A popular post from October 2009
by Annette Lyon
(with a bit by her daughter)
One of the most common questions writers get is this one:
Where do you get your ideas?
Most writers don't have much of a problem with this. We get ideas from everywhere.
For example, I had a character show up after I listened to a radio show. The entire concept of another book showed up after a brief conversation with my cop brother. Others appear after reading an article or a news story. The more I read, watch the news, pay attention to the world around me and ask, “What if?” the more ideas flow.
Granted, not all ideas are gems. Most aren’t, for that matter. But you need a constant flow of ideas, like a river, so that when the real gems float by, you can recognize them, grab hold, and hang onto them for all they’re worth.
My 12-year-old daughter was recently planning a lesson to teach to the writing club at the junior high. "Coming up with ideas" was her topic.
She had great notes, so I’m stealing them today, because what she planned for her lesson is applicable to all of us. And frankly, she had some awesome notes.
Earlier, I’d told her the genesis of a few books I knew about, and she wrote them into her notes, so they’re below as well. (I love how she refers to me by my full name one second and then as “my mom” the next.)
Coming up with ideas, by Lyon Child #2
All books have to start with an idea from some idea. Some of ideas that became published books:
Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card: He was driving up a canyon and imagined seeing fighter planes and wondered how would you teach pilots to fight in space when there is no up, no down, or side to side. All the rules of strategy would change. The book is much more than that, but that was the first idea.
House of Secrets by Jeffrey S. Savage. He read a column in a newspaper about the day a woman went to her grandmother’s house after she died. Jeff wondered what would happen if you went to your grandmother's house after many years and you found a dead body in the bedroom.
House on the Hill by Annette Lyon, was reading a book with a lot of historical articles and one was about Indians that would sell their children to get money so there were a bunch of Indian children raised by white families in Utah. So she knew that one of her characters in that book would be an adopted Indian.
Then my mom told me about walking through graveyards and reading the names and other stuff on them. She found a group of stones that were children who died within days of each other. One said that the child died from cholera, so Mom figured the others most likely died from it too.
Then I started thinking what if everyone in a town got cholera and died except for one person that was like 20 and lived by themselves for years and then got cholera too, and was freaking out because there were no more people living and the human race would be extinct.
Another story I thought of after talking to my mom about a gravestone and the inscription on it was that what if there were these four people in college two boys and two girls that hated each other and one of the boys and one of the girls got married and so did the other two. So when the first couple got older they had a girl and when she was twenty she really liked this boy and he came over and they really liked him and thought that he was really nice and his parents thought the same about the girl, but what they didn’t know is that the boys’ parents were their enemies from college. Then at their wedding they find out who his parents are.
One way to find ideas is to go somewhere that’s noisy with lots of people. You can just watch people walk by and imagine what their life might be like.
Or play the “what if” game. Like:
What if penguins could fly?
What if cars ran on lemonade instead of gas?
What if cats were the dominant species?
What if mice could fly?
What if Mother Nature were a real person?
What if house flies were really the size of a house?
What if pigs really could fly?
What if dolls could walk and talk?
What if pictures moved like in Harry Potter?
What if we lived in the 60s?
What if cows could talk?
What if everyone in the world had a super power?
What if socks went on your hands and gloves on your feet?
What if we lived in a time with no technology?
What if there were such thing as flying carpets?
What if we walked on our hands?
What if cows could type?
What if chickens could talk?
What if it was always raining?
What if pencils were earrings?
[End of lesson notes]
All of this came from about half an hour of my seventh-grade daughter typing away with my AlphaSmart Neo. Somehow I think if she can come up with this many ideas in that short of a period (even the soap opera love story one), the rest of us adults don’t have any excuses.
As you drive on your commute or while running errands, turn off the radio and mentally play the “what if” game and take each story as far as you can. My good friend J. Scott Savage has been known to take it so far as he lies in bed that he's plotted out entire trilogies before he falls asleep.
Eye people in the cars next to you and pretend they’re characters. Come up with reasons for where they’re going and why. Or ask yourself why they're driving that make and model of car and how do they feel about it. Make up additional conflicts. It’s great fun.
Now for a dare based on my daughter's notes:
This week, go to a mall, grocery store, or other crowded place and observe. I did this some time ago. I bought myself a few pieces of my favorite See’s candy and sat back on a bench at a busy mall.
I watched high-powered business men scurry by, mothers with huge strollers, senior citizens going on power walks, and more. I came up with stories and characters surrounding them. I sat there for a good half hour or more, letting my mind go wild, taking notes when I felt like it, letting myself daydream when I didn’t . . . and eating chocolate in between.
Best of all, when you do this kind of thing, remember to eavesdrop. That's one of the best ways to get great characterization and storyline ideas. Late-night grocery runs are fantastic for this. Check out this blog post for an example of a recorded late-night grocery trip that I laughed myself silly reading.
The bottom line is that coming up with ideas and filling your creative bucket aren’t so different from one another. Remember the artist child inside you needs fun. Make sure you take him or her out to play every so often.
Oh, and remember to take my daughter’s advice. She may be young, but she knows what she’s talking about.
(That may have something to do with the fact that she’s been living with a writer since, oh, birth.)