Where Ideas come From

Ideas can come from anywhere and from many places. Rarely (at least for me) is a story idea generated from just one thought, but from an odd collection of seemingly random information or experiences.

Today I completed reading a remarkable book, The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell. It was the acknowledgments at the end that really struck me though. The author, Robert Dugoni, tells the story of how the idea for this novel came about. As a writer I relate to his experience about how ideas develop. In his acknowledgment, we learn about his growing up with a “special needs” sibling who was “different,” his Catholic upbringing and a news article he came across about a child with ocular albinism; all topics relevant to the novel and collected over time.

FIRST DRAFT

An especially important point that he makes, that all writers, myself included, need to remember, is that “a first draft is written for the writer and should never be shared with anyone.” That goes right along with Terry Pratchett’s quote: “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.”

THINKING IS WRITING

I am not sure if non-writers really understand the process; that even when we are not writing, we are writing. Recently, I was part of a conversation with fellow writers where we all agreed that thinking is writing. If you happen to share a household with a writer (God bless you), you may laugh and joke about this; you may see this as an excuse to not write. You would be wrong.

LAUNDRY IS WRITING

Stepping away from the desk to throw in a load of laundry is writing. Gardening and pulling weeds is writing. Even sitting among friends and listening to conversation can be writing. We are sneaky people, us writers! You never know when an idea is growing in our heads! But seriously, sometimes we need to get up and move around, perform a menial task to allow ideas to evolve.

WRITING IS A PROCESS

Writing is a process, something I was constantly reminding my students when I was a teacher and a librarian. You cannot skip steps! One of the most important steps, if not the most important is thinking.

IDEAS MORPH

Story ideas happen in an instant and simultaneously develop in the writers’ mind over a long period of time. Bits come to us from unexpected places sometimes, and sometimes they are right there in front of us having been with us forever. Ideas are not born whole and complete; they gestate. They begin as a seed and slowly grow until one day you have a story, whole with a beginning, middle and end. Ideas have no sense of time; they come upon us at once, in a flash and also slowly like molasses in the wintertime. This is why writers carry little notebooks. This is why we often appear distracted.

AN EXAMPLE

Currently, I am working on a short story whose ideas derived from many sources. I had an idea for the story based on a news article that ignited my imagination. Thinking about it brought up memories of events that actually happened to me. I took those events and molded them to fit the story, gave them meaning. I created a character who embodies what I believe to be some basic truths about humanity.

That story is not yet ready to be “born,” but it’s getting there. I have messes to clean up, the timeline is jumbled, and kinks to straighten. I have not completed the process. Non-writers have commented to me that writing must be fun for me. It can be. Most of the time it’s more like someone is ripping your fingernails off. Slowly. Still, it’s worth it.

The Animals are Dying

“The animals are dying. Soon we will be alone here.”—the first sentence in the book.

Some books are hard to let go. They stick with you for a long time. Such is the case with Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy. On one hand, it is hard to put down; the reader follows the clues in search of why and how the protagonist came to be the person she is. On the other, the backdrop, the near (very near) future is so painstakingly sad that if you are a human being you will cry.

Life moves along much as it does right now. However, there are no wolves, no polar bears. There are very few fish in the sea and bird populations are swiftly dying off. I read this book weeks ago and I have not been able to shake it. Imagine; can you? No wolves left in the world. No polar bears. Is this the direction we are headed? For real?

Not only are the fish disappearing, but a way of life is going with it. Fishermen hang on to all they know with every fiber of their being. They don’t want another kind of job. They want to go to sea. They want to fish. To this they have devoted their lives and their livelihood and even sacrificed time with their families.

Just today, I read a news article stating that Whole Foods will stop selling salmon. The salmon they are getting are not large enough to sell. The salmon themselves are smaller, but the schools of salmon are also shrinking. At our house, we eat a lot of salmon. Fiction and reality often collide. I am afraid (terribly afraid) because I know that this fiction is based on fact.

Franny Stone is a lost soul with a complicated past. The book follows her as she follows the last migration of Artic Terns that travel from Greenland to Antarctica every year.  She hitches a ride on a fishing vessel, convincing the captain that if he will take her on and follow the birds, the birds will lead him to fish. They make an odd pair to be sure. The one fighting to preserve his vocation, the other as an environmentalist despising what he does, they find common ground in the personal.

As she travels, Franny misses her husband. She carries a deep hurt and guilt that is only revealed at the end of the book. The story flows back and forth through time, slowly revealing Franny’s past. Really, she is just one among an entire planet of people struggling to survive at the end of the world. In Migrations, what happens to the environment has a very real and very personal impact on everyone.

  • Migrations
  • By Charlotte McConaghy
  • Flatiron Books
  • 978-1-250-2040-28
  • 2020