Where do you get the ideas for your fiction?
Nolan: You get ideas from news stories, friends, family, dreams, trips. For instance, The Marble Orchard -- I got the idea for this title from a thought I had while walking past a cemetery years back. Where and when I don't recall, but the headstones in that cemetery looked like stone trees, marble trees -- an entire marble orchard. The image stayed with me.
What a wonderful concept. Cemeteries as marble orchards. Notice, he didn't get the idea hunched over his desk, wringing his forehead, staring at a blank screen. He got it on a walk. In the fresh air. Past a cemetery.
Inspiration is closer than you think. It's just outside your door and around the corner. It's on the front page of the newspaper. It's in the dusty wardrobe in the upstairs room. It's on the other side of the looking glass.
Or in Stephen King's case, it's in the cell phone.
The entire premise for King's new book, Cell, is based around an everyday item. Of course, King turns it on its head. In the book, a mysterious phenomenon referred to as “The Pulse” infects the brains of anyone who happens to have their ear to a cell phone when the spike hits. At which point they become flesh-eating zombies. (This confirms all along what I've felt about cell phones and the people who own them.)
Have you noticed that novel ideas are often rooted in the mundane, the everyday, the ordinary? Sometimes, trivial facts can become springboards into oceans of ideas.
My friend and crit partner, Gina Holmes, runs a wonderful blog. If you haven't visited Novel Journey, please check it out. She recently interviewed best-selling author (and wildly creative guy) Bill Myers. When asked about the premise of his new series, he said this:
The new series is Soul Tracker. It takes the brain twelve minutes to die. They record the brain waves of about 1300 volunteers who are dying and are able to recreate the first twelve minute of death in a virtual reality computer. So, you can experience the first twelve minutes of death. You can go to Heaven. You can go to Hell or anywhere in between.
And this guy’s daughter committed suicide--he’s desperate to know where she is. So he enters the chamber...
What an incredibly original idea! But please take note: It started with a simple fact...and was followed by a what if?. Just like most good stories.
FACT: It takes the brain twelve minutes to die.
WHAT IF: Those twelve minutes were recorded...
FACT: X million people own cell phones.
WHAT IF: A mysterious signal was simultaneously sent through them...
Both facts are relatively simple. They were available to you and me. Yet those two authors stopped long enough to ask what if?. They spliced the facts with the what ifs...and we call it ingenuity.
Roger von Oech, author of A Whack on the Side of the Head, introduced the concept of soft thinking as a necessary ingredient in creativity. Whereas most academic thinking is 'hard', i.e. rigorous and focused, in order to be creative we need to switch to 'soft thinking'. Soft thinking is more playful, spontaneous and much less concerned with finding the answer.
Soft thinking is where the what ifs? emanate.
Sometimes I think we try too hard to be creative. We sit at the keyboard straining to squeeze that one novel nugget out of our constipated brainpan, only to wonder at the hapless turd that required so much energy.
William Nolan was walking by a graveyard. A normal graveyard. No different than ones you and I have seen. Stephen King was watching a woman on a cell phone, like women you've watched; and Bill Myers was reading a medical journal, like the one's at your dentist's office. But they all stopped long enough to ask, what if?
Let me suggest, your next big idea is not that far off. It's really very near. It's in the commonplace, the everday. Like Nolan said, it's in the "news stories, friends, family, dreams, trips." There's inspiration in the ordinary. We've just got to think soft and splice it...assemble the facts and ask, what if?.
Continued next post...