It’s the cliché question every fiction writer gets asked. Over and over again. It bugs the hell out of some people, but I rather like trying to come up with answers, because the creative process fascinates me.
I say “answers” in the plural, because I believe the muses are capricious souls, with as many moods and methods as there are stars in the firmament. Nevertheless, if you look hard enough, you can find patterns in their behaviour. Even Calliope is a creature of habit.
1. Words Beget Ideas
There’s a fundamental misconception implicit in the question: “Where do you get your ideas from?” It assumes that a writer first thinks up an idea, then writes it down. Well, that ain’t necessarily so. Often, the act of writing itself begets the notions. Here’s an example from the manuscript I’m currently working on:
The new ruler of [NAME] was even more fearful than the old one. All the more so because nobody seemed to understand that their new queen wasn’t really a person at all. She was a monster.
I’ve no idea where that came from. My outline states only that the place whose name I’ve hidden has a new queen. These three sentences wrote themselves into the middle of passage where my main character is reflecting on this fact. Unplanned though they were, I knew as soon as I’d written them that they were true, and that they would impact on the whole of the rest of the story.
The lesson here is a simple one: if you’ve no idea what to write next, write it anyway. There’s no telling what hidden treasures your words might reveal.
2. Look Hard
Never underestimate the power of visual stimuli. Wherever you are, take a good look at what’s around you. At the environment. At the people within it. Everything and everyone carries a story. If you look hard enough, you’ll find it.
3. Bolts From The Blue
Sometimes the ideas just come, often in the most unlikely places. In my most recent book, I deliberately left a loose thread in anticipation of future volumes. The thread revolves around the simple question: “Why did she take the boat out in a storm?”
At the time of writing, I had no idea what the motivation was behind my character’s self-destructive action. Nor did I bother to explain it; I simply left it hanging, a minor yet unsolved mystery. (I often paint myself into corners like this; it’s a high-risk strategy, but boy does it keep that creative edge sharp!)
The solution came to me out of the blue, while I was filling the car with petrol in the orange light of a spring dawn. I remember the moment vividly: a whopper of an idea that hit me like a train, and which sets up a character arc I’d never have come up with otherwise. It’ll take two books for it – and its consequences – to play out. It feels so right for the story that I don’t know why I didn’t think of it in the first place, and yet it came – quite literally – from nowhere.
I started out with a question. I’ve given you three possible answers. Behind each of those answers there’s a dozen more, and a hundred lurking behind each of those. That’s because, at its heart, creativity is mystery; the two are inseparable.
It’s one mystery I hope never to solve.