Ideas for a Novel: Where do they come from and how can we find them?
A common question that I’m often asked is, “Where do you get your ideas for your writing?” With NaNoWriMo upon us, many are asking, “How do you decide on an idea worthy of a dedicated month or year of effort?” I mentioned in the About Me section that I’ve known since I was young that I wanted to write. I spent hours locked away in my room as a kid devouring the words of Thomas Hardy, Louisa May Alcott, Shakespeare, Judy Blume, Alice Walker. You name it and I wanted to read it. Reading inspired me. I wanted to read more and I wanted to write. I always said:
If someday I can, through just the right combination of words, make someone feel the way some of my favorite authors have made me feel, I will consider my life successful.
The problem? I knew that I wanted to write. I just didn’t know what I wanted to write about. I had that same question that many of you do. Non-fiction came easy – and still does. Fiction was more challenging. All of my ideas felt cliche or overdone. I was convinced that I didn’t have muse. It took me a long time to realize that the muse has to be nurtured. Mine especially likes Peppermint Patties when I’m on deadline. Sweet treats or not, a muse doesn’t just show up and hand you ideas on a silver platter. She drops hints along the way, and it’s our job as writers to follow the breadcrumbs one by one to a great story.
Once my muse who claimed to be shy for so long suddenly decided she was an extrovert, I was swamped with more ideas for fiction than I could possibly write in a lifetime. I was shocked because I didn’t know what had happened to open these floodgates. Was it a wealth of life experiences? Probably. Was it the maturity that comes with a career and parenthood? Possibly. Or had I tapped into something more important? Definitely.
Around the time that my well of inspiration started to overflow, I had finally settled comfortably into my own skin. Along with this self-confidence comes an acceptance of all the things that interest you – good or bad. You quit making choices about what you like and dislike based on the opinions of other, and you start listening to your gut. And when you really start to focus on what interests you, connections fall into place that you didn’t even know were there. All it takes is listening to those quiet voices that perk up when you find something to which you’re drawn.
Let me give you a few examples. In 1998, I visited New Orleans for the first time. I fell in love with the city – the music, the food, the rich history. I was particularly taken with a photograph on display at the New Orleans Jazz Museum of the lakefront camps at Lake Pontchartrain. There was something about the idea of an entire summer community on stilts that thrilled me. I filed that away as something fascinating and didn’t think twice about it…until….2005. In 2005, the lakefront camps came rushing back to me. Perhaps it was all the news coverage surrounding Hurricane Katrina, but I couldn’t get them out of my head. That same summer, we visited my husband’s hometown in Indiana and found an LP recorded by Louis Armstrong in 1923. I had no idea that Armstrong recorded in Indiana – let alone in my husband’s hometown. Shortly thereafter, I read an article in Smithsonian magazine about Rudolph Valentino. Now Lake Pontchartrain and Gennett Records might fit together for the average muse, but throw in Rudolph Valentino, and where does that leave you? For most people, nowhere. For me, I was suddenly hit with the idea for my first musical. By listening to those tiny itches in my brain, the connections began growing. Now I have a work in progress due to be completed in 2012.
An exercise that helps this process along is to brainstorm a list. Author Holly Lisle, discusses this on her blog and in her course, How To Think Sideways. She recommends six lists, but the one I like the most is “I am drawn too…” My list is over 100 items longs but some of the more interesting ones that tumbled out were:
- Insane asylums
- Teenagers who travel in packs
- Round barns
- Caste systems
- Houses on stilts
- The exchange of artistic ideas
- Clouds lit up by the sun
- The effects of psychotropic drugs
- British accents
- Fire lookout towers
- Things that glow in the dark
- Moments of honest admittance
- The few people who are homeless by choice
How’s that for a random list of ideas? I specifically chose two to share because once I got this list down on paper, the muse started making wild connections. Fire lookout towers and moments of honest admittance started swimming in my brain incessantly. On a late-summer ride on the Georgetown narrow gauge railroad in Colorado, I learned about powder monkeys, the kids who carried the bags of gunpowder when they built the railroad in the late 1800s. Combine this menagerie with a story I heard on NPR about a lost lake in the mountains near Crested Butte, and I had the genesis of a new novel project.
Each of us as writers has our own way of finding inspiration. Some have a dream, write it verbatim and turn it into a bestselling novel. Others turn their childhood experiences into award-winning memoirs. And still others overhear a snippet of conversation on the train and create an entire television series. The common theme with all of these examples is that the authors are drawn to their subjects. And not just their overriding themes, but the characters, textures or locations that move them. Good writers infuse their work with things to which they are drawn. Things that fascinate them, things that repulse them. Things that keep them coming back to the page every day for as long as it takes.
So start with a list. Then focus on tuning in to the things that make your brain itch. You just might have the makings of a novel right in front of you.
How about you? Where do you find your best ideas for fiction?