Monday, April 19, 2010

The Origin of Ideas

by Jane K. Cleland

Where do ideas come from? Do they come to you fully developed or do they start as a tiny kernel and grow? Different authors take different approaches.

For instance, Ellen Hart says, “I write to a title—it always comes first. The title helps me think my way into the story thematically.” She explains that for an idea to translate into a novel-worthy plot, it has to resonate with her. “It seems that if the story doesn't bubble up from inside me, from my own interests and passions, it doesn't take hold.”

Louise Ure also writes the title first, and uses it to inspire her novel. “I only get one idea per year,” she says. “For me, everything starts with a title ... those strange collections of overheard words that twist in my mind. Forcing Amaryllis was a gardening tag that blossomed into a story of rape. The Fault Tree was part of the radio announcement about the Challenger spacecraft disaster that turned into a place for the punishment of a young girl. Once I've got the title, the rest is easy.”

Several authors, like Louise, get ideas from the news. Hank Phillipi Ryan, for example, uses her background as a journalist to inspire ideas. “I’m a reporter, so my life revolves around breaking news stories,” she says. “For the last thirty years, I’ve thought ‘is this a story?’ at every overheard conversation, newspaper article, magazine cover, airplane trip, or random encounter at a cocktail party. Finding a good story—whether for TV news or for fiction—requires curiosity. You have to think, ‘What if he’s lying?’ It requires cynicism: ‘What if that system doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to?’ And it requires confidence: ‘What if I can find out what really happened?’ In other words, everything is the beginning nugget of a story. You just have to see the world as full of possibilities. It’s all about ‘what if?’ Taking a step into ‘what if’ is a taking step into your next adventure.”

Rosemary Harris also uses the news as a source of ideas. “Where do I get ideas? The newspaper. As long as people keep doing stupid things I will have plenty of ideas.”

Some authors rely on personal experiences. Carolyn Hart says, “Book themes and many scenes often flow from a remembered event, emotion, person, or place.”

That’s how it works for me, too. For instance, about twenty-five years ago, when I was in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, I visited a woman’s house. It was a business call—I owned a rare bookstore and she wanted to sell her books. I was there to look at them and make an offer. She was older, about 75 at that time. Her house was distinctly middle class, but her decorations were anything but. Every inch of wall space was covered with oil paintings. I spotted a Van Dyke, two Renoirs, and a Matisse. They weren’t arranged artfully; they were wedged in, one on top of another. She mentioned that her brother had brought them home from the War. More than twenty years later, I read an article about how Holocaust survivors and their heirs were suing for the return of the art the Nazis had methodically ripped off the walls of Jewish homes. For me, it was an epiphany—it was as if someone had slapped me awake. The art on that woman’s walls weren’t the carefully chosen objects of a devoted art collector; they were the bounty of a thief. And that’s the origin of the plot of Consigned to Death, the first Josie Prescott antiques mystery.

The lesson here is there’s no one way to come up with ideas; there are lots of effective approaches. Whether from personal experiences or newsworthy events; whether you plot from a title or an actual event, the overarching message seems to be that the best ideas are those that touch your heart and fire your imagination.

Jane K. Cleland’s multiple award-nominated and IMBA best selling Josie Prescott Antiques Mystery series [St. Martin’s Minotaur] has been reviewed as an Antiques Roadshow for mystery fans. “Josie” stories have also appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. Jane chairs the Wolfe Pack’s literary awards, which include the Nero Award and the Black Orchid Novella Award, granted in partnership with Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. She is a past chapter president and current board member of the Mystery Writers of America/New York Chapter.  Visit her website:


J D Webb said...

My ideas come from everywhere. Eavesdropped conversations, dreams, news, personal experiences, even my own brand of anger management.
Then begin the "what if" questions to take it to the end. I think it's the impetus for my writing. To put it down before I forget the thoughts. I have a computer file containing suggestions for novels. So many I'll never get to all of them.
Good blog

Sheila Connolly said...

A few years ago, when I started writing the Orchard series, I was in a lovely orchard managed by the University of Massachusetts. In the midst of it is an old springhouse. I looked at it and said to myself, "what a great place to put a body." The result was Rotten to the Core (the springhouse even made it to the cover).

You never know what the spark will be.

Leigh said...

It's always so interesting to hear where others get their ideas. We had someone in our yard one night and I saw a silhouette through the curtains on the sliding doors. It made an interesting story!