Friday, April 8, 2011

Fresh from the Ideas Factory...

By Russel D McLean

One of the most frequent question writers are asked is this:

Where do you get your ideas?

It’s become a common gag that it’s the impossible to answer question. Because it is over-asked, because when we start to think about these things, writers often lose track of the exact process.

Ideas are fuzzy, you see. Indistinct. Not clearly defined. They have no clear beginning and most decidedly no clear lineage.

But I can talk a little about the inspiration behind ideas. The things that spark the creative process. I think that all writers should be continuously open. For little things.




Today, I was idly flicking through a copy of the free paper, THE METRO, when I saw a small article that talked about how a lottery winner from South Lanarkshire never claimed their ticket and now the time has run out. My brain started ticking over, wondering why they hadn’t collected the ticket. The idea that they simply lost it was pretty far down the list. What if they’d died? What if they were in hospital? What if… what if… what if…

It’s become cliché now to say that all storytelling starts with what if. But one of the clichés of clichés is that they’re true. And this one’s no exception.

I don’t know that I’ll write a story about a lottery winner who loses everything. I probably won’t. My brain will stew over the idea and other connections will be made and somewhere down the line a credible and interesting story will emerge that will, on the surface, seem far removed from the initial spark. But there will be something left. A great loss. A bad judgement. A supreme moment of bad luck.

My favourite tale I like to tell when asked about ideas, is the one about a snippet of conversation I once overheard. Two old women were talking about how scary the world had become. I was near them in the store and couldn’t help looking up, they were talking so loud.

“Oh,” one of them said, “The world’s a terrible place these days. D’you watch the news? All them pedrophiles everywhere.”

I had to stop myself from laughing at that point. Not in mockery, but because I loved the word she’d just plucked out of the air. “Pedrophile”. Perhaps she really did someone who inappropriately loves Spanish men. But I doubt it.

The word clicked round in my brain. It became a one line gag in a Sam Bryson mystery I wrote for AHMM. And then, suddenly, it became the germ for an entire story. When the most awesome Jennifer Jordan asked me to contribute to the anthology EXPLETIVE DELETED – a collection of tales dedicated to the word “fuck” – she told me that she was looking for tales of the terrible, stories that would resonate, unsettle and even amuse (darkly). I wrote a story called,

“Pedro Paul”. The story evolved from that overheard conversation. The one about “Pedrophiles”. Publisher’s Weekly, bless ‘em, called Pedro Paul “awesomely dark”.

I wish I could find those ladies. And thank them. Though, given the story that came from that one snippet of overheard conversation, I doubt they’d thank me…


Dana King said...

I once saw Robert B. Parker tell a story about being on one of those local morning shows with Stephen King. The hostess asked King where he got his ideas. King said, "Utica. There's a store off the main street there. We all use it."

Unfazed, the hostess asked parker the same question. "Same place," he said, and she went on to the next question on her list.

My greatest ambition is to have someone ask me where I get my ideas sometime, and to have the presence of mind and stones to answer, "There's this store in Utica Robert parker told me about..."

Al Tucher said...

Some of my ideas are so vague that, by the time I find the story in the idea and finish it, I can't remember how it started.

Joelle Charbonneau said...

I can never find a story idea if I'm looking for one. They hit me when I least expect it and never go where I think they are going.