Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Where Does the Idea Come From?

I want to remind animal lovers out there to go see the zebras and other animals at the D.C. zoo on Olivia Ambrogio's incredible blog. Here commentary is a treat too.


I'm always interested in the evolution of an idea for a story.
With me it is almost never from my life-but from more amorphous sources-an image I see, a sentence I overhear, something I read.

Ursula Le Guin, writing about her story "The Ones Who Walk Away from the Omelas" says that she originally credited Henry James with giving her the idea about writing about a "lost soul" until she was finally reminded it was Dostoevsky's idea before James.

She goes on to say that she, of course, didn't read James and immediately sit down and say, "Now I'll write a story about a lost soul. It seldom works that way." The only thing she had in mind was the word Omelas, which turned out to be a road sign read backwards. Salem, Oregon. Or Salem O.

"Where do you get your ideas from Ms. Le Guin?" From forgetting Dostoevsky and reading signs backwards, she says.

Where do you get your ideas from, Writers? In the story I've just finished, I got my idea from wondering about what the life of a well-known fictional character circa 1975 might be like today. It's not fanfic, but it is post- modern, I guess. I hope there's a difference. Where did your last story idea come from?

25 comments:

Cullen Gallagher said...

Sometimes I start with an idea that I think is so far removed from my own life, but then the more I think about it the more connections I find--even though they weren't intended.

Richard Prosch said...

Often from brief encounters with strangers. A stray word, an odd look, something out-of-the-ordinary and you begin to wonder and tweak the reality almost like a painter...

John McFetridge said...

Whenever this comes up I usually quote Francis Ford Coppola who sid that the idea is the question and (in his case) make the movie to try and find the answer. So, in my case I write the book to try and find the answer.

For my first novel the question was, "Why do some people see opportunity in everything and others (like me) never see an opportunity anywhere?"

I suppose philosphically I have pretty simple questions that could be answered a lot easier but I'm a little slow ;)

I like the idea of imagining what the character from '75 is like today - that's a good question to try and answer in a story, I think.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Yes, strangers and people different from ourselves are fun to think and write about. One story was based on a elderly man standing with a small boy on a street corner as my bus went by. They didn't have the intimacy you'd expect but I thought he was too old to be a kidnapper.
Finding the answer is key to a good story. Or the "not finding it" can be just as good.

Anonymous said...

I only wish I had the ability you authors have to take some of the things I see and turn them into fiction. Anyone I've told the many tales of my family say it would make a great book (probably a series of books!) but my mind doesn't work that way, sadly.

I give you all the credit in the world because my talents (such as they are) are totally in the non-fiction world.

Jeff M.

Margot Kinberg said...

Patti - As always, what an interesting question! My ideas almost always start with something I see or hear. I don't write about real people - people I know - but sometimes I will hear a song or see a stranger doing something and that triggers an idea. The other source for me is good conversation with other people. I love "what if" conversations; they sometimes really inspire me.

pattinase (abbott) said...

My husband says the same thing when I marvel at the family stories he tells me. If you can tell the story, you can write it, I tell him, but it justn't isn't his thing. And sometime I think there are too many of us doing it anyway. Computers and the Internet has set a lot of people loose.

Loren Eaton said...

Mine usually come from themes I want to address.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Now that is something I have never done, Loren. I always start out with a character and see where he/she takes me.
I don't think I could write from the outside in like that. Interesting to try it.

Charles Gramlich said...

In the collection "Bitter Steel," I actually included a section about the stories and poems and about the genesis of the ideas and where the story came from. I always like to read that about stories and books too and see it too infrequently. But maybe it's a writer thing. Maybe readers don't care.

Richard R. said...

My wife loves to make up stories about things she sees, usually people or situations: why have the neighbors parked their cars on the street and put their sofa and TV in the garage? Why is that man standing stock-still in the market parking lot holding a gallon if ice cream? What is up with the man coming out of Costco with two dozen 48-count boxes of Snickers bars, and nothing else? You get the idea. She makes up a story, I try to think of an alternative one. Neither of us can write a lick...

pattinase (abbott) said...

My husband thinks that kind of wondering which I do is all rhetorical questions. He notices plants when we walk, I notice that sofa with the strange stain. And my neighbor keeps a bed in her garage and her car on the street. I guess it must be because she can't keep the bed outside. I'd buy her a new bed when she needed one to get one of their three cars off the street.

K. A. Laity said...

Ideas come from everywhere: a song you get stuck in your head and want to get out, an offhand remark -- especially one initially misunderstood, a story you read and thought something important was missing, a person glimpsed from a distance who has something peculiar with them -- anywhere.

The novel I'm about to send off started the day Kurt Vonnegut died, with my thought, "now I'll never have another new Vonnegut novel to read." I wouldn't say that I created that, but something funny and sad and ultimately hopeful about people who find they might have something worthwhile to give, despite all their assumptions to the contrary.

And it doesn't have a hard to spell name, LOL, unlike most of my books. I learn, slowly perhaps, but I learn.

Kieran Shea said...

Wait, don't you have a magical leprechaun you keep in a ventilated jar beneath the sink? I thought all writers did. Or maybe that's just me.

Seriously though, a lot of my writing comes from walking around and saying, what if?

pattinase (abbott) said...

I am more likely to say why.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Titles are really hard for me. Not just to spell but to come up with. I feel like I need to summarize my meaning with the title.

Dorte H said...

Hm. The Danish manuscript I edited this summer began with a dream (sheer idyl until it turned into a nightmare).

But my current cosy mystery? I don´t know, really. I recycled Constable Primrose who was created for a Christmas story last year (though he was called Prewitt then), decided he needed an enterprising fiancé called Rhapsody, and then the plot sort of materialized within 48 hours.

But the only connection with my own life is probably that they are a bunch of country bumpkins, and that Rhapsody has a few things in common with me.

Olivia V. Ambrogio said...

One of my favorite stories came about because I envisioned it as the story written by a character in a doomed-to-be-unfinished novel of mine. Sometimes, as with my story "The Mushroom Incident," I just get an idea for a first line ("Giant mushrooms fell from the ceiling and landed gently on the rug") and go from there. The novel I'm currently working on was inspired by a Klimt painting I saw reproduced in a calendar we had when I was in high school.

(PS - thanks for the kind words about my blog, Patti! Wish you could visit the zoo with me more often.)

Dana King said...

Mine come from a variety of places. Usually I can't even tell myself where the germ started.

My most recent is different. I saw THE AMERICAN a couple of weeks ago, and liked it a lot, even though there aren't really people who lead glamorous and expensive lives who make their living as full-time assassins. So I wrote a story about a workaday hit man. His regular job is muscle, but he does one or two hits a year for extra cash. This one is to pay off the new bathroom his wife's been nagging about.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Nice juxtaposition of the mundane with the extreme.

pattinase (abbott) said...

It's a great blog, Olivia. Yes, when that first line comes into your head, it's hard to resist it. Even when you have no idea what it means.

Erik Donald France said...

A cross between serendipity and synchonicity, I'm guessing. The Muse. Sometimes I'll get an idea (fiction, nonfiction, poetry -- doesn't matter) and make a note of it, forget about it, remember it later and pick up the thread. Something brings it up again. Again, the Muse. Amusement. Music. Who knows?

Paul D. Brazill said...

Confluence, maybe. I usually have some real life situation and take it a bit further for entertainment's sake.

Charlieopera said...

A line of dialogue I hear in my head, then comes the response dialogue, then the visualization and then the novel. The one I remember most clearly is from Cheapskates. I heard "They nothin' but cheapskates." in my head and wrote the book around it (it doesn't start the book).

Likewise, I used part of a line from my first novel (Eddie's World) to give a title to the follow-up (Jimmy Bench-Press).

pattinase (abbott) said...

Yes, overheard comments are very evocative. I can already see that with my three year old grandson. He latches on lines.