“Where Do You Get Your Ideas? A Cautionary Guide”
by David Niall Wilson
Let me preface this by saying I seldom have to go anywhere to get ideas, figuratively or literally. They assault me on the way to work, invade my dreams, are handed off to me in daily conversation or through the words of others. They come at me so fast and furiously at times that I have no chance to make notes. Consequently, a lot of them are lost, found again, molded and re-shaped into entirely new ideas. I make no apology for that. The first part of this essay is going to cover the trappings of finding ideas and the mechanics behind it. Then, before I let you go, I’ll tell you what I really think about where the ideas come from, and why at times they come so slowly, and with such reluctance. That’s later, though. For now, let’s talk nuts and bolts.
There are different circumstances surrounding every piece I write, and I can’t always just clip the top piece off the stack and fit it to the necessary mold. There are themed anthologies, markets with deadlines, and shared worlds out there waiting to put roadblocks between your fingers and the keys, and the best way to prepare for these is to have a good arsenal of ideas and inspiration filed away and ready for quick-draw action. Over the years I’ve compiled a short list of almost sure-fire sources for story ideas that work for me. This isn’t to say they will work for you, or for anyone else, but it stands to reason that if you apply these methods in your own fashion you’ll come up with twists and modifications to make them your own.
Reading is a great source of inspiration, but if you truly want it to inspire you, you have to “read outside the box.” Buy a copy of The Weekly World News, or the National Enquirer. I’m not suggesting you should write a story about Bat Boy, or that Satan is really appearing in the smoke from Bin Laden’s campfires, but there are a lot of ways to take inspiration from a tabloid. Look at the pictures. Read the trivia section. This is a large, regular feature in The Weekly World News, and the facts presented are bizarre and thought-provoking if you allow them to be. What is the world’s most poisonous spider? Where is the darkest cave on the planet? What is the wingspan of an African Fruit Bat? None of these questions, by itself, makes a good story idea, but if you start wondering about those fruit bats, then you head off to Google and look them up and find that the Mende tribe believes that these bats are often witches in animal form. If you think about that dark cave, the darkest cave on the planet, and then think about what it would be like to be in that cave, alone, sealed off from the world – – and add in thoughts left over from fruit bat research, you can see how plots might thicken and gel.
Another source I’ve returned to again and again, even to the point of getting the entire run of the magazine up to 1999 on CD Rom, is The National Geographic. I know at least one other author who has mined these pages. When I published “The Tome,” author Brian A. Hopkins sent me a story that eventually made its way onto the honorable mentions list of “The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror,” and that story was titled “The Night Was Kind to Loretta.” It was inspired by the way peat bogs preserve dead bodies. It was first discovered in a National Geographic article. These magazines are absolutely full of old relics, old ruins, and break downs of ancient civilizations, information on animals, tribes, poisons and legends. In many cases you can not only grab a great idea from the issue in hand, but all the local color and background research you need to give the story authenticity. If you have the issues on CD, or use the online index at their website, you can take the main elements of a themed anthology and type them into a search box. You’d be surprised how often the combinations of words bring you inspiration that would never have occurred without the sometimes obscure references the search will return.
Today’s modern, technologically savvy generation will know what’s coming next. Google. Yahoo. Metacrawler. These are the names given to the muses of the computer age. If you need an oriental legend, a vaguer reference to voodoo, or the formula for absinthe, just ask Jeeves. If you need city names, character names, news articles and court cases from the 1700s, they are at your fingertips. If you have several elements and can’t for the life of you figure out how they might fit together in a story, you can slap the group of them into a search window, separated by plus signs, and dare inspiration to slap you in the face. It’s not really easier to find ideas this way, but the sheer volume of material available makes it a near certainty that, if you stick with it, vary your search terms, and keep your mind solidly outside the facts, looking in with “what if?” on the tip of your tongue, you will find something to write about.
Old books are another good source. Hit the thrift store, or the stacks at the local library. Look for obscure old reference books, court cases from the 1700s and 1800s, books on medicine and folk lore. Read accounts of battles and wars, books on canning fruit and skinning deer, and who knows where you’ll end up?
I used to laugh when people asked me where I get my ideas. My canned response was, “I live my ideas.” One of my favorite examples of the truth of this statement is derived from a trip I made to Northern Virginia to visit Elizabeth Massie one year. Beth lives in the middle of nowhere. The instructions for reaching her house involve “go this many roads past this barn, look for two big silos.” In other words, I should have had a native guide, or at least I should have arrived by daylight.
As it turned out, I hit that last stretch of highway (using that term very loosely, I assure you) and headed out in search of the correct number of roads, and some silos. Shortly after the sun began to drop, I drove straight into the Twilight Zone.
I missed the correct road, as it turned out, by one. There was still a little bit of light out, but not much. I drove down a back road for a while until I saw to guys approaching on the side of the road. Figuring that out in the boonies everyone would know everyone, I stopped, opened the window, and stared. In fact, if they hadn’t been staring back at me, I’m sure it would have seemed rude. These guys looked like hillbilly drug addicts straight out of a zombie movie. I asked about the Massie farm, and explained about the silos, and they stared vacantly. They mumbled something about knowing a guy named Massie, who it turned out after a long rambling grumble of a speech, had lived in some city far away and had no known connection to the family I sought. They told me I had made a wrong turn.
At this point I just wanted to get away, so I drove farther down this side road. Ahead was a church. When I got closer, I saw that the church said FOR SALE on the front. It was run down as hell and had a small graveyard in back. Just past it was an old green house. There was a car out front with the dome light on, and I thought I’d see if I caught someone coming home from shopping, or something. Maybe a neighbor who knew more about the neighborhood, so to speak.
I parked in the driveway and approached the car. About then, I knew I’d made mistake number two. The car was up on blocks. The dome light was lit, and the radio was playing. There was a guy sitting inside, listening to the radio, and since I’d already approached, and he was already looking at me, I figured I might as well get on with it. It didn’t help that this guy looked enough like Charles Manson to be his twin.
He asked if I was “lookin’ fer’ Herb.” I allowed as how I was NOT looking for Herb, but for Beth Massie and family, and asked if he could direct me. He looked me up and down, and then got out of the car and told me that the guy inside could probably help. I didn’t know any polite way of saying no way I’m going in that house, so I followed him. He opened the door, and then parted an old sheet that hung just inside. The place stank of animal musk and mildew. As I entered, I heard a piano, very off key, playing inside. Charles Manson leaned over my shoulder and said.
“We’re a commune of musicians.”
To myself I said, “Right, whoever that is plays the piano, and you play the radio out front?”
We entered another room, and the guy playing that piano stopped and turned to me very slowly. I swear he was the spitting image of Little Richard. He asked.
“You lookin’ for Herb?”
I told him my story again. He stared at me. He stared at Charles Manson. He finally admitted he didn’t really know anyone in the area, other than the mysterious Herb, but that the two silos I was looking for were actually one road back.
I’m not sure how I got out of there, but I do remember I didn’t expect to. I got into the car and hit the road fast and hard, spraying gravel and nearly ending up in a ditch. I found the main road, went one more down the highway, turned, and less than an hour later I was seated in Beth’s living room, telling this same story to Beth, her family, Brian Hodge, Mark Rainey, Wayne Allen Sallee and the entire Pseudocon crew.
Beth looked at me in horror and said, “You didn’t stop at the ‘green’ house?”
Needless to say, the point of all this is that this incident became a story. The story was “Are You Lookin’ for Herb,” and it was published in Flesh and Blood Magazine. That story will stick with me forever, both the real, the surreal, and the fictional outcome. There are always moments in our lives we can’t explain. There are times when we seem to step into some other world and then, after we come back, the memories fade to a hazy blur. These make great backdrops for stories. The things we half remember can be filled in with another half tailor made to bend them to the service of our imaginations.
And that ends the first part of the essay, the nuts and bolts part I promised. Now I’ll get on to the meat of the sandwich, so to speak. I’ve long said that I don’t consider myself a genre writer. I’ve written a lot of dark stories, some science fiction, some mystery and even a little romance, but I wrote them as stories first – they fit the niches in the world of publishing after the fact, for the most part. Among those works are a lot of things written to fit molds, and then there are others. Important stories, even important books, that don’t lend themselves so easily to definition. I didn’t find them in the National Enquirer, or with Google.
That isn’t where the best stories come from. The stories that you will be remembered for, and the ones that will haunt you all the days of your life are the ones you know you have to write. You don’t find the idea for them in a magazine, or a book, or by watching the news, though these things can trigger the emotions, or memories that drive them. You don’t bend them to fit clever, themed anthologies, or chop out important parts to make word count. When you write one of the stories that define you, you have to be ready to carve that definition from your experience and serve it up to be read, criticized, admired, or spit on by readers, editors, critics and the world.
I’ll go so far as to say I believe a lot of the other stories, the clever ones, the entertaining ones, the themed ones, and those we actively search for are crutches to keep us from falling into the abyss where the real words lie. The wild words, I call them, the ones that stalk you when you sleep and tug at your nerve endings when you write. I’ve said before that you need to be able to write your pain. It isn’t just pain, though. You have to be able to write your emotions as you really feel them. You have to be honest with what you want to say and not cripple your prose so people won’t see it and equate it with the mind that created it. You have to be willing to own your words, and your work, your inspiration, and your personal darkness. You can’t fall short of what you know to be true and expect it to ring anything but false in the final analysis.
Those stories – those “ideas” – are always with us. They present us in ways our talent and our clever plots never will, and in the end, those who read the work that matters will remember. They may not like you, or understand you, but if asked which of the things you wrote made an impact, they will unerringly point to the one that was the most difficult for you to put on paper. If you’ve read such a story, you know it. If you’ve written such a story, you also know it, and you know how many more are lurking in the shadows, waiting to escape into the world.
There are a lot of levels to writing, shades of gray and layers of expression stain every word. Don’t ask where the ideas come from, though, because the very act of asking is a form of denial. You know where they come from. The key is in finding the courage to set them free.