How I get my story ideas

At Capclave, Bud Sparhawk said that he’d been asked “Where do you get ideas?” on a past panel.  He jokingly said that he paid a guy $5 a week and was sent a postcard with an idea on it.  Three writers came up afterward to ask him for the idea guy address!

From the outside, ideas look like this really hard thing.  When I was working on my first novel, I was desperate.  The novel was not working (I was hitting the 1/3 point and didn’t understand why I couldn’t get past it), and yet I couldn’t abandon the story because I didn’t have any other ideas.

At the time, I believed that an idea had to turn into a whole story, so I was looking for something that suggested an entire story — and nothing lived up to it.  As a result, ideas always seemed to be a struggle for me.  Yet, I’d always said that an idea was a starting point for a story, or just a seed. Sometimes I don’t even listen to myself!

Pretty much, I had to stop trying so hard to come up with great ideas and just come up with ideas.  If I’m starting out with a theme, like for an anthology call, I first think of all the things that everyone else will come up with for the theme.  We’ll make one up:  Toys.  That’ll probably get a lot of Christmas stories, toys coming to life, toys being magical, evil killer toys.  Anything that might be one of those I toss aside because what I write will be just like what everyone else is doing.  Then I start thinking about what I can do with what’s left.

Getting there is different for each story.  I’ve started with a theme and a character and NO idea until I started writing, and another I’m working on now that’s come from doing Google fu on the theme subject.  I just have to think “What can I do with this?”  Some ideas don’t go anywhere or need more seasoning.

A few of where the ideas came from:

Fantasy Short Story:  This one’s in submission now.  I had gone to a 911 ceremony at work, and there were these two candles sitting out on a table on the stage.  I imagined the candles burning in a window, a signal to troops that it was time to attack.  The story that I wrote ended up with no candles and no signal of troops.

Science Fiction Novel: I took a workshop on Think Like a Science Fiction Writer (worth it if you want to write science fiction and think you don’t have the science background).  During the workshop, it hit me that I’ve always liked undersea.  When I was in grade school, Sea Hunt was airing on TV, and I watched the adventures of Mike Nelson every day and drew pictures of scuba divers.  Then it was Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and Primus and the new version of Sea Hunt with Ron Ely.  I also lived in California and enjoyed oceanography in college.  Why not an undersea station?  Research will be next to continue developing this one.

Mystery Novel/Romance Novel: These ideas both came off a curtain.  The curtain was in an auditorium, dark blue with gold stars.  I went up to touch it, and it was soft, but not naturally soft.  I thought about it for a while:  Twilight.  Then:  What’s the emotion associated with twlight?  I was surprised when it turned into two different ideas, based on what the genre was.  The part about connecting the object to an emotion that it reminded me of was so powerful, I will have to try that one again.

I think it’s hard because the prospect of writing a story or novel can seem so daunting.  It always seems like there’s a magic in it, and the magic seems like it comes from the just the right idea or just the perfect idea.  That kind of leaves the writer out of the equation, and the writer is that magic.