Harlan Ellison, one of my absolute writing idols, was kind enough to let me borrow a quote from him for The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, an oft-repeated bit of snark in answer to the question “Where do you get your ideas?” His flippant answer is, to my mind, as good as any answer to a largely if not completely unanswerable question. On this very this blog, four years ago, I more or less doubled down on that, intentionally belittling your “great idea” in an effort to get you to actually sit down and do something about it.
I can’t promise to tell you where ideas come from but in all honesty, I hate leaving questions entirely unanswered. I would feel as though I’m failing in my mission as an editor to just dismiss it with more snark.
So let’s try, together, to sort this out, with help from a few unwitting accomplices like H.P. Lovecraft who, in his “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction,” provided a little insight into his idea wellspring:
Once or twice I have literally written out a dream; but usually I start with a mood or idea or image which I wish to express, and revolve it in my mind until I can think of a good way of embodying it in some chain of dramatic occurrences capable of being recorded in concrete terms. I tend to run through a mental list of the basic conditions or situations best adapted to such a mood or idea or image, and then begin to speculate on logical and naturally motivated explanations of the given mood or idea or image in terms of the basic condition or situation chosen.
I think this matches up well with his thoughts on the importance of atmosphere we looked at a couple weeks ago. Anyone familiar at all with Lovecraft’s work is left reeling at the sort of dreams this poor guy had to suffer through. But as it happens, I had a long, vivid nightmare a few nights ago myself. It seemed as if I was in some version of Cloverfield or Godzilla. Some kind of giant monster or giant robot was stomping through this quaint little seaside resort town—no place I’ve ever actually been. I could feel the tremors of its footsteps and the adrenaline-rich mix of fear and excitement as I tried to find a place where I could both hide and still be able to see this thing. I can still feel that mix of terror and curiosity.
Should I just write that?
I suppose I could.
I’m not sure I’ve ever written a story based on a dream I’ve had, but I have dreamed of stories I was writing at the time—some more vivid nightmares that, in the case of one project, actually made me stop writing it a few times, until the nightmare faded and the demands of the story overwhelmed the fear and got me back to work.
The idea came about this way: I came out of a hotel in New York and I saw this woman talking on her cell phone. And I thought to myself, What if she got a message over the cell phone that she couldn’t resist, and she had to kill people until somebody killed her? All the possible ramifications started bouncing around in my head like pinballs. If everybody got the same message, then everybody who had a cell phone would go crazy. Normal people would see this, and the first thing they would do would be to call their friends and families on their cell phones. So the epidemic would spread like poison ivy. Then, later, I was walking down the street and I see some guy who is apparently a crazy person yelling to himself. And I want to cross the street to get away from him. Except he’s not a bum; he’s dressed in a suit. Then I see he’s got one of these plugs in his ear and he’s talking into his cell phone. And I thought to myself, I really want to write this story.
I pulled out this quote for my online Horror Intensive, too, mostly because, like my Lovecraftian dream of a few nights back, I was actually inspired by a very similar real life encounter for a scene in which a character mistakenly believes someone is insane, talking to herself, before the reveal of the cell phone earpiece. Something tells me there have been a good many books published in, say, the last ten years in which some variation on that scene exists.
What this comes down to, though, is that inspiration for whole books, or at least scenes within bigger stories, are happening all around you. But are you paying attention? You have to look for this stuff. You have to be open to the weird dream, the strange behavior of our fellow cell phone users, or maybe . . . the confluence of two competing inputs? Suzanne Collins, in an interview with School Library Journal, said she was inspired to write The Hunger Games when:
One night, I was lying in bed, and I was channel surfing between reality TV programs and actual war coverage. On one channel, there’s a group of young people competing for I don’t even know; and on the next, there’s a group of young people fighting in an actual war. I was really tired, and the lines between these stories started to blur in a very unsettling way. That’s the moment when Katniss’s story came to me.
But then how does that moment of inspiration lead to the actual story, for Lovecraft, King, Collins, or you or me? Neil Gaiman maybe said it best in his blog post “Where Do You Get Your Ideas?”:
You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it.
So, are you dreaming? Are you paying attention to the people around you? Are you letting TV or other media sink in? But most important, are you recognizing the great idea when it hits you, then sitting your butt down and writing it?