One of the most dreaded questions an author can be asked is: Where do you get your ideas?
I’ve read some interesting replies to that. The two that pop to mind are Stephen King and his son, Joe Hill. Mr. King relates that, at one point in his career he grew tired of this question and began telling people that, once you were published, you could subscribe to a magazine just for writers that was nothing but story ideas. He stopped doing that when he realized some people were taking him seriously (takes all kinds, I guess). In a similar vein, Mr. Hill quipped that there’s a little Mom and Pop store in Indiana or Ohio (I can’t remember which at this point. It’s on his website, though, and I’m too lazy to jump over there and find it. I’m busy writing a blog post right now) and they kept ideas on a top shelf in the store. When he needed one he just drove out there and got it. Like father like son.
For me, ideas can come from anywhere: newspaper articles, toss-off sentences in someone else’s book (a minor idea they didn’t explore, though these rarely pan out), or just through sitting and staring at the wall. These last are organic in nature and usually more reliable.
But when it comes to what kind of ideas you get, your influences play a large part, I believe. I grew up reading a mix of things: science fiction (sf) and fantasy (or sf/f), horror (mostly Stephen King) and Westerns (Louis L’Amour almost exclusively). In the Army in the mid 80s I discovered Tom Clancy and, later, Robert Ludlum and was introduced to the thriller novel. Both of these authors are masters of their respective niches. In the last year or so, I’ve also began branching out even more (which I will comment on in a later post, so stay tuned), reading the crime novels of T. Jefferson Parker, Jonathan Kellerman and, one of my current favorites, Robert Crais. Throw in a few humorous crime writers such as Carl Hiassen, Tim Dorsey and Ben Rehder and that makes for a smorgasbord.
Influences, well, influence more than just your ideas, though. In the beginning, they also influence your voice. Voice, for those who are wondering, is the way you write, plain and simple. As you read this, you’re reading my blogging voice. My fiction writing voice is a little different, though not much. And what voice I use depends on what I’m writing. My major influence in my voice is Stephen King, though I don’t pretend to be as good an author as he is. Mr. King has an informal, chummy way of writing that doesn’t quite make it into my writing as much as I’d like it to. Louis L’Amour is another influence, not so much in the voice itself as the desire to keep things a bit simpler than Mr. King does. Mr. L’Amour viewed himself as primarily an oral storyteller and his writing reflected that. Most of his novels, until toward the end of his career, are fairly short and can be read in a matter of a couple of hours.
Voice is arrived at organically, just as ideas are. You start out sounding like your favorite author, but eventually you begin developing your own way of writing. It will probably, in some ways at least, still sound like your major influences, but at the same time it will be individual to you. In his book Finding Your Voice: How to Put Personality in Your Writing (Writer’s Digest Books), Les Edgerton relates his experiences working with prison inmates who start writing. He tells how their query letters were interesting, full of stories of how they’d been framed and their lawyers were inept fools, and he’d get all excited and suggest they send him a short story. But when he’d get the manuscript (ms) he’d lose his enthusiasm. It seems that, when it came to writing the stories themselves, the authors would sound, as Mr. Edgerton calls it, “writerly”: they felt they had to sound like writers (in the case of most of these guys, Zane Grey). What was exciting and interesting in the letters turned into boring exercises in how to look up words in reference books. Mr. Edgerton goes on to relate how to discover your own voice by not following all the rules of English you were taught in school. If you’re just getting into writing I would heartily recommend this book to you. Besides being instructive, it’s funny.
So I tend to sound somewhere in between Stephen King and Louis L’Amour, with my own personality thrown in. For instance, the crime novel I’m working on involves an individual who is busted for making meth and the cops coop him into infiltrating a (fictional) Mexican drug cartel. The story is written first person and in a very informal voice because the guy telling it is a native of Northwest Arkansas (NWA), where I live, and the way he talks reflects that. If you want a lesson in how we really talk, as opposed to the Hollywood version, this would be a good book to read. The germ of this story came from three different directions: the first was when I read an editorial saying that NWA is a major stop in the meth pipeline from Mexico as the meth makes its way further east and north to places like Virginia. The second came from watching a documentary called Cocaine Cowboys, which covers the cocaine wars in Miami in the late 70s and early 80s. And the third came from reading crime novels and, originally, wanting to adapt them to a sf scenario but never really coming up with a feasible working background. I am a fan of Miami Vice and had long wanted to write something similar, but simply couldn’t come up with Crockett and Tubbs on another planet. And I eventually realized that such an idea would be too derivative to work anyway.
I guess, in a roundabout way, what I’m saying is that influences for writers are everywhere and show up in our writing in a lot of ways. The above example of how I arrived at my crime novel (working title is Pipeline) is just one of the many ways ideas occur to writers. And, as my last comments make clear (I hope), the best ones are always organic rather than derivative. The best come when you’re doing something I like to think of as creative meditation. It doesn’t consist of sitting in the lotus position chanting mantras but rather of just letting your conscious and subconscious mind get together and work out things. In short, there are probably as many different ways of arriving at ideas as there are writers, or close to it. We all have our individual ways of doing things, so no one way is the right way. It’s just the right way for the writer.
I hope that, in its indirect, rambling way, this helps somebody.