Where Do You Get Your Ideas...?

by Michael A. Banks

Life changes a bit after you start publishing. People ask you to autograph things. Friends and relatives who haven't read a book in years tell you how they always wanted to write one. When you're introduced as a writer, you'll often hear the question, "Where do you get your ideas?"

Which is probably one of the questions you have now, if you're a new writer.

So, where do those ideas come from? I know several writers whose tongue-in-cheek response is: "There's a P.O. box in Schenectady to which you can write for ideas. But they won't send you ideas unless you're published."

Ideas Are Free...And Easy

The real answer to the question is almost as flippant. The truth is, ideas are free. We grow them naturally. Just about anything we see, hear, read, or experience can spark an idea.

No, getting ideas isn't difficult. You are sitting on a bunch of 'em right now.

Okay, then: where are the ideas?

Just about anything but trying to think of ideas is a source of ideas. Here are just a few:

* Newspaper and magazine articles
* Short stores and novels
* Television programs or movies
* A painting
* Conversation
* Memories
* An interesting experience
* A fascinating person
* A lecture or class
* The death of a friend
* Holidays
* A great meal (or a terrible meal)
* A beautiful landscape
* An ugly building

Some of the sources, such as a fascinating person or an interesting experience, are themselves subjects. Others are the sorts of things that start your mind working, get your thoughts moving in general or specific directions.

Note that suggestions like stories and books, or TV programs and films are not meant to encourage you to try to duplicate or be derivative. And it definitely doesn’t mean to copy what you see. Copying in that way is also known as plagiarism, which is illegal, unethical, and other things that would be edited out if I said them here. The point is, other creative works can inspire original thoughts on the same topic. They can also inspire totally unrelated ideas.

The point here is, anything can generate an idea. All you need is to be receptive. If you can develop the habit of thinking of anything that grabs your interest in terms of whether it would make a topic for a fictional or non-fictional work, you'll find more ideas coming your way than you can possibly handle.

The hard part is developing ideas into stories, articles, or books--and writing those works to completion. For some people, recognizing a good idea is also a problem.

Recognizing A Good Idea

Most ideas come to us as intriguing fragments, which we see as having some potential for an article, story, poem, or book. They may take the form of abstract concepts, scenes, a few words, or perhaps images. The form is immaterial; recognizing the idea is what's important.

There are no hard and fast rules for determining whether an idea is worth writing about. However, all ideas have this in common: They grab your interest. If something grabs your interest, there's a chance it may be of interest to others. Thus, the starting point of an idea: Interest.

Now we come to one of the hard parts. Just because you find something interesting doesn't mean enough other people will find it interesting enough to justify your writing about it. For example, if you have a dog, you are probably intensely interested in your relationship with the animal. Fine. That's a legitimate interest for you, and perhaps a for few friends and relatives. But not for the world at large.

Obviously, an idea worthy of publication must have appeal for a large number of people--people outside your immediate circle. To have that appeal, the idea must be a little broader than just your relationship.

Thus, "My Relationship with My Dog" is too narrow to be interesting to others. Time to search for broader appeal. But not too broad; an article or story or book on "Human-Canine Relationships" is just too diffuse.

You have to refine things a bit. Somewhere between your relationship with your dog and the subject of human-canine relationships in general are some interesting topics to which others can relate personally, or translate to their own lives. Here's what you have to do: Define which aspects of the broad subject your own interests and experiences cover. This will give you specific topics about which you can write.

The specific topics with broad appeal are going to be something special--perhaps your dog talks to you, but only when no one else is around. Or, something that most people have in common in relationships with their dogs. Do you have concerns for your dog's health? His training and discipline? How your dog tunes into your feelings?

There! Now you're on to something. You have three ideas worth writing about--all derived from one general subject. And what do these three ideas have in common, aside from the dog? Each is a specific topic having to do with the subject of the relationship between a human and a dog--topics with broad interest, and of which you have first-hand knowledge. (Research can of course be substituted for first-hand knowledge, in most instances.)

Thus, to be worth writing about, an idea should meet three criteria:

1. It must be interesting.
2. It must have appeal for a large number of people.
3. It should deal with specific aspects of a subject.

To sum up, a good idea is based on an interesting subject that appeals to a large number of people. The appeal comes from the fact that it deals with specific aspects (topics) of its subject matter to which the audience can relate.

It is easy to see how this relates to an article. For a non-fiction book, you still have to look for a specific topic to which people can relate. For example, "crime on the Internet," rather than "the Internet." That done, you have to break down that broad topic ("crime on the Internet") into sub-topics which make up chapters (perhaps "types of crime," "what's at risk," and "how to avoid being a victim," for starters).

In developing fiction ideas, you look for a conflict that is interesting, and has appeal for a large number of people because it has to do with a specific topic to which they can relate. You can also use this technique to help establish a setting, and build a character. Or, you can begin with a character, and develop that character by determining the appeal that various aspects of the character have for a given readership--and emphasize those aspects. From there, you can develop a conflict that fits the character and appeals to the readers.

You might think of the process as generating ideas to fit a subject.

How I Got One Of My Book Ideas

Occasionally, an idea comes unbidden, and fully developed. Such was the case with a book about Internet crime and privacy that I wrote in 1997, titled Web Psychos, Stalkers, and Pranksters: How to Protect Yourself in Cyberspace (The Coriolis Group, 1998). For most of the preceding 18 years, I had been involved in helping others learn their way around online. This included helping victims of masquerades, fraud, stalking, and harassment online. People often asked me how to track down a stalker, or stop harassment.

One day near the end of 1996, I was between books, and tracking down the real identity of an Internet malefactor for the umpteenth time. That's when it hit me: There should be a book about this stuff!

The book sort of unfolded in my mind. Describe every sort of crime that takes place on the Internet, give examples and share anecdotes; tell readers how to protect themselves and deal with crimes if they happen, and how to preserve their privacy. So I wrote the book. It's doing well--in English, Russian, Chinese, and other languages!

I suspect all of this had been percolating in my subconscious for some time, awaiting only the right circumstances to pop up. The right moment hit in a period when I was wondering what I would write next, and involved in what became the subject of the book. Which goes to show you that you really ought to pay attention to anything you spend a lot of time at, as there may be a book in it!

One Thing Leads To Another...

Rarely is an idea completely new. Romeo and Juliet became West Side Story. The Man in the Iron Mask inspired any of a number of 20th Century mainstream and genre novels about lost and dispossessed persons. Pygmalion became My Fair Lady, which became Pretty Woman with elements of Cinderella added. Shakespeare's The Tempest became a marvelous 1955 science fiction film called Forbidden Planet, and so on.

There is a big difference between "derived from" and "inspired by." I find inspiration in all sorts of creative works. A 1986 science fiction novel I wrote with Dean Lambe, The Odysseus Solution (Baen Books), began life as a short story about aliens wrecking human society by introducing unlimited matter duplication on Earth. It ended up being a novel about human revolution against the tyranny the aliens set up after humans destroyed their economy, technology, and society.

The original inspiration was an incidental bit of background (matter duplicators) in a science fiction novel written by Murray Leinster in the 1960s. I was intrigued by the concept, and decided it would be interesting to see what happened if humans were given such a technology freely.

The idea goes back much farther than the 1960s, though. It's a variation on mythological tales of gifts from the gods--gifts that always had a catch. As was the case with the gag Odysseus and Sinon pulled on the Trojans--the Trojan horse. (Which, in an only mildly convoluted manner, was the inspiration for the novel's title.)

Similarly, a book I intend to write sometime in the next few years, on the history of science and technology in stage magic, was inspired by a television documentary series on the history of magic. Rather than being derived from the TV series, which explored magic from its beginnings in pre-history through today, my book will focus on how magicians made use of knowledge of the leading edge of science and technology of their times. Moreover, I intend to deal largely with 19th Century magic. You can see, I hope, how the book I propose differs from the inspiration.

Note that, in each of these instances, my ideas came from concepts or facts presented in the novel and the TV series, respectively. In case you were wondering, concepts and facts cannot be copyrighted. If they could, H.G. Wells would have been the only person who wrote about time travel, and there would probably be only one detective writer, one romance writer, and so forth, in modern fiction. (By the same token, there would be only one book on how to write and get published!)

I should also note that not all of my ideas are thus inspired. Nor should yours be. This book, for example, was inspired by various approaches to writing I've observed--mine and others'. I've not seen a book quite like this one, so I decided to write it. And to make it the sort of book I would have liked to have read when I was just starting out. (The last book I wrote on that basis sold 150,000 copies. Maybe I'm on to something …)

** Part Two will discuss how to develop the ideas into a workable article or story.

Photo of Michael Banks **Michael A. Banks is the author of some 2,000 magazine articles and short stories, and more than 30 published books, among the most recent of which is Web Psychos, Stalkers, and Pranksters: How to Protect Yourself in Cyberspace (The Coriolis Group).

In addition to writing, Banks' interests include travel, geneaology, classic cars, and (having survived an amateurish attempt on his life) living in general.

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