I'm talking to the Denver Area Science Fiction Association today (DASFA). Sometimes they invite speakers to their meetings who can chat about any topic that comes to mind. Connie Willis, for example, read to them from Wooster and Jeeves, Carol Berg read from a novel she was working on, while Wil McCarthy talked to them about science. So, I thought I'd talk about where ideas come from, and then read a short story.
I think one of the problems in discussing where ideas come from is that for many stories, the moment that the idea formed is easily lost. Sort of like a dream that you have that later you can't recall. Even when I'm just beginning a story, I have a hard time remembering exactly the train of thought that got me going.
So, I'm going to talk about why it's hard to pin down where ideas come from. I'm also going to point out that not only is the answer to the question, "where did the idea come from," unique to each writer, it can be unique to each story.
However, here are some provocation for stories that I've heard of or experienced:
- An urge to share an insight
- Anger (Connie Willis often says she writes because something pissed her off)
- Solving "what if" formulas, like a theoretical physicist
- An interest in social or human interactions
- A love of piling up language
- A need to use certain material (jokes, facts, etc.)
- A love of character, setting or situation
- For SF writers it can be because they feel a sense of wonder
- For dystopic SF writers, it may be because they feel a sense of dread
- Sometimes the smallest provocation can start a story: a snippet of conversation, a cartoon, reading a book jacket blurb, a clear memory, a single image, a song lyric (or just the feeling a song produces), poetry, an answer to a challenge (Bruce Holland Rogers wrote "The Dead Boy at Your Window" because his writing group did an exercise where they were supposed to start a story with a lie), an odd juxtaposition of observations, boredom, etc. In other words, just about anything.
- And here's something else about ideas: for me, I hardly ever get an idea full blown. What happens is that I finish a project (thinking it is the best thing I've ever done), and now a new day is here. I have to start something because I write every day. So, I'll start a story, believing that it will be an inconsequential piece, maybe a flash fiction, but as I go along the idea grows. Maybe I started with just an image or a snippet of a song, but as I wrote I had to consider why that image or song snippet impinged on my consciousness. Why is it significant? Before I know it, the idea has grown into something worth tangling with.
I think the main thing is that story writers get into the habit of thinking in story terms. Everything can become a potential story because they are used to thinking of the world as a hotbed of potential narrative.
I'll let you know how the talk goes.
P.S. As I was driving to the DASFA talk, it occurred to me that I forgot to mention Ken Rand's excellent book on ideas, From Idea to Story in 90 Seconds