A Fountain of Ideas
“What lies behind you and what lies in front of you, pales in comparison to what lies inside of you.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson
At most of the conventions that I attend (back when going and hanging out with 10,000 or more of your closest friends was still a thing) I would often get asked, “Where do your ideas come from?” or “How did you come up with these stories?” These seem like simple questions, but the answer can be as varied and different as the many different genres that exist in fiction. I posed this question to six of my fellow writing friends (yes, I do have them, and yes, they are all real) and I got six different answers. One gets his ideas from dreams and the cartoons and video games he played growing up. One gets her ideas from research projects for school and from the arts. One gets his inspiration from everything and his wife is his muse, helping to guide him through difficult parts of the writing process.
So, what about me? Where do I get my ideas? Where does my inspiration for a story come from? The simple answer is “everywhere”, but that’s a bit of a cop-out and would make for a really short (and boring) blog. Let’s dissect “everywhere” and see what inspiration lays hidden in that single word. When I say “everywhere” I almost literally mean, everywhere. My ideas for stories come from many different places and at many different times. One thing I do know, I can’t try to think of an idea. Forcing an idea that way almost inevitably causes the idea to never form in the first place. But the best ideas (for me – and for many of my writer friends) seem to come when I least expect them, and often when I am doing something else.
Reading: I get ideas many times when I read. Not when I read fiction – I try to not get ideas then for obvious reasons. But when I read non-fiction, or when I read the newspaper, or articles in magazines (I prefer Smithsonian and National Geographic) I get a lot of ideas. I got one idea when I read The Candy Bombers by Andrei Cherny. Cherny’s book is about the Berlin Airlift and part of the story touched on how some of the pilots bringing in needed supplies to the city would drop small bags of candy from their planes as they landed – thus the title of the book. The book is great (I recommend it), and while reading it I got an idea for an alternative history story set in that period that reimagined our history had the Soviet Union decided to block the airlift (something they could have easily done but didn’t). This might have triggered a war with the Soviets right on the heels of World War 2.
Podcasts: I listen to a lot of podcasts. Some are about the news, business, or politics (I’m a bit of a geek there) and others are on science, writing (shout out to the Sci-Fi Roundtable podcast), culture, history, and many other things. A lot of ideas have come when I listen to these podcasts. My most recent idea came while listening to the Natural Disasters podcast on the eruption of Mount Toba. Toba is a massive supervolcano that erupted about 75,000 years ago, destroying a large part of the island of Sumatra. Some have argued that this eruption altered the history and evolution of early humans, though that theory has been challenged by recent archaeological sites. While the science is fascinating for me, while listening to this podcast I got an idea for a story that involves a primitive people and the main characters having to escape a volcanic eruption by running into caves and discovering a “hollow earth”-like world.
Television: Yes, I watch television – the telly, the idiot box, the boob tube – and again, many of my ideas that come from watching television come when I am watching documentaries. (Hey, I already said I was a bit of a geek.) Whether it’s Ken Burns on PBS, or David Attenborough narrating about the natural world on the BBC, I love watching documentaries. (I enjoy a lot of “normal” TV shows too, but my ideas come from the documentaries.) I got one idea while watching a BBC documentary about royal palaces while I was working in Germany. I can’t remember the name of the show, but the narrator talked about a custom that I (as an uncouth American) had never heard of before, of a grace and favour apartment. This is an honor given by the government (in the past, from the crown) where a person who has done something significant for the country can stay in an apartment or home owned by the government for free. It’s an interesting concept, but as soon as I heard the term, I immediately got an idea for a historical cozy mystery series.
Roleplaying Games: I’ve been playing RPGs since the 5th grade way back in *cough* 1981 *cough* and I still play them today. I started with Dungeons and Dragons (the old Red Box) and I’ve played many different game systems and genres since then. I love RPGs for the creativity they offer to build whole worlds and characters. RPGs have given me most of my story ideas. The entire Constable Inspector Lunaria Adventure series is built on the campaign setting that Coy and I created for D&D. In addition to Reva’s stories, Coy and I are working on another series blending fantasy and the spy-movie genre. We’ve written a short story featuring our main character, Flint Dagger, and plan to write several novels as well. We’ve also been working on a serialized novel featuring another character named Rash’ka, the captain of a merchant ship who soon finds himself on a quest for vengeance and justice. Rash’ka was originally a character I created in a friend’s home-brew RPG game, and the first short story was built from the character background I wrote.
Travel: I love to travel, to see new places and to experience new things. I’ve had the chance to travel to many places in the United States and to other countries. Traveling gives my mind new experiences that I often convert to new story ideas. Our Saul Imbierowicz series came from one such experience. Coy and I, and our wives, took a joint trip to Chicago to celebrate our 13th wedding anniversaries (Coy and I both got married in the same year). We had a blast in Chicago, seeing the city, going to events, and eating wonderful food. On the drive back home Coy and I got into a discussion about book genres and character tropes – like vampires – and we wondered if there was a way that vampires could be handled that hadn’t been done before. Having just been to Chicago, which is steeped in gangster history, we realized that gangsters and vampires hadn’t been done to death in fiction. From there we started talking, and soon we had the beginning idea of what has become Saul’s story in Unremarkable and Untouchable, and the third book in the trilogy that we are writing right now.
Stories: Our stories – not other people’s stories. In the process of writing four novels Coy and I have realized that there are other stories we want to tell about the characters in these books. Some of these stories develop into later books in the series, and others become ideas for spin-offs or prequels to help tell more of the story. We’ve written one prequel short story featuring Reva Lunaria and hope to have it published later this year. We have ideas for some spin-off stories featuring characters from Unremarkable that will tell more about those characters.
Writing Prompts: Sometimes a specific prompt – maybe as an assignment, or as a theme for an anthology – will give me ideas. My recently published short story Pirate Ball came from one such prompt. It was for an upcoming anthology from Inklings Press, and the theme for this anthology was pirates. I got the idea, wrote the story, submitted it to Inklings, and then got rejected. It was a nice rejection, and I know that in putting together an anthology sometimes good stories are not accepted. No big deal – and I don’t hold anything against the wonderful folks who run Inklings Press (they put out some amazing anthologies and a new novel from a friend of mine) – these things come and go. In this case, I liked my story well enough that I decided to publish it myself. But Pirate Ball would have never happened without the theme of Inklings' next anthology, so I tip my hat to them for giving me the story prompt.
Friends: I get a lot of ideas when I am with my friends. Sitting and chatting, usually about nothing can really get the ol’ brain juices flowing. When Coy and I are at cons, especially when we are blessed to be at a table next to other authors, the ideas come from the banter we have with our fellow authors between people checking out our wares. Coy and I are working on an idea for a fantasy cozy mystery series based on some banter we had with the wonderful writers that are behind A.E. Lowan at Planet Comicon last year. (Oh, and I highly recommend you follow A.E. Lowan and check out their books.) Other times I might have a friend “give” me an idea for a story. I have one short story that I have been working on for 20 years now where the basic idea came from a friend. He wasn’t going to do anything with the idea and said I should write something from it.
They just happen: Sometimes an idea just happens. They come from out of the blue when I am not doing anything particular. These ideas may come when I am driving, or mowing the lawn, or when driving late at night back from a con with Coy. (You might think this would be categorized as “Friends” or “Travel” but not really.) Many times, these are not anything more than making up book titles, with the merest hint of a story idea behind it. But so far from this method I have at least two trilogies (maybe more) that fall into the broad category of weird west and urban fantasy romantic comedy from making up book titles. One story that “just happened” for me came from a story title. I had the idea for a title called “Shoot Out at the Circle K” and it was a loose idea about an old-west gunfight at a modern convenience store. I never wrote that story, but the idea stuck with me for years, and it soon morphed and changed and eventually I wrote the story “Seven Eleven” (which is featured in Mavguard Magazine, Edition IX) and describes a modern-day sheriff’s encounter with a bit of the old west on July 11 at a 7/11 convenience store. (I even wrote the entire story on July 11.)
So, if you ever ask an author “Where do you get your ideas from?” and they answer with “everywhere” keep in mind that might be the simplest way to say that story ideas are all around us and that many different things can lead to our inspiration. getting the ideas, our inspiration for our stories, is usually not the tricky part of being a writer though. As one of my friends said, “The trick is making the idea work for you.”