Whence Ideas Come and Whither They Go

Those who’ve followed my blog for some time know that I think writer’s block is an (ironically) imagined disorder. There is no such thing as a lack of ideas. However, writers can make finding those ideas difficult, often by falling into inflexible routines. Let’s assume, for instance, a writer has always found their story ideas while hiking through the woods. If, after months of hiking without any new ideas emerging, it would be normal for the writer to assume they’ve finally run out of new ideas. It’s even easier to feel stuck if your normal writing method is to sit down at the computer and pound out whatever idea emerges. If nothing comes, is that writer’s block or simply a bad methodology? I would argue that it’s the latter.

While everyone has periods where new ideas don’t fall as readily from the imagination tree as other times, changing your writing routine can be very effective at giving your tree a vigorous shake. To this point, I’ve penned the equivalent of ten books, although I’ve not published all of them. Of the ten, three are collections of short fiction. In addition, I have a backlog of a half-dozen new book ideas I’ve not had time to develop and dozens of short-story ideas. So, how do I generate so many fresh starts? I simply assume that everything I do in life is a potential source of information. As a result, ideas never stop.

To demonstrate what I mean, let’s look at books I’ve written and where I got some of my ideas. I’ll ignore sequels, since those are follow-on works that should evolve organically from books that are already developed on in progress. The list below shows where brand new ideas sprang from.

  • Dreams: The Changeling* (Fantasy) – I wrote this when I first started writing fiction in 2009, and long before I had any inkling on how to generate ideas. In fact, to this point, I’d never seriously considered fiction since I was convinced I had no imagination at all. On a lark, I decided I would write a short story based on one of the few dreams I remembered from my childhood. A friend liked the story, and so I turned it into a novel, which quickly became a series. In fact, I wrote the first two books at once (Grandfather Time** was Book 2), so you could say that childhood dream inspired two books.
  • Music and/or Videos: Hard as Roxx (Sci-Fi) and The Little Burgundy (Mystery) – Being somewhat of a music fanatic, it’s perhaps not surprising that I get inspiration from music and music videos. While I would hesitate to recommend turning someone’s video directly into a book plot, music is an interesting way to generate story ideas. For Hard as Roxx, the music video to “Dude It Like a Dude,” by Jessie J gave me the idea for my Sci-Fi tome’s protagonist, Roxanne Grail. I let myself imagine a world wherein women allowed themselves the same power that men always claimed, with my lead being a musically inclined woman who just happened to kick much ass. The Little Burgundy stars detective Jeanne Dark, and while I created my lead based on character traits I wanted her to have, like synesthesia, inspiration for her style (and a bit of background story) came from singer Melody Gardot. There was just something about Gardot’s rendition of “Who Will Comfort Me” that gave me a sense of Jeanne’s smooth vibe and set the tone for the book. I even wrote a few chapters while listening to it. In a number of books, the writing was inspired (or at least aided) by the music I listened to while writing).
  • Movies: Hard as Roxx (Sci-Fi) – In addition to the above, Roxx is somewhat of a character amalgam. She’s part Clint Eastwood, part Bruce Lee, and very much her own woman. In order to avoid typical dystopian clichés, I created my own projection of scientific and technological advancements, and then placed them in a northern African setting for a change of pace. Action scenes were inspired by movie genres, rather than plots, with fight sequences taken from spaghetti westerns and Kung Fu flicks.  I asked myself to imagine a Bruce Lee fight sequence that takes place on an airplane with an 8-months-pregnant woman as one of the combatants. I asked, “How would Eastwood’s Man With No Name respond to encountering a group of sex slavers in an unmarked desert town, if he were the father of a little girl?” These “what-ifs” provided fodder and allowed me to explore both new ideas and old ideas in new ways and settings. Imagination isn’t limited to creating new worlds; sometimes, it’s understanding how a simple shift in a few dynamics changes the existing world.
  • Books: The Brooklyn Trace (Detective)  – Admittedly, I’m no longer a voracious reader of fiction, so if I read a book, I’m looking for something specific: not plot ideas, but more often, understanding what’s been done so that I don’t do that. Frankly, other writers’ ideas get in my way. I can no longer read a book as a reader. Instead, I always read as a writer–specifically, me, as the writer–and end up asking myself, “How would I have written this scene?” It’s not always better in my head, but it is always different. I wanted The Brooklyn Trace’s Eddie Daley to have an old Film Noir detective feel, but in an updated setting. Eddie isn’t sexist or mildly racist like Hammett’s Sam Spade or Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. He’ll never call someone a ‘fairy’ or use the ‘n-word.’ He’s not a misogynist like Marlowe, and he not an alcoholic like Hammett’s Nick Charles. In short, he’s not a self-destructive loser like most noir detectives, but neither is he an infallible superhero like (sober) Sherlock Holmes or James Bond. Knowing what your character is not goes a long way toward determining what he is. While I plotted the book meticulously (for mysteries, you have to ) I allowed dialog and relationships to evolve organically, based on the strong character definition that the noir genre requires. In that way, I took cues from  Chandler and Hammett, using their clipped dialog and quick-paced conversations as a template. The book is all mine,  but the novel’s pacing was inspired by those masterful writers. No one’s writing is a tight as Raymond Chandler’s, but Eddie’s narration is my tightest writing to date.
  • Kinetic Scripting: The Brooklyn Trace – Okay, I made this term up, but I don’t know what else you’d call it. While I outlined in great detail Brooklyn Trace’s primary and secondary plot lines, the actual writing of each scene was different. A typical chapter’s outline would list one or two pieces of information that needed to be revealed or an event that needed to happen. The why and how of it is where all the free-style writing comes into play. The entirety of this book I wrote while walking or hiking, typically on my two-mile jaunt through the neighborhood. I’d allow the scene to play out in my head as I walked and when I got home, sat at the computer and typed it out. There is something symbiotic about scripting an action novel while in motion. If you haven’t tried it, give it a whirl. Just watch out for traffic if you do.
  • Daydreams: The Stubborn Life of Jesse Ed McKinney (Literary Fiction)– I’ve learned there are 3 stages of dreaming: normal dreaming, conscious dreaming, and wakeful dreaming. As a kid, I taught myself conscious dreaming by focusing on one element I wished to see and not moving on in the dream until it appeared. My key at that time was a “STOP” sign. Until I could read the sign, nothing else happened. When I could, I knew I was dreaming, but in control. I’d allow the dream to continue, or wake myself up if it got too scary. I still use the technique, though now it’s limited to my usually being aware that I’m dreaming as I dream. For Jesse Ed’s book, I took it a step further. I often awake from dreams in the morning, with the dream interrupted in mid-stream by my brain’s clock telling me it’s 7:30 and time for meds. On one late-summer morning, I decided to remain in bed and asked myself how would I finish the dream I’d been having. How would I change the parts I didn’t like? I lay there, and as I did, the dream evolved to a new story about a poor family in Tennessee in the early 1900s. The entire “movie” played out before me in my head, and after an hour, I got up and wrote the plot down exactly as I remembered it. It still took a month to convert my notes to a book, but 30 days later, I’d finished my best work to date. Since then, I’ve written a couple of short stories the same way, and come up with a several plot ideas.
  • More Books: The Stubborn Life of Jesse Ed McKinney – As I wrote Jesse Ed’s book, the narrative voice was quite different than my usual style. Prior to beginning writing, I read some work by William Faulkner (choking on his racist stupidity but dazzled by the literary brilliance of Light of August) and Toni Morrison (Song of Solomon and Jazz). What I was looking for was not “how they wrote” or “what they wrote” but, much more importantly, “What did they give themselves permission to do?” Faulkner gave himself permission to make up words for things that didn’t have words, but needed them. I remembered Shakespeare gave himself the same permission. Oddly, I do that all the time in my real life, but usually edited made-up words out of my writing. This time I gave myself permission to create as much language as I wished or ignore as much grammar as was required to tell the story. Morrison gave herself permission to be poetic whenever she felt, to sing the words, to love the characters’ flaws, and tell the story as though reality, absurdity, and impossibility were all one thing. So, I gave myself that permission too, dedicating the book to them both.
  • Photos: Various Short Stories and Novelettes – For me, this works much better for short fiction. To put it simply, I find unusual photos online, those that have a story, and I write scenes, or stories, or 16,000-word novelettes based on the photo. It’s easier than you think, especially if you keep the visual on your computer, side-by-side with your story, as you write. I use a similar technique when I want to get very specific in a story, having the advantage there of setting stories in places I’ve been, using photos I’ve taken. As an example, the cover photo for Jesse Ed’s book is, in fact, my great-grandfather, a shot I had restored some years back. The opening chapter of the book was inspired by the two photos below, which I searched for online, since I’d already dreamt the story that went with them. Sometimes the photos come first, sometimes it’s the story that does.

For me, writing is quite similar to how I’ve heard “channeling” described. The stories are there, and the characters can’t wait to tell them. All you must do is trust that they’re there, learn how to see or hear them, and then try to keep out of the way of the story as it’s being told. If, when you begin to write, you find yourself talking too much within the book, try to be quiet and see if your narrator can’t surprise you with a voice you didn’t know you had in you.

If you have ways of coming up with stories I’ve not thought of here, chime in and let me know in the comments. Maybe I’ll try those too.


* The Changeling was previously released as The Stream: Discovery.
** Grandfather Time was previously released as The Stream: Awakening.