This is one of the most common questions writers get. And it’s not easy to answer. I imagine there are two main reasons why people like to ask this question:
1. They are fascinated (or possibly alarmed?) by how I can spend so much time with people who don’t actually exist.
I mean, I could be spending my time in any number of ways. And what I’m choosing is to give time to writing, to my characters, who are not real people. In my defense, at least I’m aware they are not real people.
But sometimes they feel real. Sometimes, if you’re really quiet, you can hear a writer like me sitting at a coffee shop like Panera, softly laughing to myself and saying, “Oh, Raven, you’re such a troublemaker. What am I going to do with you?” You’d be surprised (and possibly alarmed?) to know that Raven, the fictional character in my current novel, talks back.
Oh, not literally. I’m not hearing voices. What I mean is, something in my subconscious gets amused at something I’ve decided Raven should do, so I laugh about it. And then something else in my subconscious says, “Well, you know that has to happen because Raven loves stirring up trouble. It amuses him. But it’s also because a little chaos can sometimes stir the pot enough to bring good stuff to the surface. And so Raven is causing trouble to get the hidden good things out of the people he’s with. They just don’t know it. And he’s not about to tell them that, because it makes him seem like a goody-goody, which he hates.”
That’s the subconscious at work. All writers have vocal, giggly school girl, mischievous subconsciouses. (Is that a real plural?) Seriously, all my characters are bits of myself because I’m writing out of the subconscious. So my characters sometimes feel real, because they’re a bit of me, and I am most definitely real.
Now, the other reason why people ask where I get my ideas is, I suspect, this:
2. They are genuinely amazed that I can keep a story going for anything longer than about fifty words.
Now, I don’t believe that non-writers are not creative. Far from it! I think everyone has a bit of the creative bug in them somewhere. If it manifests in digging down to the roots of an illness (like doctors do) or how to put together a better machine (like engineers do), that’s fine. It’s still an art form.
However, not everyone can make up characters who feel real, then launch them into doing things that feel believable, and then watch as they get deeper into conflicts that feel life-threatening. I don’t know how I can do that, or why I choose to, except that I feel compelled to do it. I honestly do this all the time, even if I’m not writing it down. I tell myself stories about people I see on the street. I wonder why people do what they do and imagine the reasons behind their behavior. I imagine characters I’d add to TV shows I’m watching, if I were a writer on the show. It just happens—like breathing—for me.
For me, ideas are like those dandelion spores that float around on the wind. When it’s that time of year, there are spores everywhere, right? Well, for me, it’s always idea time. They’re floating around everywhere: “This would be a cool character. That would be a cool situation. How would somebody handle it if this happened to them?” The problem isn’t where the ideas come from; it’s how to lasso them into obedience and shape them into a story that non-writers want to read.
If you’re not a writer, it may seem like magic that I get ideas for stories. But you can do other things that seem like magic to me, even though they’re not. You know that thing you do—like when you knit a sweater? Yeah, I don’t do that. I’m trying to learn that, but I can’t figure out how to move my hands correctly. I think I have physical dyslexia.
Or that other thing you do—like raising kids? Yeah, I don’t do that either. I could tell you about the diapers I’ve attempted to put on babies, and how disastrous that has been. But I’m not going to. It’s too embarrassing. But I take comfort in the fact that it was probably caused by my physical dyslexia. (That’s a real condition. Really. Really.)
In other words, I think I get my ideas for stories the same place you get your ability to hit a line drive, or make your own dress, or build models that end up looking exactly like the picture on the box. It comes from somewhere deep inside, where we’ve got talents that are somehow there the day we’re born, and if we’re lucky, we notice what they are and let them out. The magic place we all have. That’s where my ideas come from.