The Idea Factory
As a writer of horror and science fiction, one of the first questions I inevitably get asked, either in interviews or by people I meet, is "Where do you get your ideas?"
Now, better writers than I (Stephen King, Brian Keene) have delivered hilarious and sharply-pointed responses in print, because on the surface it seems like a foolish question, or at least one with no thought behind it: Where do I get my ideas? From my brain, of course! Where else?
But I was taught in college that there are no stupid questions, only stupid answers. And to brush aside this question just because it seems obvious would be stupid. After all, a person wouldn't ask if they didn't know, right? Writers forget that not everyone else is a writer. They don't have the same types of imaginations, the same thought processes, the same fanatical drive, that we do. They don't spring up from the couch or snap awake at night or nearly drive off the road because they've suddenly gotten a great idea for a book. No, other people have these types of moments for different reasons. It doesn't matter if you're a scientist, an inventor, an engineer, a plumber, or a housewife. That 'aha' moment could be as simple as suddenly figuring out the solution to a problem or as complex as the equation that's needed to improve the engine performance on the Space Shuttle. I've never had either of those, so I can't imagine just having that equation pop into my head, or suddenly 'seeing' how certain parts fit together while diagramming the plumbing lines for a house.
So yes, my ideas come from my brain, like all ideas. But what sparks them? That's the answer I'm here to give you today, because for today, this is my blog!
I'm sure there are writers out there who sit down and say, "Today I'll think of a plot for a new book."
I'm not one of them.
My ideas truly come from sudden, unexpected inspiration. It could be anything – a dream, a song, a TV show, or just a rhyme that pops into my head. Usually it's just an idea (What would happen if zombies regained all their intelligence and personality when they ate human flesh, but it only lasted a few hours and then they had to eat again?); occasionally a get a full-blown story in my head. It can happen anywhere, anytime, day or night. I used to always carry a pen and pad with me, to jot things down. Now I've got a smartphone and I can just email them to myself.
Let me give you a few examples to demonstrate this mental disarray:
The Burning Time. My latest novel. I got the idea from a song, John Fogerty's Old Man Down the Road. I've heard that song a billion times, and suddenly it triggered an image of an old man showing up in town, full of dark magic and evil intentions. From there, the story was born.
Ghosts of Coronado Bay. I was watching TV and a commercial came on for The Ghost Whisperer. And I thought, what if the ghost whisperer not only heard ghosts, but she also could make them real just by touching them? And what if she was only in high school? That night, I started plotting out the book.
Carnival of Fear. I had a dream! And in that dream, I saw the entire story like I was watching a movie. All the characters were there, and the different rooms in the haunted mansion, and of course, the Proprietor. In the morning, it was all still in my head and I sat down and started writing. I only wish every book came to me fully formed like that. Makes things a lot easier!
Cemetery Club. This one was a little different. It involves real places in my town, real events. Of course, I added a lot of supernatural baddies to the mix. But this one came to me in starts and stops over a long period of time, with a lot of changes until I was happy with the monsters I'd created. It could have turned out to be another ordinary zombie novel, but I refused to let that happen.
Bones. This was a short story I had in Cemetery Dance years ago. I got the idea for it when my dog showed up one day with an animal bone in its mouth that it had dug up somewhere. I took it away and tossed in the trash, but as I did so, I wondered what kind of memories were in that bone.
The Cold Spot. This was a novella I did for Delirium Books. I'd never tried my hand at a novella before. In my idea notebook, there was a single line about a boy who makes friends with a bunch of murderous ghosts. That sounded perfect. I wanted to write something about how it feels to be lonely, because that's a feeling we can all relate to. I don't remember where that one line idea came from!
Often, I'll get ideas for stories by seeing themed submissions being advertised for various magazines or anthologies. More often than not, these are non-paying markets, so I never submit to them. But the theme itself is often cool enough to trigger an idea. Song titles can do it, too. I had a few short stories come about that way.
And then there's always the old-fashioned daydreaming method. I'll be sitting at the computer, maybe working on a book, maybe working on something for my regular job, and I get bored, and start to drift off, and then the idea shows up out of nowhere. This also happens a lot in the hazy period just before I wake up in the morning, when thoughts and dreams get all jumbled.
So there is the answer to "Where do your ideas come from?" In short, they come from anywhere and anything.
The one place they don't come from is other people. For some reason, hearing a story idea come out of someone else's mouth just kills it for me, even if it's a good one. Rather than be insulting, though, I usually just say, "I've got so many ideas in my head and in my notebooks, I'll never get to yours. Why don't you try doing something with it?" To which I always get the same answers: "Oh, no, I don't know how to write." Or "No, I don't have time to waste on that sort of thing."
But it's okay. I continue to collect my dreams and ideas, and stash them away in my notebooks the way a squirrel stashes acorns. Right now, I've probably got enough to last me 5 life times. But then another good one comes along, better than the others. And then another. And another.
If only I could put them on paper instantaneously!
JG Faherty is the author of Cemetery Club, Carnival of Fear, The Cold Spot, He Waits, and the Bram Stoker Award-nominated Ghosts of Coronado Bay. His latest novel, The Burning Time, comes out Jan. 18. Visit him at www.jgfaherty.com, www.facebook.com/jgfaherty, www.twitter.com/jgfaherty, or www.aboutme.com/jgfaherty.