Where do writers get their story ideas?
I'd love to give some kind of witty response to that question -- and would, if only I could think of one. When asked at author talks about where I get the ideas for my books, I worry I'm supposed to grin and say brightly, "Why, at The Dollar Store, of course. They're cheap and easy to find there." And then, when the few polite chuckles die down, launch into some semi-serious and detailed ramble about how my mom and her sisters said something wise to me while making holiday pastries when I was an angsty adolescent and how the memory of that conversation lodged itself deep into my mind and flowered into an original plotline when combined with a handful of less-than-delightful dating experiences years later...
It may well have happened that way.
But, for me, the where of getting a story idea is an almost uncomfortable thing to discuss because...well, I rarely understand its appearance any more than the person asking me about it. Often, the ideas are just out there. I wander out into the world and they exist. Like stepping onto a patio in summer and being surrounded by sunshine, oxygen and the occasional swarm of mosquitoes. How could I explain the existence of story ideas any more than the presence of air molecules or insects? They're a familiar part of my world, ever present, undeniable, frequently mystifying.
But I think there's another question, lurking right behind it, that has proven marginally easier to analyze and, perhaps, something else aspiring writers and thoughtful readers might wonder about as well: How do writers manage these story ideas once they're here?
In my (admittedly, heavily food-obsessed) mental world, I think of the ideas as sitting in wait for me, like an infinite variety of ingredients listed inside the cookbooks next to my stove. The ingredients on their own don't usually make a meal, but when combined in appropriate amounts, they might result in a pretty good recipe.
My real-life cookbook collection contains recipes with an ethnic flavor, vegetarian meals, lite dishes, grilling guides, more dessert creations than one person should be allowed and scrap sheets of paper with special family favorites scribbled on them. All of these clamor for my attention at meal time, and I must choose between them. There are a gazillion possible combinations and, yet, before dinner (or before writing), I have to sift through them and pluck out a few that appeal to me because "that's what I'm in the mood for right now" or "that's what I know I can do reasonable well" or "that's one I'm absolutely fascinated by and just have to try for myself" or even sometimes "that's one that was highly recommended."
For me, selecting menus -- or novel plots -- are strikingly similar tasks. And before choosing either, I've always got my fingers crossed in hopes that it'll turn out.
But, in my experience, it's the next step that requires the trickiest manuevering. There are times, yes, when I'll fix a one-dish meal. A stew in the crockpot, for instance, or a casserole in the oven. But, most of the time, I'm not so focused. Most of the time, I have a few different things on the burners and one thing heating in the microwave and another that needs to be tossed together on the counter.
My story ideas are like that, too. A set of blog posts, essays and/or interviews that I can assemble, like a salad, in between other tasks. A short story I'm revising -- a brief but intense project. A couple of items on the stove top: the proposal I'm working on, for example, which requires constant attention and frequent stirring, along with this other idea, which sits on the back burner and mostly just simmers. I know what it needs most is time...like rice that takes 30+ minutes to soak up the water. You don't want to mess with it too much until it's ready. Once it's ready, though, some fast action is required or you'll end up with a dish that's burnt on one side and mushy on the other.
I'm not an expert in the kitchen by any stretch of the imagination (the truth is that I love looking at the pictures in cookbooks more than doing the actual cooking, LOL), but the multitasking doesn't bother me. I'm well accustomed to this as a writer. And, as a reader, I'm much the same. I have four or five different books that I'm reading now. I'm in different places in each of them, and I switch back and forth often between titles, depending on how I feel and the time available to me.
What about all of you? If you're a writer, do you tend to only work on one project at a time, or do you juggle multiple stories/essays/articles frequently? What about reading -- do you read one book completely before picking up another, or do you have several books in progress at once? I'd love to know!
Marilyn Brant writes women's fiction for Kensington -- her third novel, A Summer in Europe, will be out at the end of November. She also writes light romantic comedies and recently released her first ebook romance, On Any Given Sundae (aka: a literary ode to one of her favorite foods!), about a shy dessert cookbook writer and the talkative ex-high-school football star she once had a crush on. Her website is: www.marilynbrant.com.