Striking the spark

Where do we get our ideas? Where does that inspiration come from? This is a question I field again and again at library and bookstore talks. After, oh, fourteen books and mm-mm-mm years of writing before that, I still don’t have one good answer. I do, however, have a few – ahem – ideas.

Time: The key to inspiration, I have found, is waiting. Things will come to you. Ideas will spring up. It’s very little use trying to force them, however. Better to weed the garden or do another load of laundry. For starters, your plants (and your family) will thank you. Perhaps more important, it’s when your mind is a little distracted, that those little sparks will flare up in the back of your mind.

Still looking to stoke the fires? Well, you can put yourself in the way of ideas. Here are two of my favorite inspiration highways:

News stories: You know those odd, small crime stories? Not the ones on the front, but the ones inside, on the bottom of the page? “Man found beaten with pig” or “Local koi pond emptied”? Yeah, those. I don’t often lift a crime directly from these, but as I read them, I often start to wonder: How did that pig get into the house? Why did a farmer in a trout-fishing region have a koi pond? If the reporter was short on space and couldn’t give all the details, the better. (This is not a slur against reporters – I’ve been one and I know, often you’re given maybe two inches – 150 words – to sum up something that came in on the police blotter.)

Eavesdropping: I do it, shamelessly. And because I never get the context, or the whole story, my mind is free to make connections that probably never occurred to the poor people involved. “… her own second cousin, can you believe it?” Believe what? Murder? Fraud? Was the first cousin involved? “So then she tells him, ‘if I ever see her using my…'” My what? My desk? My pen? My gun? The possibilities are endless.
Basically, however, I find I have to rely on the old muses. Call it –

Serendipity: Sometimes, the various writing gods just give you a gift. My editor, in an email to my agent, made an offhand comment about animals I like… only with a strange twist. My agent mentioned it, when we were chatting, even though it wasn’t really relevant to our business. And I remembered that only the day before a friend had emailed me a link to a magazine story, saying “Can you believe people do this?” Well, yes, I can. And between those various occurences, I think I have something for the fourth Pru Marlowe pet noir. Maybe it will be the main plot, maybe not. We’ll see as it develops. Am I going to tell you what it is? No. You’ll have to wait. Just as I do.

2 Responses to Striking the spark

  1. There are times when we have to beat swarms of ideas off with a large stick as they creep in under the doors and through the windows. Some are sparked by newspaper reports as you mention, others come from the dark side of “what if” discussions. We note them down and despair of ever finding time to use them all, but that’s the common complaint of writers….

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