I have just been asked again that question that we authors often dread. Not because we have some deep dark industry secret that we don’t want to share, but because the question is so difficult to answer. If you’re an author you no doubt already know what that question is because you’ve been asked it yourself: “Where do you get your ideas?”
That’s like asking someone where they got the idea to stop at the store and grab the ingredients to make Chicken Cacciatore for supper. You may have gotten the idea from a discussion at work when someone mentioned they’d enjoyed the dish the previous evening. Or perhaps the recipe appeared in your email because you have a subscription to a recipe sharing site. Or the idea may simply have come to you out of the blue, leaving you not quite sure why you thought of it. In everyday life, we seldom question the source of our ideas enough to take note of where they are coming from.
Ideas are everywhere and nowhere. I can’t answer the question the same way I might if you asked me where I got the dress I’m wearing. Or the sandals I just purchased. I don’t find ideas at Neiman Marcus or in the bargain bin at Wal-Mart. Well, I guess I could, but the idea would be the result of something I saw in the bin.
So where do I get ideas? I’ve gotten ideas from television shows, newspaper articles, and newscasts. I’ve gotten ideas from dreams. And I’ve gotten ideas out of the blue with no conscious awareness of where they came from.
Perhaps what you are really wondering is how to recognize an idea for a story when it comes to you. And for some beginning authors that may be an issue. Here’s an example: Let’s say you are watching a particularly heart-wrenching episode of Law and Order. When the show is over and the perpetrator has been caught, you are still dwelling on the horror the victim has endured, bothered by it, and you ask yourself, “How does someone move on after something like that? How can they learn to live and trust again?”
Aha, you’ve got it, don’t you? Those questions are the kernel of an idea. You then develop the idea by asking yourself what-if questions. Some of them may seem ridiculous and some more realistic. It doesn’t matter at this point. Let yourself go. You may have to get through a number of outlandish scenarios before you arrive at the one that strikes you as a gem.
Still not following what I mean? Okay . . . let’s take the victim mentioned above and start developing her story.
What if the victim moves to another city where no one knows her and she doesn’t have to see pity in the eyes of people who know her every day? What if she takes training to join the police department in some capacity because she believes she’ll feel safer? Perhaps she takes self-defense training? But instead of becoming a police officer, is there something else she could do? Could she become a sketch artist? Maybe she’s already an artist of sorts in another capacity and this is a natural choice for her. Or perhaps she could train to use a computer program that generates likenesses from victim’s descriptions? What if she encounters her attacker again, through the eyes of another victim, when she sketches him? When further investigation reveals that the perp has either escaped or been released from prison, what does she do? He is, in all likelihood, now making her new home city his hunting grounds. Does she run? Or does she offer the police her particular inside knowledge of this perpetrator, dredging to the surface all the horrible memories she had hoped to escape? What if . . . well, you get the idea.
Story ideas are everywhere and nowhere. It’s just a matter of training yourself to recognize them and develop them. Keep your eyes open, look for them, write them down on a slip of paper until you have time to flesh them out. And most important of all, have fun.