The Wellspring of Ideas
“Where do you get your ideas” no one ever asked me. But I have read a number of interviews with successful authors and that is a frequently recurring inquiry. Some day, I would like someone to ask me it. But until that day comes, I’ll just pose it to myself and pretend it was someone else that was interesting.
The fun thing about ideas is that they sort of spring from nowhere. The process of writing and creating is an exciting adventure which I’m never one hundred percent sure where it will go. There may be some writers who know exactly every detail of their story, development of their character and exacting quirk of their locations before ever putting word to processor or pen to paper. I am not one of those people. I very much fly by the seat of my pants. That first draft is much like the first read. It’s thrilling and mysterious. There are twists and turns and unexpected surprises. Characters say and do things I would not have predicted. Betrayals are committed and more questions than answers arise.
However, I don’t want to paint a picture of absolute chaos and anarchy. It would be completely misleading to say that I didn’t have some grasp of the narratives that I create. Generally speaking, there is a core idea or theme which I want to explore. Often, this means I know how the story is going to end and much of the journey is dragging my characters, kicking and screaming, to that final point. But this final destination isn’t the seed of my idea. Usually it’s the result of preliminary research, rumination and organization. I’m thinking of my stories well before I’m actually working on them.
So that’s three paragraphs of skirting the question, “Where do you get your ideas?” My most recently completed short story is thematically exploring the concepts of self and the existential question of what makes us individuals. Course, when you read it, it’s not likely to come across as some heavy handed philosophical musing. For the most part, it’s presented as a silly cop drama. The theme was the plant which germinated from the seed. And the seed itself which I planted for Buddha, was I wanted a person to discuss his host’s umbrella stand made from a human leg.
That’s it. That’s really the starting point for that short story. The idea for it was drawn when perusing the contents of Ingrid Newkirk’s will. She’s the president of P.E.T.A and desires to have her body, upon expiration, to be chopped up and dispensed in a manner that continues to bring awareness to her viewed cruelty and exploitation of animals. In particular, she wanted to send India an umbrella stand made from her foot. When reading that, I got the thought “What would it be like for someone to walk into an office and see a foot just lying there on the ground, ready for an umbrella.” It was this absurd picture of a person faced with a seemingly atrocious display of human cruelty that was treated so nonchalantly that got my wheels turning. My mind, honed on lateral and logical explanations for inexplicable situations that arose from improvisation, began churning through a long chain of events that could make this stupid conversation about a token foot possible.
And a story was born.
Thus, ideas for stories come from unexpected places. If anyone had passed my Ingrid’s will and said, “Read this! It will give you a great idea!” I would have laughed at them. Likewise, the idea for the Clockwork Caterpillar came from a rather unassuming angle. While Derek was living in Ottawa and on my many visits, he had a tradition of taking me to one of the many museums located in the nation’s capital. One time we went to the science and transportation museum with Felicia in tow. She had never been before, you see, and was excited to cross off the last of the major museums from her to-do list. It was cold and wintery and I was mostly happy to be inside though this museum was no R.O.M or Science Centre. They had some rather maudlin exhibits covering dry topics like the creation of morse codes or telegraphy or the Canada-arm but nothing that really grabbed my interest.
That was until we headed up the old transportation wing. We entered a rather large warehouse which was basically a storage room for old trains. I thought nothing of them, I’ve seen trains before. My brother even had a toy train set when he was little that I’d play with when he wasn’t around. But Felicia, she just lit up at the sight of the enormous engines. She was laughing and crawling all over them like a child in a candy store. I laughed at her: not for her exuberance but because my sister also has a silly thing for trains. I’m sure Kait’s appreciation of them is partly based on a long running joke but to see two unrelated women overjoyed for an outmoded vehicle amused me. It got me thinking and wondering what it was about trains that they appreciated that I didn’t. I thought perhaps it was a sense of freedom and exploration coupled with an older time full of charm and simplicity.
Suddenly, the gears were working again. I could see a woman back in colonial times looking up at the enormous machines and pondering the direction of the future which they would chart. I imagined the allure of such a machine and the power and wonder that she who lived on it would experience. Slowly, the Red Sabre was taking shape.
It’s a similar kind of story for some of my other creations. Some of them were more theme focussed. I knew with Eternal September and Pasithea Reassembled that there were two sorts of phenomenon I wished to criticize. With Pasithea, it was the hollowness of the club scene which strives for some emotional connection on shallow and superficial levels with individuals. I wondered how that institute would change as our technology and cultures changed. On some level, I felt they wouldn’t. No matter our progress, we’d still have judgmental opinions and biases against strangers. We’d still show insensitivity and cruelty. And thus, I envisioned a scene between two women in a dank and grungy bathroom where one was going to steal the dress right off the other.
As for Eternal September, it originally brewed up from my disappointment with the world building of another work. There was a video game that was designing a space exploration experience filled with various alien races. Unfortunately, one of those races I found really lack luster. Their design seemed mostly to be “Let’s take Japanese culture and make the people fish!” It frustrated me because science-fiction is so good at exploring different ideas and for an organism so vastly different from our own to develop to our technological level would have a very different perspective to society than we would. These aliens did not. And so my mind began to wonder “What would they look like? How would this impact their vision of the world and the development of their culture.” Eternal September was the product of those musings. Course, as I was writing a short story, I dropped the alien physiology and so that change alone necessitated a whole slew of other changes to the story structure. However, the initial ideal–that these people worshiped Essentialism–was maintained and the consequences of a society based around those views was formed.
There’s really a story behind all my stories as I’m sure there is for every other writer. It’s a curious process of spontaneous happenstance and self-reflective musing that culminates in these exacting pieces of work. I love the process, I wouldn’t trade it for anything else. And though no one else is really interested, I always enjoy the journey it took for ideas to come to life.