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If people discover that you write fiction, one of their most common questions is, “Where do your ideas come from?” It’s a difficult question to answer. Unlike Milton’s image of Sin leaping fully formed out of Satan’s mind, my story ideas seldom reveal themselves with any sort of clarity. Instead, they are usually snippets of something—fragments of a scene or impressions of a character or a situation.
The ideas themselves could come from anywhere. Perhaps it was a face in photograph, some obscure detail from a book or a magazine, or an overheard comment from a stranger in the supermarket check-out lane that morphs into an imaginary conversation between some yet to be conceived characters. Somehow, almost magically, these slippery elements embed themselves in my subconscious and wait for the right moment to emerge. And then together, we slide down the rabbit hole to see where they will lead. Often these ideas hit dead ends, but if I’m persistent, they will occasionally grab me by the collar and plunge me into a creative space where I meet a host of characters I never knew existed.
For me, some of my best story ideas have come when I was not thinking about writing at all. Instead, I was doing something else, like taking a walk, mowing the grass, or some other mundane task. Perhaps the combination of doing something involving physical movement (while at the same time requiring very little mental concentration) allows my mind to wander into that zone where creative ideas emerge.
Whenever I write a short story, for example, I usually have a clear picture of the opening or closing scene, but I have no idea what the rest of the story will look like until I start writing it. The novel I am working on at the moment was inspired by a scene from a dream I had a couple of years ago. While those creative rushes are no doubt fun, it’s also important to remember that if there’s a story worth telling, it’s going to take some work to bring it to life. Eventually, you have to leave the mysticism behind and simply write the darned thing. Like Jack London said, “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”