Trying to Make Sense of Ideas


This weekend I attended RavenCon in Richmond, Virginia, as did Misty.  It was a fun con.  I had the chance to catch up with many of my friends in the industry who I don’t get to see very often, including not only Misty, but also writer and editor Edmund Schubert, who guest blogged here at MW a few months ago.  I was on a few panels, I signed some books, and I gave a couple of readings, one of my own work and another of “The Tell-Tale Heart.”  (The con commemorated the 200th anniversary of Edgar Allen Poe’s birth by naming him “Ghost of Honor” and having various guests give readings of his poems and stories.)

As always, the con energized me, which is good because during the course of the weekend I was asked to submit short stories to two anthologies and I also discussed a possible novel collaboration with a friend.  I gave a good deal of thought to the next novel in my new series and I started thinking once more about a possible non-fiction book idea that I’ve been kicking around for a while.  Faith has written before about how attending conventions or writing workshops can give a writer a creative kick in the pants.  It often does that for me; it certainly did this weekend.

The experience got me thinking about ideas and their origins.  I’m asked all the time where I get my ideas, and it’s a question I hate trying to answer — Faith has posted about this as well (she takes all the good ideas….).  The fact is, I have no clue as to where I get my ideas.  Sometimes they simply come to me.  Robert Frost once said “An idea is a feat of association,” and it’s true.  I’ll think of something or ask myself a “What if…?” question, which will prompt another thought, and then another, and the next thing I know I have four books outlined in my head.  It’s not something I plan; it’s not something I can explain; and it’s certainly not something I can force.

There was a time, though, when I feared that I might run out of ideas, that I might finish one book or set of books, and realize that my well had run dry, that there was nothing left.  No more ideas.  No more stories.  No more characters.  Time to learn accounting….

I’ve come to realize that this is never going to happen.  My fear now is that I won’t get to explore all my ideas.  I have so many story ideas these days, so many books or series that I want to write, and I just don’t know when I’m going to write them all or how I’ll get them all contracted.  One of my friends at the con came to me with an anthology idea and though I’d never considered writing a story dealing with the anthology’s theme, I had a story idea literally within seconds of her pitch.  When someone else asked me about writing for the second anthology that I mentioned before, I knew that I wanted to be a part of it because the theme was related to my new series.  I don’t have a story idea for this one yet, but I know — I know — that a story will come to me.  That’s kind of a cool feeling.  I have ideas for at least three more books in the new series I’ve started.  I have an idea for another series and yet another for a stand alone novel.  And then there’s the collaboration I mentioned.

I feel like my imagination is on fire right now, and I’m not sure why that is.  I have theories, though.  As I said before, I can’t really explain where my ideas come from, but I’m sure that they’re rooted in my life experiences.  That’s not an earth-shattering statement, I realize.  But that doesn’t make it any less true.  On the one hand, this is a tumultuous time in my life.  My kids are emerging from the calm of early childhood and stepping into their teen and tween years respectively.  We have had a fairly dramatic year in our little town, with many (too many) tragedies and dramas, most of them involving friends.  In an artistic sense I’m still processing the experience of having lived abroad (in Australia) for a year.  But on the other hand this is also a time of great stability and contentment in my life.  I’m happier than I can ever remember being.  My career isn’t exactly where I’d like it to be, but I’m doing all right.  I love my family, and I feel more comfortable in my own skin than I ever have.

I believe that this odd combination of tumult and stability explains where all these ideas are coming from.  On the one hand, there is plenty of creative fodder all around me.  There are enough things happening in my life and in the lives of those I know and love to keep me thinking and asking “What if…?” for a good long time.  But on the other hand (and this, I think, is key) I have enough calm in my personal life to be able to turn my attention to those questions and sources of inspiration.  Several years back, when I lost both my parents in the span of 14 months, I could barely bring myself to write at all.  Grief sucked the energy right out of me.  Had I been able to turn those experiences into art I probably would have had an easier time of it, but I couldn’t.  I was hurting too much to write.  And so maybe an additional element in what I’m experiencing now is that I’m finally far enough away from the pain to turn those experiences into grist for the creative mill as well.

I’m not sure I’m making myself clear, and I’m not sure that what I’m writing is very helpful to any of you who are reading this.  Ideas come from within, obviously.  They also come from our interactions with the outside world.  That’s obvious, too.  And maybe the secret to being able to draw on both sources of ideas is finding the emotional balance between experience and contentment, between chaos and calm, between pain and healing.  I have no secret to finding writing ideas.  I don’t know how to make them come to me on demand, so I can’t tell you how to do it.  In many ways, inspiration might be the most idiosyncratic aspect of the writing process.   But for me at least, writing ideas are more likely to come when I’m at ease, when my mind can focus on creativity rather than on grief or anxiety or anger. 

Sadly, I have no secret for imparting emotional tranquility, either.  I happen to be in a good place right now, and my creative juices are flowing.  (I’m knocking on wood for about the eighth time since starting this post.)  Perhaps the point I’m getting at is that if you feel that the ideas aren’t flowing right now, it may be that your emotional energy is concentrated elsewhere.  And that may be how it has to be.  Life creates its own imperatives.  This might not be your time for creative exploration.  That doesn’t mean that the ideas won’t come eventually, or that you won’t find a way sometime in the future to turn your current life issues into story ideas.  Sometimes creativity requires patience.  This doesn’t mean that you should stop writing; far from it.  Journals, blogs, political writing, poems, character studies, worldbuilding histories.  There’s a ton of stuff you can write while you wait for your muse to return.  And when the ideas begin to flow again, you’ll be ready.

David B. Coe

16 comments to Trying to Make Sense of Ideas

  • QUOTE>>There’s a ton of stuff you can write while you wait for your muse to return.<<QUOTE

    If you are Faith, are you sure that you want your muse to return? *haha*

    Great post David, but you are making all of us Coe-philes drool with your story teases.

    I find that my story ideas strike me at the most odd times. I’d be sitting there during a Titan’s football game and a story idea would strike me. I wish I had a pen or pencil or something, but alas I don’t. Plus the people would look at me funny I think.

    I have started a word pad file just for “Story Ideas” so I can write them down as they come. Then I can return to them later if they still interest me.

    What do you all think of the many Random Story Generators (i.e. – Seventh Sanctum) on the Net? Are they an avenue that sparks any stories for anyone?

  • Sometimes creativity requires patience.

    So true.

    Great post, David – and it was great to see you!

  • Having a notebook or pad for story inspiration is a great idea, Mark. I’ve written before that I never travel without a notebook and it’s for just that reason. Like you, I never know when an idea is going to come to me, so I always want to be prepared. I’ve never really played with a Random Story Generator, so I don’t know what to think of them. As I say in the post, I currently have no shortage of story ideas, so I can’t see myself trying one. I also have to say that I find reading newspapers and magazines or even sitting in a mall food court and watching people to be a great, if low-tech, way of finding new story ideas.

  • I got an idea for a short story after watching a South Park episode…

    I always wish for some sort of portable dictation machine when I’m out and I get a sudden idea that I need to get down. It always seems to happen when I don’t have access to a pen and paper.

    I’ve never used a story generator, but I have thought about using something in the back of an RPG book (Odyssey Prime) that’s a random alternate world generator, which could be a fun exercise, trying to make a short story with the results you get. For example:

    Genre: Post-Apocalyptic
    Cultural Feature: African
    Hook/Twist: Habitat (i.e. where they live being much different than usual, special domes, underground dwellings, etc).

    There are some friends online I know that used to do a contest on their site where they gave each person 5 words and you have to incorporate at least three of them into an adventure scenario plot in some way. It was for gaming, but could work just as easy for a story exercise to spark ideas.

    My words were: Lament, Lottery, Criminal, Wrestling, Lizard. The adventure ended up being about a group of convicts who “win” a lottery to go to a planet on the edge of explored space to find a ship that crashed there and retrieve a hard drive from the ship’s computer. If they do they are promised that their sentence will be commuted and they’ll be released with a small deep-space cryo-fitted vessel to go anywhere that’s not in the Core. The inhabitants on the planet are lizard-like humanoids who delight in unarmed hand to hand combat and wrestling to the death in their arenas. The ship they needed to find was called Courser’s Lament.

    It was fun to see what you can come up with using just 5 words.

  • Great stuff, Daniel! I like the idea of using such idea-generating exercises for writing workshops and such. There’s a definitely a place and use for such things, and in many ways this is what themed anthologies are about. But I wouldn’t want to base one of my novels on something like that. Al novel idea is something I live with for a really long time, and for me it has to come from within.

  • Very nice post, David. I suppose my ideas come from all sorts of places. It can be an element of a tv show, something someone says in passing, another book I’ve read, or etc., etc. I’ve got several novel ideas floating around in my story file. One is from a song, another was from pondering time-travel, and one I’ve currently started which came from a dream I had about a year ago. It was just a somewhat surreal and disturbing image and a name, but I knew it had story written all over it. So, I made note of it and it has percolated in my head off and on over the past year. A first attempt at developing a story around it failed, but the second idea has seemed to stick, and now I’m fleshing that out to see what happens. In short, I guess one just needs to be open and aware at all times to the input we receive, because the ideas are always there for the taking.

  • QUOTE: But I wouldn’t want to base one of my novels on something like that. A novel idea is something I live with for a really long time, and for me it has to come from within.

    True, same here for me, but you never know what can come out of what you thought was just going to be a simple short story or writing experiment that suddenly turns into a monster. 😉

    Might be good for anyone to try who’s well has run dry, so to speak.

  • Thanks, Jim. As you say, ideas can come from anywhere — they can’t be forced, but neither can they be stopped. It seems to me that once an idea strikes me, if it’s a good one, it takes on a life of its own. It builds and builds and after a while I have no choice but to write it.

    And Daniel, you’re right: for some people such an exercise might be exactly what they need to get going on a book. As we’re fond of saying here, there is no absolute answer to any of these questions. Just because it wouldn’t work for me doesn’t mean it can’t work for other people.

  • My plotbunnies lurk in historical sites and history books for the most. Somehow I seem to need some sort of anchor in history, even in my Fantasy world. I’ve played with other ideas and genres during my experimental phase in 2003/04, but the ideas that stuck were all connected with history, specifically ancient Rome and the Middle Ages.

    Only lately I have also realised that I need to know a place in order to write about it – not always a specific location but some place that gives me a feel for the setting (somewhere in the Harz, or along the Scottish westcoast, fe.) It’s the reason my Visigoth novel never really took shape, as interesting as the history is.

    The way those ideas come? Well, it can be something like, ‘the Varus battle would make a great centre conflict for a novel,’ after visiting the battle site at Kalkriese – I invented some MC characters only to have the historical Arminius totally steal the book (A LAND UNCONQUERED. Or that character I ‘met’ while hiking in the Harz, dressed in Germanic clothes, accompanied by a large dog or tame wolf, and I knew he was an outlaw, though innocent of the murder he was accused of. He has now found a home in a planned novel NEVER TO RETRUN, together with the female Roman physician I found in a museum in Stuttgart. Or a combination of an event (battle of Mons Graupius) and a character, a Roman officer who learns that his father, also having been stationed in Britannia, fell in love with a tribal woman, and the son now his heir to the tribal chieftainship – makes for some good internal conflicts for Horatius Aquila, not to mention the war going on, a mutiny of the auxiliary troops and other fun (EAGLE OF THE SEA).

    Or a What If – the sunken realms of Ker Ys, the Welsh Cantre’r Gwaelod or Vineta in the Baltic Sea had really existed, and had been centres of magic? That one led to a complete rehaul of the crappy first attempt novel KINGS AND REBELS, the magic stones and the Keepers. That monster is busy developing into a series.

    Further plotbunnies need to wait their turn. 🙂

  • I seem to get a lot of really great ideas from the newspaper. Not the front page, but the little short blurbs they tuck away on page four or five. For example, there was a story a while ago about a woman who was murdered in front of her toddler son. When the police arrived, the child told them Mommy had gone away in the carpet. What really happened was that the murderer rolled her body into a rug to dispose of it, but the idea of the mother vanishing into the carpet was just too interesting.
    Another time (during my Lovecraftian phase) I ran across a story about some Buddhist monks in Arizona who’d been found vut to pieces inside their temple. It ended up being a gang thing, but at the time, all I could imagine was them being killed because they’d tried to raise the wrong elder god…..

  • David, accountant? Never in a kilt.

    Mark, my muse is in a snit. LOL.

  • Yeah, for mention of Odyssey Prime, Dan! I think that would be a great use for it, and I loved your adventure example.

    David, great post. I needed that. I dealt with the loss of parents a few years ago now, and it affected my writing. I think my ideas aren’t flowing as well now because of dealing wtih a move that seems never ending. I’m writing some again, but I’m still not back where I used to be before all the uprooting. I think I’ll get there soon, though. Until then, I’m just plugging away where I can.

  • QUOTE: the child told them Mommy had gone away in the carpet. What really happened was that the murderer rolled her body into a rug to dispose of it, but the idea of the mother vanishing into the carpet was just too interesting.

    Sounds vaguely like it could be a scenario in the Little Fears RPG as well.

    QUOTE: Yeah, for mention of Odyssey Prime, Dan!

    Hey, it’s one of my favorites. 🙂

  • History is a great source for plot ideas, Gabriele, and also for worldbuilding. George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series is based loosely on the story of the War of the Roses (or is it the Hundred Years War…?). Guy Kay uses historical sources all the time. It’s an incredibly rich area to search for ideas.

    Misty, I remember that story about the young boy and his mom! Freaky and disturbing, but yes, also thought-provoking. I agree: newspapers are another great source.

    [Waves to Faith, who is clearly enjoying her time off!]

    Christina, I’m glad to know that you found the post useful. Writing through my grief might have been the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my professional life. And writing through the building of our house and the subsequent move was probably a close second. You’ll get back in that groove eventually.

  • mikaela

    I get my ideas from everywhere TV, books, paintings. What I love is when cool nuggets combine, and suddenly gets useful.
    I experienced that recently, I have an idea about a Monster hunting society in ancient greece. It combined with another cool idea, namely that were-creatures was created when Circe’s spell broke. Let’s just say that there are some tension between mages and the werecreatures. That’s historical fantasy, but yesterday I read something that turned it into pure fantasy. If two magical races are mentioned, that are new to me, how can I not use them?
    As if that’s not enough, another idea did the same thing this morning…

  • Yes, Mikaela! When ideas mesh together (that “feat of association” Frost talks about) it’s truly magical. To me it feels like the story or book is outlining itself before my eyes. Thanks for the comment!