Photo credit: Karen Osborne
"Where do you get your ideas?"
The joke answer is usually "Schenectady," but the truth is that ideas are everywhere. You can find ideas in scientific articles, in works of art, in songs, in the time your dog barked in the middle of the night and it sounded like a word, in the face you see in the trunk of the sycamore at the end of the block, in a conversation overheard. Ideas are the easy part.
Sometimes people tag me in a Facebook post or send an email saying "story idea…" giving yet another answer to the first question. People hand me great ideas all the time, even other writers, the ones you'd think might want to hang on to them for themselves, but they know the secret: ideas can be traded freely.
The thing is, ideas aren't stories, and a good story takes more than an idea. I've heard ideas talked about as seeds, but I like to think of them as ingredients in a soup. A potato, say. A potato is great. Potatoes come dressed in all the colors of royalty, and serve themselves up for any meal. It probably needs to be cooked, though. It'll taste better with butter or oil or a little bit of salt. Garlic. Rosemary. Then everything else that makes soup into soup. An idea, like the noble potato, isn't enough on its own. We get the flavors to pop by adding more ingredients. Every element you add to that initial idea adds flavor, complexity, depth.
Let's take a topic that is often in the news: the self-driving car. This isn't even an idea yet. It's the seed of an idea, the germ. Why are self-driving cars making headlines? The ethics of their algorithms, for starters. There was a horrifying article just this week about how if you have dark skin, a self-driving car may be more likely to hit you. Someone has to program it to make decisions about what can be hit and what can't, about whether its passenger is to be protected at all costs, even if it means killing someone else; the trolley problem in a thousand permutations. Those are all ideas, ready to go in the story stew.
The idea isn't enough, so now we look for something else: another idea to intertwine; a character; a setting; a plot. If you're starting from scratch, there's an easy next step in your brainstorming. Who is the person who would benefit most from that high-concept idea-potato? Who is the person who would be harmed the most? Could either of these be your main character? That might be the algorithm-programmer, a trucker or ride-share driver made obsolete, the person hit by the car, or even the car itself. Plot will sometimes build itself out those elements, a soup beginning to cook. If you know you are writing about a truck driver, you have your choice of plots: the tragic, dealing with the repercussions of the lost job; the thriller, where she makes a living taking off-the-books jobs, dodging the law and the automated trucks; the comedy, where she trades in her Kenworth for an automated vehicle that is programmed so carefully to avoid any dangers that she can't actually get it to go anywhere.
The thing is, ideas aren't stories, and a good story takes more than an idea.
My new collection, Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea
, includes a novelette titled "In Joy, Knowing the Abyss Behind." The seed of the story was a simple question: why are there so many architects in sitcoms? The simplest answer would be an explanation-story, creating an origin myth or a secret history to explain the phenomenon. Or a horror story, playing that idea out to some logical extreme. The new movie Isn't It Romantic
noticed the same trope and played it for romantic-comedy laughs. It's an idea that could be taken dozens of ways. It's obviously not a story in itself.
Not long after I began playing with that idea, a memory came to me. When I'd moved to Baltimore for college, I discovered distant relatives here: my grandmother's favorite cousin and her husband, both in their eighties. Over the years, I had many meals at their house. When I arrived, he was usually in the basement playing pool "with his invisible friend," per both their descriptions. They were both delightful people, with great stories. After his death, at his shiva, she kissed my cheek and said, "I spent 50 years with the most beautiful boy." What a line, right? It had bounced in and out of my head for years, but now it arrived and attached itself to this idea about architects. Why architects? It was shorthand, I thought. A combination of artistic nature and practicality. A dependable day job that still allowed creativity. This wouldn't be a story about my relatives, though Bess's line had been part of the inspiration. It was a story about a couple who had tried their best to make a life, who had loved each other despite a secret that had wedged itself between them.
The next ingredient was a tree house. My neighborhood is full of enormous old trees, and one day I spotted a beautiful tree house I'd never noticed before. This was before the glut of television shows with builders creating bespoke dream houses in the woods, but I'd always had a thing for Swiss Family Robinson
. I researched which types of local trees would make a good basis for the tree I envisioned for the story, then granted myself the cheat of a ground-based structure, so the tree wouldn't have to hold all my fancies. Deep research followed. My major in college was history, and I'm a sucker for a good primary source. I knew some of the businesses and buildings I mentioned, but I had to check that I was right about the timing of their existence. I made sure the children and grandchildren played with toys appropriate to their respective time periods. I checked old weather reports for Chicago, looking for the right snowstorm. Did it need to be a real storm? No, but it helped me ground the story. Did I need to choose a lunch that was actually on the Hutzler's department store menu? No, but it made me feel like I was telling a true story.
I could write another essay just on my love of research and researched details, but I put it here to serve a different purpose. It all feeds story. Every research rabbit hole that I went down helped me. The story was in a combination of the architect idea, my dream tree house, a thousand little research details, and, at core, my grandmother's cousin Bess telling me that she had spent 50 years with a beautiful boy. I wanted to write two people whose lives together felt real, lived in, true, despite the science fictional secret that came between them. No one element from among those would have been as rich a story without the others, or possibly any story at all.
All of which is to say the answer to "where do you get your ideas?" is that ideas are everywhere, but they find their best form when combined, seasoned, and left to simmer, before being served up as a story that is hopefully more than the sum of its parts.
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first collection is Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea
. Her stories have won the Nebula and Sturgeon awards, and have been finalists for the Hugo, the Locus, and the Eugie Foster Memorial Award. Her first novel, Song for a New Day
, will be published by Berkley in September 2019. She is also a singer/songwriter with three albums on various independent labels and a fourth she swears will be released someday soon. She was born in New York and has lived all over the U.S. and Canada, but currently lives with her wife in Baltimore in a 100-year-old house surrounded by sentient vines.