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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

where do ideas come from, again?

"Where do you get your ideas?"

Sometimes I hear that question. Warren and I used to hear it occasionally while we were writing The Odyssey. I remember reading a piece by Marion Zimmer Bradley on that same question; she expressed frustration over it.

I think it's a legitimate question. That is, it deserves a serious answer (not just my occasional flip response, "Wisconsin"). I think it's worthwhile and also interesting trying to figure out where ideas come from.

I've mentioned before the theory that Warren and I developed about how story ideas begin. We saw them as having two elements, not unlike the egg and the sperm. One element was the situation or the world or the arena--the premise in general terms. In the case of The Odyssey, it was the idea of doing a show about kids turned loose from their homes and interacting only with each other, not with adults--a kind of idealization of our summer holidays when we were kids.

We found that to be an exciting proto-idea, but it wasn't enough. I would call that the "egg" portion of the idea zygote. Okay, you've got a bunch of kids running around; what's the specific story? Which kid? And what's he trying to achieve?

The next part of the idea--the part that fertilized the egg and turned it into a viable story concept--was the notion of having our guy fall out of a tree-fort and lapse into a coma, so he couldn't leave the kids' world. Now his problem is how to get out of it. A world of kid adventure is fun, until you realize it's totally unsupervised--and you can't escape it. Voila, a story is born (or conceived).

But where specifically do ideas come from? In my experience they come from facts: from real-world information of on of one kind or another. I suppose it could be of either the setting (egg) or problem (sperm) part of the story zygote; for me it has usually been about the setting first. As a kid I would read about space travel and automatically start imagining stories featuring spacecraft, astronauts, and extraterrestrial civilizations. Reading The Universe by Isaac Asimov when I was 12 made me hungry to know more about space, but much more than that it made me want to express my excitement with it in creative, story form.

I remember once participating in a creativity workshop. One of the exercises was to break into pairs and have each member of the pair seed the other with an idea for a spontaneous story. I forget what the seed idea was that I was given, but I remember the idea (it had to be one word) I gave to my partner; it just popped into my head: "vines".

My partner, a woman I didn't know, looked as though I'd tossed her a live hand grenade. She blanked out; she started getting flustered and even angry with me for giving her such a "hard" idea. For my part, I didn't see anything hard about it. The seed-word vines in my mind quickly became a vertical world of hanging woody plants, a place where whole villages could exist in a twilight among the animal and bird traffic that crept or flapped up and down its reaches... In short, a world I wanted to explore in my imagination. My partner was stumped.

I think my approach was to visualize some vines, and then look to see what was around them. Sitting here now, I thought that I could as easily have seen them as wound around someone's body, binding them while they're being carried by Polynesian cargo-cultists; or being gathered to make a mattress for a love-in among pygmy chimpanzees.

In short, what the seed-word is is irrelevant. It could be filing cabinet or cream o' wheat. It simply provides a specific for a stepping-off point. I thought a fine example of showing how imagination can be skillfully called on was in the movie Out of Africa, when Karen Blixen takes an opening sentence given her by Robert Redford's character and spins an extended story from it.

There does seem to be such a thing as imaginative talent. But like any talent, it can be exercised. There is a certain letting-go, letting images arise, trusting what will come. But it can be helped and pushed through conscious effort, too. Notice in my examples with vines, I draw on knowledge of the the world. I'm aware of things like cargo cults and pygmy chimpanzees, and so I can plug these into imaginative situations. I suspect that one of the many terrible effects of lack of learning is an impoverished imagination.

It may seem paradoxical, but I think my large diet of nonfiction books primes my imagination more than just about anything else I could do.

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