It’s been a few weeks now since the last installment in my series of posts on ideas. And there’s a reason for that. I left off after my post on Blindsides, Gaps, and Spinoffs, a post in which I promised that the next time I wrote about ideas, I would tackle “The Quest,” the process of forcing new ideas when you have none for your next project.
So here I am, faced with writing that promised post. And the truth is, I have no earthly idea of where my ideas come from, much less how to force new ideas to enter my brain. As I said in the first post of this series, “Ideas are funny things. They come from everywhere. They come unbidden, and will absolutely refuse to come if I TRY to force them.” Given that I wrote that in part I, I really have some nerve promising a post about forcing ideas, don’t you think?
Is there a way to force those sparks that make us scribble down notes furiously on napkins or store receipts or the backs of our hands, the ones that keep us up half the night, staring at the ceiling, making connection after connection? To be honest, I don’t know. I find that the more I read, the more ideas I have: History books, magazine and newspaper articles (online or paper), non-fiction of any sort, really. Science and history shows on television can also lead me to new ideas. I almost always come up with book ideas when I travel (either within the U.S. or abroad) but not everyone can afford to travel a lot, so this is not really a pragmatic suggestion. The larger point though, is that anything that expands my awareness, that forces me to think in new ways, is likely to get me thinking about new story ideas. But I realize that’s not all that helpful. Either this has occurred to you already, or it’s something so idiosyncratic that it has little value. When it comes down to it, the initial sparks that I find so exciting are elusive, unpredictable. Pinning down the process by which they come to me is as difficult as capturing a butterfly in mid-flight.
And yet, I do believe that I can force myself to think creatively. Yes, I’m parsing a bit here, but bear with me. The initial spark of a book idea is, for me, a mysterious and wondrous thing. I’ve mentioned previously that the idea for the Thieftaker series originated with a footnote that I read in a history book. Prior to the moment I read that footnote, it had never occurred to me to write about thieftakers. But for some time, I had been thinking about a setting for a new series — urban, somewhat seedy and perilous, more modern than the quasi-medieval worlds I had used for my previous books. I created such a setting, and then later realized that I could find a similar ambiance in real-world Boston of the 1760s. But even before then, I saw that combining the thieftaker idea with the setting I had dreamed up gave me everything I needed to begin work on the series. I didn’t force the original spark — I don’t think I could have. But I forced the book idea by combining seemingly disparate threads of thought that had been winding through my mind for months, even years.
Thinking about it, I realize that I had similar experiences with the Forelands and Southlands series. The first inkling I had with the Forelands books came in 1997, when my wife and I traveled to Wales. We visited Caernarfon, Beaumaris, and Conwy Castles, and while climbing one of the towers at Caernarfon, I realized that I wanted to write a book about castles. This was very early in my career. Children of Amarid had just come out a few months earlier, and the LonTobyn series still had two volumes left to go. But I tucked that notion away in the back of my mind. Two years later, a spark of a different sort came to me and I pictured a scene that later found its way into Rules of Ascension, the first Forelands novel. This spark had nothing to do with castles, but that didn’t matter. My desire to write books about castle intrigue was still bouncing around in my brain. When I put the two notions together, I had my series.
With the Southlands books, I knew that I wanted to continue the story of two key characters from the Forelands series. And I knew as well that there was a narrative thread — the legend of the Mettai — that I had mentioned in Rules of Ascension but never really picked up on in the later volumes. When I put those characters together with the legend, I suddenly knew exactly what my new series would be about.
In the first post of this series, in a different context, I quoted Robert Frost: “An idea is a feat of association.” I can’t give you a proven technique for making the sparks come. You’re on your own with that. But I would imagine that every one of you already has plenty of what we might call, for lack of a better term, “idea scraps” floating around in your head. Some of your ideas might already have grown into book concepts; others might still be looking for a creative home. Maybe what you need to do is take two (or more) ideas that seemingly have nothing to do with each other, and put them together. Sometimes an idea really is greater than the sum of its parts. Each idea on its own might show little potential; but combine them and BOOM!
In other words, maybe the Quest doesn’t have anything to do with roaming the world (as fun as that can be) or with reading a book or watching something on the History Channel. Maybe the Quest begins and ends within our own imaginations. Maybe all it takes is a feat of association to turn a couple of random thoughts into storytelling treasure.
What about you? Do you currently have a couple of old ideas in mind that you can blend into something exciting and new?David B. Coe http://www.DavidBCoe.com http://www.dbjackson-author.com http://magicalwords.net
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