Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Idea Well

By Beth Terrell

"Where do you get your ideas?"

It's a question that, sooner or later, every writer is bound to hear. In fact, just this week, Nathan Bransford ( asked his readership what had inspired our/their current works in progress, a question similar in spirit, if not in scope. And why not? I'm always intrigued by the workings of other writers' minds, by the spark that flashes when that perfect story idea flits past, and by the fact that an idea that sparks for me may be nothing but a bit of drifting ash to someone else.

Where do you get your ideas? I've heard writers give clever, facile answers:

"I get them from a factory in Poughkeepsie. I send then twenty dollars a month and they send me back ten ideas in a plain manila envelope."

"There's an idea well in my cousin's back yard. Whenever I need a story idea, I go out and pull up a pail full. I always find something I can use."

Others are more forthcoming:

"Newspaper clippings."

"Magazine articles."

"Sixty Minutes."

I think they all mean the same thing. Ideas are everywhere, fireflies on a summer night, stars in a winter sky, an infinite number of beautiful, scattered lights. One current work in progress was inspired by some inexplicable fears and behaviors my grandmother exhibited when she was suffering from dementia. As I attempted to understand what she was going through, I had the idea to write about an woman caring for her grandmother, whose "unreasonable" fears have their roots in long-buried memories. The caregiver never learns those secrets, but the reader does.

Another work in progress, the third in a series, was sparked by a conversation a friend and I had about a couple who created a garden in which thousands of small white wooden crosses represent lives lost to abortion.

Recently, I rediscovered a website I'd come across a few times before: This site is an online library of modern and historical crimes. There are also articles on criminal psychology, toxicology, and other topics useful to writers of crime fiction. Stuck for a plot? Skimming these stories about real-life criminals can spark dozens of ideas. What if Sweeney Todd had been born in Chicago in the 1930s? What if someone like Albert Fish took a resourceful child who knew how to fight back? How about a black widow story? What if there was a group of time travelers who kidnapped serial killers in their infancy and raised them in loving, nurturing environments, and what if an evil group of time travelers decided to kidnap some potential killers of their own--and for less benevolent purposes? (Yes, sometimes the idea fireflies lead us far afield.)

Ideas are everywhere. Whether you envision them as fireflies in a field or drops of water in a well, the source is not a factory in Poughkeepsie or in anybody's cousin's back yard. You are the source, and I am, and everything we read, see, or experience helps scatter the stars and fill the well. That is the beauty of writing.

No comments: