Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

I don’t know how many times I’ve read articles or books where writers say they get asked all the time where they get their ideas. A couple of examples:

  • Neil Gaiman: – Every profession has its pitfalls. Doctors, for example, are always being asked for free medical advice, lawyers are asked for legal information, morticians are told how interesting a profession that must be and then people change the subject fast. And writers are asked where we get our ideas from.

In the beginning, I used to tell people the not very funny answers, the flip ones: ‘From the Idea-of-the-Month Club,’ I’d say, or ‘From a little ideas shop in Bognor Regis,’ ‘From a dusty old book full of ideas in my basement.’

  • Charlie Stross: – Unlike Roger Zelazny I don’t leave a glass of milk and a plate of cookies out by the door; unlike Harlan Ellison I don’t use a mail order supplier in Poughkeepsie.

Personally I like Harlan Ellison’s answer: Poughkeepsie. But I’ll give it a Canadian slant: I pull them out of Medicine Hat.

Actually, those last two flippant answers provides as good an explanation as any. I see, hear, smell, or stumble on something (Poughkeepsie) that inspires another thought (Medicine Hat) that then becomes my own. This is a trivial example, of course, and I wouldn’t be surprised if someone else thought of it before me, but that’s beside the point. The most overrated concept in all of fiction is originality. It doesn’t matter if your idea is original. What matters is how you develop the idea.

Take my book, The Trial of Tompa Lee–please! (Thanks, Henny Youngman!) The idea for this science fiction book originated in a dream. That isn’t typical, I hasten to add; it never happened before, or since. In the dream, someone was anonymously trying to help someone else survive in an alien landscape where she’s being chased. That’s really all I remember about the dream.

Over time, other ideas started coalescing around this kernel, like layers of a pearl growing around a speck of sand. The person trying to survive could be the hero–no, make that heroine–trying to survive. She’s being chased by aliens who want to kill her.

But why? Maybe she’s been framed for a crime she didn’t commit, such as throwing a grenade into a crowded alien pub. Yeah, that’ll work.

But instead of just a mob chasing after her, what if alien justice demands a trial by combat, with the defendant’s supporters fighting against those who think the defendant is guilty. If an alien knows the defendant is innocent, he is duty-bound to protect her.

Hmm. This shows promise. We can get a lot of would-be killers out of a pub massacre. How about 300? That’s a nice round number.

What about supporters? There can’t be many of them, because we want our heroine (let’s call her Tompa) to be a big-time underdog. One, perhaps–a single alien who happened to be watching Tompa at the crucial moment. And maybe a single human, as well. Let’s call him Dante, a name ripe with connotations of both heaven and hell.

Since Tompa is supposed to be an underdog, let’s REALLY make her an underdog. She’s a street girl who clawed her way up to the lowest rungs of the Space Navy, but still isn’t trusted. Being a street girl is good, too, because it gives her experience in doing whatever it takes to survive.

The alien supporter needs a name. How about Awmit? Easy enough for readers to pronounce, I hope, a tad exotic but not too exotic. He can’t be too powerful, either, because remember, Tompa has to be the greatest underdog possible. Awmit is old, then, and alone in the world, a feckless nobody. That gives the chance to use ‘feckless’, a word that tickles my authorial funny bone.

The human supporter can’t be too powerful, either. Let’s make Dante a Space Navy policeman who feels terrible about handing Tompa over to alien justice. Policemen can be pretty darned powerful, though, so Dante needs a Problem, a Weakness. (Note the capital letters!) Well, given one of my ongoing interests, the human brain, let’s make Dante a former great in the Space Navy, reduced by head injury to a pitiful shadow of his former self. Think Star Trek’s Commander Riker with brain damage.

Since I can’t seem to write without a guy falling for a girl and vice versa, Dante will fall in love with Tompa. And since every good romance story needs a conflict to be overcome, Tompa is really, really angry and distrustful because Dante is the policeman who turned her in.

You see how all the layers build the original idea into a story? The idea itself was nothing. Well, almost nothing. What matters are the layers you build around the idea to make a novel.

Note: The Trial of Tompa Lee is available in hardcover from Amazon and in e-book format wherever fine e-books are sold.

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