As often as genre fiction writers get asked, "When are you going to write a real book?" they get asked, "Where do you get your ideas?" The questions don't usually come from the same person — the individual who wants to know when you're going to write a real book isn't generally interested in where you get your fake ideas — and the ideas question is more pleasant to answer.
Not easier, just more pleasant.
The short answer is that most authors get ideas for their fake books, and by fake I do not mean pretend memoirs, from their imaginations. Often at inopportune moments, like during a Catholic funeral service when you conclude that the flesh-eating of the Eucharist and resurrection of the dead at the end of days sound a lot like a zombie apocalypse. And what would happen if the zombies visited a quiet English village circa Jane Austen's time? (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.)
Not all ideas are viable ones, but for a writer ideas can be legion. Anything can inspire a fiction-worthy nugget: newspaper clippings, your own toes, stray cats, weird noises in the attic, conversations you participate in, conversations you eavesdrop on (I find these usually have more substance), your wedding, someone else's divorce, trips to the hardware store, trips out of state, half-remembered dreams, nightmares about high school, your coworker's quirks, your boss's shirks, the Weather Channel during tornado season, and so on.
In preparation for writing this essay, I surveyed online articles about this topic. Turns out there are almost as many articles about idea creation as there are ideas, perhaps because of the commonality. Writers must write. Writers must submit. Writers must answer where their ideas come from ("I had a lucky streak and won it at the tables in Vegas"). One of the consistent things that struck me was that nearly all authors agreed that you will get asked this question, and it will be asked ad nauseam.
So far, the question has not induced nausea in me, unlike the real book question. Moreover, I have hopes I can remain patient in the future if I'm asked about inspiration for the nth time. Why? Because something happened to me recently that made me understand the puzzlement non-writers must feel about people who make up stories for a living.
How do they do it? Why do they do it (especially after you confess that hardly anybody gets rich being a writer)? Where do they get those ideas?
It was a lovely, windy, sunny morning in Tennessee, one of six we'll get before the temps and humidity edge into unpleasantness. There wasn't even a tornado on the horizon. I was in my favorite spot on the couch typing away on my laptop. I reached a stopping point, so I rose and stretched and opened the windows.
The sounds of wind chimes, birds, and neighborhood lawn mowers brought the outdoors inside — without the mosquitoes. The leaves on my river birches rustled in the breeze that gusted through the window to tickle the fine hairs on my arms and neck. The house smelled of the honeysuckle in the yard and the vegetable soup in the slow cooker. Add to this the tick and clack of the dryer in the background, and I was in paradise, fulfilling my creative muse and my domestic responsibilities simultaneously.
Successful multitasking always heightens my satisfaction. And this — this was the definition of satisfaction for me. It was one of those perfect moments I cannot illustrate with mere words. When harmony like this strikes, I can write contentedly for days, stopping only to switch out the laundry and avoid carpal tunnel. I had balanced the demands on my time, and I was being rewarded.
How often are we rewarded, even when we struggle to do everything we know we should? Not very, so the miracle gave me hope it would happen again, and again, until every day was joyful and productive and I went to bed every night with words on the page, food in my belly, and ideas in my head.
But I am not just a writer. I am a mother, and I was not in my house alone. (Writer Mama)
Drawn by the siren call of chimes and the out-of-doors, my children (ages three and seveb) pounded through the room to the window and blocked my air. They began to squabble over which spot at the sill was the better one, complete with whining and shoving. I politely requested that they behave or vacate the premises, because Mommy was Still Working. Their bickering dropped to a murmur, so I decided not to begrudge them the spring breeze — as long as they weren't hitting each other. As long as I could still concentrate.
Such good girls. I planned to take them outside when I finished the scene. They continued to play quietly, so I sank back into the writing zone.
That was when I noticed my sweet smell of success had been replaced by a horrible, mouthy stench that increased with each puff of wind.
It wasn't honeysuckle. It wasn't vegetable soup. It was some kind of dead thing.
"What is that smell?" I exclaimed.
"Nothing!" sang out two voices.
I half-closed the laptop. My mother's intuition tingled like incipient carpal tunnel. "What are you doing?"
In response, my children lurched away from the window, their hands and lips wet with the saliva that was now coating half of the screen. Yes. Saliva. They had decided it would be a hoot to paint the screen with spit, because dolls and train tracks and blocks and space ships and books and crayons are nowhere near as entertaining, or tasty, as drool art.
I was officially flung out of the writing zone as I dealt with discipline, clean up, and dental hygiene, as I asked myself and my children the fateful question. What compelled them to do this thing? Where do you get your ideas?
Their answer to the question, which they had been asked by me before, ad nauseam (the odor was very nauseating, let me assure you), was not the Idea Factory. It was not Las Vegas. It was not Poughkeepsie, a la Harlan Ellison, or a dusty book in the basement, a la Neil Gaiman.
It was, "I dunno."
I don't know, either, where they get their crazy notions. I can't always describe the germination of mine, either. But when I ask my children to justify drool art or self haircuts or that thing they did with the cat food, I'd sure like a more complete answer than "I dunno." I will keep that in mind as I progress through countless Q&A's along my fake career path to the end of days, when all worthy ideas will be resurrected from the grave and put into print.