“Where do you get your ideas?”
“What’s going on inside that head of yours?”
“Have you considered getting therapy?”
Time to answer at least the first question, which in turn might give up some insights into the second. No comment on the third.
“Where do you get your ideas?” is a question every published writer hears at least once. The more we get published, the more we hear it. The question can be asked, but can it actually be answered?
Of course. I can answer it for me, quite easily. But that’s not the question that’s really being asked. What’s really being asked is “Where can I get ideas like yours?”. Read that, too, as “Teach me to find ideas the way you do. Please and thank you.”
I can’t. Sorry. I can only tell you what I do, how I go about it all, and then you have to extrapolate the tidbits that fit your personality, your way of thinking and doing.I know for a fact that sometimes the way I think totally escapes the understanding of some people, and by ‘some people’, I mean my wife, Sue.
So, what do I do?
Well, I’m a big fan of “What If?” I see something: an object, a scene, a person, a word… and I ask myself, “what if…?” I once saw a Schnauser (dog) having its way with a Siamese (cat). I asked myself what their offspring be? (The answer became a short-lived, very off-colour joke in my comedy routine. Someday it may make it into one of my stories, but not yet.
Next: a man with MS moved slowly along the sidewalk, every step taking effort and concentration. My father had MS but his symptoms never manifested themselves like this stranger’s did so I asked myself “What if… I inherited MS from my father and it didn’t show up until now, when I’m in my fifties?” Then I asked “What if I wrote about a hero with late-onset MS who not only had to deal with this new illness but still save the world?”
Working cover for unpublished novel.
Then I asked “What if, when this hero died, when he failed at the task he was given, thousands of others died, too?” And I finally asked myself “What is the task that this MS-dealing, fifty-year-old hero is given that is so damned important to mankind?” The answer became my as-yet-unpublished novel, The Broken Shield.
“What if…?” should also lead you to opposites, and just so we’re clear, “What if…?” can also be “Who would…?” “Where would…?” “When would…?” “Why would…?” or “How could…?”. Write the answer to your first ‘What if…?” in the middle of a piece of paper. Let’s start with “Who would drive a vehicle off a bridge?” Write some possible answers: a parent, a police officer, a motorcyclist, a cab driver, a bus driver. Ooo… a bus driver.
Now I ask “What if it was a bus driver and everyone on the bus dies?” Answers might include “he burns in Hell”, “he becomes a ghost”, “he’s a hero”, “he’s brought back to life and suffers hauntings at the ghostly hands of his victims”. Hmmm… interesting choices. Let’s pick the oddest one, the hardest one to imagine… he kills everyone and he’s seen as a hero.
A hero? A bus driver kills all his passengers and he’s a hero? Bullsh*t. Can’t make it work. No? “What if the passengers were all pedophiles?” Nope, it’s still murder even if it’s what they deserve, and rest assured that not everyone will agree that this is the meaning of justice. Some say that justice belongs only in the hands of the courts or God, and many say not even the courts have the right to judge.
“What if they were aliens?” Nope. Even ET has rights. Okay, but we’re on to something here. “What if they’re not human?” Aliens are out, at least without rewriting “Alien” and it’s many sequels. Veloceraptors might work, but it’s just a re-imagining of a Jurassic Park-type tale. “What if they were…. demons!” Of course! No one sympathizes with demons. Well, almost no one. But reviewers are highly unlikely to vilify you for destroying demons, are they?
Okay, so far we’ve got a bus driver who drives his bus off a bridge and kills all his demonic passengers. Interesting idea. Now, “Why are they on the bus?” “What about the rest of the passengers?” “Where are they?” “Where are they going?” “Are they disguised?” “How does he know they’re demons?”
Answering these questions leads us to things like: “they’re on the way to a convention”, “they’re the only passengers” Why? “Because they hired the bus and the driver.” “They’re going to feed on souls.” Souls? “The souls of children.” Where? “In a school.” (Boring!) “In an orphanage” (A bit better). Wait… orphans? That’s an interesting direction. Let’s explore it a bit more. No one will miss orphans so they’re perfect targets for demons. But won’t an empty orphanage raise questions? Not if the orphans are outside the system. Maybe they’re… victims of a disaster.
And that’s where my short story “Shut Up & Drive“ came from. I asked “What if…?” and “How could…?” and I ended up with a story of Juan, a bus driver who is hired to drive a load of disguised demons into earthquake-ravaged Chile so they can feed on the souls of children orphaned by the disaster. Juan can see them because he once died in a plane crash that killed his own family, but he was revived and can now see and hear things the rest of us can’t. You might be able to guess how the story ends, but when you started reading this article did you think a bus driver who kills his passengers could be seen as a hero? Read “Shut Up & Drive” when it comes out in the disaster-relief fundraising horror disaster anthology from HorrorAddicts.net this fall.
“What if…?” Hard to ask, harder to answer, but well worth the pain.
Don’t be afraid to ask yourself the tough questions. “What if my hero was not just a crime scene investigator, but a serial killer as well?” His name would be Dexter and he’d have a TV show.
“I’m a man but what if my hero was a woman?” Or vice versa, obviously.
“What if my hero was a gay woman?” “A transgender person?” “A trans-species person?” (formerly a chimp or an alligator?)
“What if my hero travels in time but gets stuck? Stuck in other peoples’ bodies and times?” Sounds like Quantum Leap to me.
Don’t forget the little questions, too. “What if my hero is a slob?” “What if he never washes dishes and just uses paper plates?” “What if he only gets take-out?” “What if he is a crime scene cleaner who gets paid an obscene amount of money but can’t stand the smell of PineSol so he never cleans at home?” The little questions can lead to big ones or just small, character-defining ones.
Sometimes an idea pops into the head fully-formed and ready to write. I have a novel that came to me in a dream, but it was only 80% formed. The other 20% came from asking questions like “Who is this famous ghost?” “Where would my hero run away to?” “Who would he run away from?” “How did they fall in love?” “How can I make this story different from the movie Ghost?”, and then sifting through the long list of answers.
For this whole process to work, you must overcome fear. Fear? Fear of an idea sounding stupid. (No one wants to read about a photographer who snaps pictures of covered bridges in Madison County!) Fear of facing your fears. Fear that you’re a bad person if you come up with a strange, dark, twisted idea that makes readers scream and run for cover. (I can’t write about a killer clown/demon/thingy… people will think I’m strange and broken and need help!)
So, look at the world around you and ask “What if…?” What if my Yorkshire Terrier was the size of a black bear? What if my cat could speak fluent French but I only spoke a little? What if the clock I got from my mother-in-law only ran backwards when she was visiting? What if I really want to be a writer but I don’t know where to get ideas?
That’s how I do it. I look and see and ask. I drive around the city and let things seep into my brain. Sometimes the fun even comes from misinterpretation. My eyes saw a sign for ProStar Cleaners. The first time past my brain read “Prostate Cleaners”. Oooh! Gross! The second time it read “PornStar Cleaners”. Now THAT has some story potential.
Have fun, let your imagination off its leash and see where it runs to. If it runs too far, don’t worry, it’ll always run home again, eventually, and you’ll get a kick out of the stuff that it’s dragged home when it barks at your door. Is that a dinosaur bone Titan is chewing on? Cool…
That’s it, that’s all. Go imagine something cool. You have it in you to do it, I know you do.
Ciao for now.