If I were to take a poll of writers to find out what question they are asked most frequently, I’m betting it would be, “Where do you get your ideas?” Author Stephen King once joked that there’s a company in Cleveland or some such place, called The Idea Shop and every month it sends him a box of ideas.
Appealing as the notion of an idea shop is, it really isn’t necessary. Ideas are all around us all the time. Really!! Some writers find inspiration in careers they’ve had; education; family experiences and family histories. Other sources for ideas are in newspapers, magazines, the Internet. We’ve all seen medical thrillers written by doctors, legal thrillers written by lawyers, mysteries based on cooking, on knitting and on quilting.
Most of my own ideas have come from simply looking and listening. Inspiration is never very far away. The idea for my story George came to me one day in late October when I was driving along a country road and saw a gallows (a Hallowe’en decoration) with a dummy hanging from it. My mind immediately began to play with the possibilities – what if that’s not a dummy? What if a real person is hanging there, but because it’s Hallowe’en, people just assume it’s a dummy?
Driving along another country road with a friend, she pointed to a pretty frame cottage and remarked, rather casually, that the cottage was supposed to be haunted. From that casual remark came the ghost in For Elise. My story, Sugar and Spice to be published in Thirteen, had its origins in an incident described by a former student of mine, and Stooping to Conquer (EFD1: Starship Goodwords, Carrick Publishing) was inspired by the commentary of a tour guide in one of the great country houses in Ireland, which I visited many years ago.
Future plans include a fictionalized account of a bit of family lore involving a young boy who died under mysterious circumstances, and a story based on some intriguing material I happened upon while researching my novel which is currently undergoing revisions.
A favourite technique is one I came across from author Anne Bernays in her book What If (HarperCollins). Consider a perfectly ordinary situation, then add a “what if” question. For example, you are driving home from the supermarket and stop for a red light. What if a man opens the door on the passenger side, jumps in and points a gun at you and tells you to keep driving? There you have a complication and the beginning of what might be an exciting plot.
Award-winning author and teacher (and the most recent of the Mesdames) Rosemary Aubert, gave each of the students in her class at Loyalist in June a little notebook to keep track of ideas. In fact, I’ve been keeping an “Ideas” notebook for years. It’s crammed full of my jottings, musings, and clippings from newspapers and magazines that could morph into a short story or novel one day.
Carry a little notebook around and jot down ideas as they occur. Who knows? If you don’t use them in a story, perhaps you could open a Stephen King-type Idea Shop of your own and send a box of ideas to authors every month.
Joan O’Callaghan is a recipient of the Golden Apple Award from Queen’s University Faculty of Education for Excellence in Teaching; named Professor of the Year by OISE/UT Students Council, as well as Most Engaging English Instructor and Most Inspirational Instructor.
She is the author of three educational books as well as two e-shorts: George and For Elise. Her short story Stooping to Conquer appeared in the 2012 Anthology EFD1: Starship Goodwords (Carrick publishing)