ideas on stickie notes, and then loses the notes. I wouldn’t recommend such a process for you.
Nonfiction writers have it easier in some ways. They already have a topic, an idea. Still, they have to do research. I did enough research when I was practicing law. No, I wanted to write something without footnotes. That means fiction, or as I like to call it, “writing lies for fun and profit.” But where do those lies come from?
I have had lots of ideas, yet only one novel. Life kept getting in the way of the writing, and many of those ideas were on those lost stickie notes or never made it past the first couple chapters. Perhaps you’ve had similar experiences. But my first novel did make it in the world, even though it took years to complete. Here’s where I was when I got the idea for that novel; you will probably see how very ordinary the idea was. I’ll bet you’ve had tons of ideas in this location yourself. Maybe you think such a simple thought couldn’t be interesting enough for a whole novel. But it was, and it turned into a book. Your ideas can, too.
I was sitting on an airplane, flying from Phoenix to Boston. I could have written about how unlucky I was to be in that middle seat, because I was thinking about that. I was also thinking about how cold it was in Boston. Pretty mundane stuff. But then I noticed a beautiful young lady with a little kid sitting a couple rows ahead of me. I began wondering about them. Was she his mother? His aunt? Big sister? They didn’t seem to be engaged in conversation, nor did they seem to like each other much. But I’d seen them board together. Now I was curious.
So I started making up stories about them and ended up with an idea to write about a woman lawyer who got stuck caring for a kid, when all she wanted to do was live her life of luxury and date lots of guys. In my story, all that changed. No more parties, sex, or fancy dinners for her. Then my mind drifted to a few articles I’d read about sociopaths, because I’d recently been court-appointed to represent a sociopath in a criminal case. He was my client, but I couldn’t stand him. Did the woman in my emerging story have something to do with a sociopath? He ended up in my story, too.
My first novel, Are We Home Yet?, came from those random thoughts on an airplane. I won’t admit how long it took to write the book, but I was practicing law full time and wrote the novel when I could squeeze in a few moments around my busy career. It took years to write.
So ideas come from being bored, which I was on that plane, or from being in places where lots of people gather. You can eavesdrop on conversations in cafes, hang around the metro station, watch kids on a college campus, or read news stories on the Internet. You can write about your girlfriend who is having an affair. Remember, you get to make things up. You are creating stories. They don’t have to be true, or even realistic. Many people write about witches and angels and vampires.
What is your occupation? Receptionist? Insurance sales person? Teacher? Doctor? Think about how many stories you tell your significant other when you get home from work. Those are treasures! Write them down. Then expand them, lie about them, again and again, scene by scene, until you have a novel.
Write about what you like. Write about sex or hiking or book clubs. Write about what you don’t like: airports, dentists, criminals, homelessness, child abuse. Read a lot, because if you are a reader, you’ve probably read hundreds of stories. Change them around and make them your own. That’s why readers make good writers: they know how to borrow and adapt.
I’ve barely touched the surface, but for me, ideas are the easy part. Just being alive gives you ideas. Pay attention. Don’t just write your ideas on stickie notes; write them in a notebook. Watch people and write character studies. Give your nice character a few nasty traits. Have your nasty character do something nice. Describe the man in the wheelchair in downtown Phoenix begging for money. Is he a vet? Where is his family? What happened to him? He has a story. Write it.
Mary Verdier is a retired attorney with an MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley College. Her novel, Are We Home Yet?, will be available online by mid-December. Purchase the paperback version of Mary’s novel now for $10 by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 602-403-0100.