Ideas? No problem!

Where do writers get the ideas for their stories? Put simply, from everything and everywhere. This is in some ways a corollary of “write what you know,” though for a good story there ought to be a significant evolution from the real-world items that sparked the idea to a fully-evolved, well-plotted book. Even non-fiction needs to be crafted into something readable. (On a side note, a movie that blazons “Based on true events” makes me much leerier to see it than otherwise, because real world events by no means guarantee a good story.)

It should also be noted that a good story is not enough. Many novice writers fear to send even a description of their manuscript out to the publishing world for fear that someone will steal that idea and claim it as their own. Well, first of all, most people have plenty of ideas of their own and have no reason to steal someone else’s. Secondly, an idea can’t really be copyrighted. It’s the execution of the idea. And the best idea in the world is useless if it’s not well executed. In fact, some very simple ideas/plotlines have been used over and over in multiple works (girl meets boy, young adult comes of age, hero save the world, etc., etc.) and not come across as stale or copycatting because they’re just so well told. So craft, in many ways, is a far more important quality in a writer than the ability to come up with new stories.

Still, if a writer has no ideas, they can’t write. How do they keep coming up with new ones? I don’t know the specific process for any particular writer. But here’s how I came up with my own books.

I’ve written three re-tellings of fairy tales, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I wrote more. I didn’t set out planning to do this, although I do enjoy a good re-telling, and my children frequently watch Disney movies, making the stories more fresh in my mind. But the ideas for each book came separately, and each coalesced to the point that I realized I absolutely had to get this story written.

Other came about partly because Beauty and the Beast has always been a favorite of mine, but as I noted that the theme of ugly male/beautiful lover came up in all sorts of stories, I also observed that the reverse was rarely true. Our culture is far less forgiving of ugly women than ugly men. As soon as my feministy sensibilities started poking at that, it suddenly became important to me to explore the notion of a female beast and the man who comes to love her.

The Keeping-Box had a more peculiar process. I was lying in bed one winter night, shivering and wondering if I should turn up the thermostat, when I recalled how much more miserable I am during summer heat, and how a summer-me would love to have a taste of that cold air. I imagined some sort of magic box that I could use to capture the winter, keep it until summer, and release it during times of heat like a supernatural form of air conditioning. Silly origins aside, the notion of magic box that could literally hold anything – weather, a whispered conversation, maybe even a person’s soul – stuck with me, though I wasn’t sure where to go with it beyond that. Then, thanks to my kids, I was watching Disney’s Snow White, and my interest was piqued by the scene in which the queen orders the huntsman to bring back Snow White’s heart in a box. There’s an extreme close-up of the box, with dramatic music and so on and so forth. I know the intent is to emphasize the horror of the queen’s grisly request, but it suddenly sparked the thought – what if the box were special, magical? What if the queen didn’t want a literal heart, but rather Snow White’s essence, to use for some nefarious arcane purposes? And then everything came together.

The Witch’s Garden, meanwhile, had been fermenting one way or another since I was in high school. I wrote a Rapunzel story then, barely novella length, simplistic and obviously not very good. But there was a kernel of something promising there, the notion of an ambiguous witch/mother who wasn’t quite a villain but wasn’t quite a positive character either. Years later, I picked up that notion again, fussed with it, added a backstory that explained some of her issues, and started considering the idea of finally reworking Rapunzel. I hesitated for a number of reasons, partly because I’d already tried it, and partly because I knew Disney was finally making their version, and I didn’t want to look like a copycat even though my story has no connection to theirs beyond the same source material. And then I thought of nicknaming Rapunzel Zellie. Somehow, that was the trigger I needed, setting the somewhat quirky tone of her character, and I dove in.

My science fiction novels were both triggered by extrapolations of real world conditions, which seems like a natural inspiration for sci-fi, particularly when it’s leaning toward social examination. Vitro/Vivo started when I thought of people taking artificial conception and genetic manipulation to their extremes, but that wasn’t enough to get the story going. I don’t object to scientific aides in the process of parenthood. It was the idea of taking it to the extreme that was problematic – and that sparked a new thought. When people oppose something, it’s quite common that they go to the other extreme. So what if the detractors went completely in the opposite direction, eliminating all technology and anything even remotely advanced from their society? So it would be a double dystopia. I had my world. But then I needed a story – a conflict, a problem that my protagonist would have to deal with. For this I actually went to my sister, a biophysicist, and asked her what sort of problems might arise in a society like this. She had a few ideas, and the loss of isolated genetic materials seemed a good place to start. From there I extrapolated the reason behind such a disappearance, and it began to take the shape of mystery story. What I didn’t anticipate was how much the romance would come into play. I knew I wanted a male and a female, one from one society and one from another, and I knew their relationship would probably eventually become romantic, but I didn’t realize how much that relationship would need to reflect their shifting views on their cultures, particularly in regards to their views on the purpose of sex. So I, a self-avowed prude, ended up writing a book that’s largely about sex. PG, maybe PG-13 in its most extreme, but still. Not something I planned at the beginning.

Silver came about from two separate but related sources. First, I stumbled across an article about the experience of menopause, how it’s a somewhat stigmatized or taboo topic, that most women don’t realize what it entails until they’re experiencing it, that we don’t offer much in the way of managing the symptoms and we tend to just want to sweep it under the rug. I thought it seemed to reflect a larger view of a youth-focused society, where women become irrelevant after they’ve reached a certain age. How it’s easy to draw parallels between female puberty and male puberty, but there is no equivalent for menopause in men’s life cycle. Then I considered the prevalence of coming-of-age stories that use something – acquisition of magical powers, etc. – as a metaphor for puberty. But how often do you see metaphors for menopause? The wheels started rolling. And then I witnessed a conversation in which a woman (who I know and deeply respect) talked about why she dyed her hair once it started turning gray. And her reasons certainly weren’t invalid. If she feels happier, more comfortable, with her original hair color, that’s great. But the idea of a culture that not only didn’t have women hiding their gray hair, but actually throwing a gleeful party when it happened – that’s when it all came together. Post-menopausal women with superpowers. Older women who are the envy of the younger. Aging as a sign of growing power, leaving behind one part of life for another, a stage that means some loss, some change, but great gains as well.

But that’s worldbuilding. What about the plot? That came when I realized, first of all, that a world with super-powered people would have such people in positions of great authority. And what if one of them was mysteriously murdered? Who could murder such a powerful being? That led naturally to the idea of my protagonist, a policewoman who’s investigating the murder, and also allowed me to characterize someone through her own process of becoming a Silver. Because she’s already successful without being a Silver, I could have her ambivalent about the changes in her life, which seemed to work well within the metaphor of aging, of coping with requisite gains and losses.

So it’s a process (and far more longwinded than I expected when starting this post!) Ideas come in an instant sometimes, but they have to be teased out, developed, and sometimes just thrown out because they’re not working. Because I tend to be a panster (write by the seat of my pants rather than by meticulous outline) a lot of my story development happens in process, which I kind of love. Either way, though it takes lots of hard work and careful craft. Ideas are easy. Making them into books is not.

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Write What You Know – Or Not

It’s one of the classic pieces of advice for writers, right up there with show, don’t tell. Write what you know. But what does that mean? And does it really work?

That depends. If I took it at its strictest, most limited meaning, I would only be able to write about a white female with a teacher husband and three children, the oldest with autism. And no magic. Yech. I’m not saying I couldn’t write an interesting story or two about such a character, but it’s terribly specific, and the audience for a story like that might be limited to one person – me.

But let’s branch out the meaning a little. What do I know? I know what it’s like to fall in love. I know what it’s like to be a mother, and to deal with at least some of the challenges of parenthood. I know what it’s like to worry about money. I know what makes me laugh and what makes me cry; I know what sets my pulse racing and what puts me to sleep. I know that feeling when I’m in a public place and I have a sob building up at the back of my throat that I’m desperately trying to swallow, and it burns and chokes and finally breaks free. I know the sense that I had a fascinating dream and I just can’t recall any of the details of it, but the feeling lingers for days afterwards. I know a lot of things.

There are things I don’t know. I don’t know how it feels to come to the brink of starvation. I don’t know the terror of witnessing a violent war, or fleeing my country in the hopes of finding freedom elsewhere. I don’t know what it’s like to be surrounded with people who don’t speak my language, to struggle and struggle to learn their tongue and not look like a simpleton. I don’t know how it feels to be the slowest student in the classroom, and to know it and to hurt from it every day. I don’t know a lot of things.

So what does this mean for my writing? Is it presumptuous of me to write about anything that I haven’t personally experienced? That would eliminate all speculative fiction pretty neatly, and since that’s my preferred genre, you can guess that I don’t agree with that strict interpretation. I do believe that empathy is crucial for creating genuine stories. How can I develop empathy for characters whose experiences are well outside my own sphere? That’s where the power of imagination comes into play. I don’t know every kind of hurt, but I do know the grief I’ve experienced as I’ve dealt with my son’s autism. It becomes a metaphor, and in many ways my characters’ pain becomes a sort of outlet for dealing with my own pain. I don’t mean to say that writing is just therapy for me. It’s not always that, and it’s so much more. But when I feel a connection to my characters, a sort of shared experience, the story takes on a life that couldn’t be there without that connection. So yes, you should absolutely write what you know. But be creative about what you know, and let it grow into its own world.

I have a final word of caution about the pitfalls of writing about the Other. Writing other races, other cultures, even the other gender – whether it’s based in the real world or an imagined one – need special care. There’s always the danger of exoticizing the unfamiliar, of exploiting or appropriating the Other-ness. This all comes down, I believe, to a lack of true empathy, to an inability to see all human beings as human beings. We are defined by so many things. And every person is just as complex as every other. No one can be minimized to a series of simplistic stereotypes. This is especially challenging for minor characters, but it’s important to make an extra effort to empathize rather than otherize (if that’s not a word, I don’t care. I just made it one.) It’s fine, maybe even necessary, to write outside your small sphere of experience, but when you do, take care. You can’t look at other cultures, etc., like you’re selecting flavors of ice cream. People. We’re all people.