It’s amazing how often I – and most writers – get asked a question like Where do you get your ideas? There are as many answers to that question as there are writers but here are some of the ones I’ve laughed over. I get them at ideas.com. I pick them in my garden. I go to the idea store at the mall.
And actually, some or all of these might have a semblance of truth. Ideas truly are everywhere—including on the internet, in your garden, at the mall.
For me, the problem is not finding ideas, but finding the time to write the hundreds of ideas I currently have chasing each other around my brain. I don’t even have time to write down any but the most urgent of those ideas—most of which I never get around to writing. If I wrote full time for the rest of my life, I wouldn’t even write the ideas running circles in my head right now, let alone the ones that come to me almost every single day.
If you ask me this question, my answer would be—everywhere.
I see or hear or read great stories every single day. I hear them—one of the skills almost all writers come to the table with is eavesdropping—on the bus or in a store lineup or on the radio. I read them in magazines and newspapers or books. I see them in paintings or graffiti or the shape of a building or a couple walking down the street. I hear them in stories people tell me. I read them in poetry or cartoon strips. I see them in a smooth rock on the beach. I find them—often—traveling.
If this is all a bit abstract, I’ll try and make it concrete for you.
First, I have to tell you that almost everything I’ve written begins with a single phrase—either a title or a first line—that appears full blown in my head. The entire story follows from that.
So, my first book, Dragonflies and Dinosaurs, began with seeing. I was on my regular walk down the Seawall. Right about here. It was a spring day and it was low tide. I always count herons when I’m walking the beach and this day there were a whole lot of them. A sentence popped into my head and it stuck there. We measured our progress by herons. I thought that sentence was the beginning of a poem. I learned I was wrong when the sentence changed slightly because of a trip I took with my sister from Edmonton to the Royal Tyrrell Dinosaur Museum. In the book, the sentence is We measured our progress by red-tailed hawks and the iridescent carcasses of dragonflies flickering against the windshield in the warm light of the setting sun.
It took me a month to get that first sentence right. I didn’t write it down, I just carried it around with me until it felt perfectly right. I didn’t think about what kind of story it might be, didn’t think about anything but getting that sentence right, until it rang with the clarity of a bell in my head. The entire novel grew out of that single sentence without me even considering what it might be.
One of my favorite stories—which will one day be part of a collection of the same title—is called Naked for Jesus, a piece of graffiti I saw on my way to work one morning. Again, the story grew from this single phrase without any conscious help from me.
I more often than not write stories from the title—though I haven’t always kept the title to publication. That title, or sometimes first phrase, can come from anywhere. Often they’re song titles or an overhead sentence, a newspaper headline, or the tiniest piece of an article.
There is a sentence in my head. It’s been there for years and one day, when I have the time and the—I don’t know what exactly to call this but it might be courage or knowledge or readiness—space to write it, I will write this. I overhead it on a bus one weekday evening. Two women sat behind me. I never saw their faces but I knew they were older. One woman said to the other, I woke up this morning and he was lying dead beside me. There’s a story there though I don’t have any idea what it is.
If you tell me a story, I might—as writers often do—steal a small piece of it and make it my own, turn it into a story you won’t recognize. As writers, we tend to be listeners, observers in the way that photographers or painters or actors are. We’re thieves, magpies, collectors of shiny things. We keep them in a box somewhere and wait until the moment is right to exhibit them to the world. We steal far more than we can ever use, but we crave them just the same.