Sunday, November 15, 2009

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

Whenever a writer speaks to a group and opens it up for questions, sooner or later someone will ask, “Where do you get your ideas?” as if there were a secret goldmine of ideas somewhere and finding its location would mean instant success.

Dorothy Sayers supposedly answered (tongue firmly in cheek) “At my local greengrocer’s.”

Others cite newspaper or magazine articles or casual conversation with friends.

These last two work for me.  In a general discussion with other writers, someone will tell an anecdote or describe an incident and everyone will nod and move on to the next subject.  More than once though, one of us will suddenly reach out to the speaker and say, “Can I have that?” and we know that something in the conversation sparked a scene or solved a plot problem.  If the speaker is indeed a writer, she will pause a moment and wonder if what had hitherto appeared to be iron is actually gold.  Upon further thought, she will shrug and say, “Sure,” because it doesn’t twinkle for her.

A few years ago, Dorothy Cannell’s husband told a funny story about something that had happened in his law firm.  We all laughed and then I said, “Can I have that?”

“Well, Dorothy’s known about it for years, so I guess so,” he said.  Nevertheless, I did ask her before gleefully turning it into a Deborah Knott short story.   Iron for her, gold for me.

The basis for Baby Doll Games, my 5th Sigrid Harald novel, was reading that child psychologists and police detectives often use dolls to help young children express how they’ve been molested or harmed.  The article quoted a psychologist who sounded so smugly self-confident that I immediately wondered if she based her treatment on preconceived assumptions and if so, how disastrous could the results be? 

Southern Discomfort was sparked by reading that Rosalynn Carter was working with an all-woman crew to build a house for Habitat.  Images and plot lines immediately tumbled through my head as I listened to a carney cousin talk about the wisdom of going for the quick dime instead of the Slow Dollar, while Uncommon Clay sprang from a casual conversation with a former EPA worker who used a throwaway example to illustrate a point she was making about something else.  Throwaway for her, a golden nugget for me.

So where do I get my ideas? 


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