Stalking Ideas

by Janis Patterson

One of the questions authors are asked the most is “Where do you find your ideas?” – as if ideas were rare and wondrous things as difficult to discover as flawless emeralds. As far as I and most of the writers I know are concerned, there are fewer questions more maddening.

As if one has to ‘find’ ideas. They find us, as ubiquitous as mosquitoes during a lake holiday, and sometimes just about as annoying. For example : you’re working happily on a sophisticated big city humorous mystery, when all of a sudden the sight of an axe in a hardware store brings up a flash of inspiration for a dark and noir-ish story about a suburban serial killer. It lurks at the edge of your consciousness, waiting to leap on every unguarded moment with yet another character or plot twist.

The sleuth you’re trying to write is an urbane, wise-cracking former male model who speaks four languages and not only knows but actually cares about the difference between white tie and black tie evening wear. (Sigh) The sleuth who is trying to creep into your mind is a wise-cracking suburban mom who hates soccer, has a daughter mad for ballet and who, through her knowledge of some arcane middle-class suburban pastime, deduces the killer who has been decimating the neighborhood.

Finally to propitiate the annoying creature you take a few precious hours to make some notes, jot down an idea or two, scrape together the bare bones of an outline and file the results into your bulging Ideas file. (You do keep an Ideas file, don’t you? I have for years. Mine is now roughly the size of Rhode Island.) The only problem is, when you decide the suburban mom has to have a garden, there is the flicker of an idea about a well-known television writer who loves to raise poisonous plants and his encyclopedic knowledge allows him to solve crimes as there is suddenly an epidemic of poisonings on the set of a controversial new series…

See how insidious this is? Before long you’re doing nothing but making notes about possible story ideas while your sophisticated and urbane city detective languishes somewhere in black tie (appropriate to the occasion, of course) waiting for you to come back to him. Ideas are everywhere, and catching them can take over your life.

Now, as we must never forget, I will repeat my mantra – an idea is not a plot. An Idea Is Not A Plot. Repeat that three times every day before you sit down to write. An idea is a situation, a frame, a slice of a singular moment in time. For a successful book, you need hundreds of ideas, and you need to be able to mesh them together seamlessly to provide a workable story. That part is work. Fielding a couple of the bazillions of ideas that flash by you every minute is not.

For the record, my second-most-disliked question is when some bright-eyed naif comes bouncing up (for some reason this is usually a middle-aged male at a cocktail party) and says with the utmost generosity of a Lord Bountiful, “I’ve a wonderful idea for a book – why don’t I tell it to you so you can write the book and we’ll split the money.” If it weren’t so maddening it would be funny to see their faces fall with disbelief when I tell them that ideas are literally everywhere and why would a writer need or even want to borrow ideas when there are more around for free than we could ever even make notes on in our lifetime? Let alone that the writing of the book is the work part, not finding an idea or two.

There have been a few, foolish ones who forge ahead and tell me their idea anyway, apparently convinced that once I hear it I will find it so irresistible and wonderful that I will fall all over myself begging to write it. Huh. Usually this idea is either an improbable farrago of wish-fulfillment or a twisted re-hash of some recent television show. Sigh. Unfortunately, there is nothing in any etiquette book about how to handle this situation and stabbing the innocent but tenacious offender with a cocktail pick is frowned upon. (I say that from sad experience…)

See the problem? It’s not that we have to stalk ideas – it’s that ideas stalk us, continually battering at the gates of our mind until we acknowledge their existence, which diffuses our focus. Perhaps a friend of mine said it best : “It’s not the idea; it’s what you do with it.”

What we do with it – writing the story itself – is the important part.

7 thoughts on “Stalking Ideas

  1. “It’s that ideas stalk us” hahaha 😀 couldn’t say it better. They came in any situation and sometimes in a most inappropriate time. I have no idea how many times I made my husband sulk when in the middle of our romantic moment I raise my hand and grabbed my notes to write down ideas leaving him bored.


  2. You’ve just touched on what seems to be a universal question asked writers. In a related vein, I have a cartoon pinned to a bulletin board near my desk: It shows a sweet, young thing with the balloon above her head saying “I’ve had such an interesting life, I could write a book.” Sitting next to her is an older, jaded-looking man; the balloon above his head says, “I’ve had such a ringing in my ears, I could write a symphony.” Sometimes I wonder if I should try symphonies instead of novels. Nice post, by the way.


  3. This has happened to me many times as well. Someone–often a neighbor approaches and says, “I’ve got a great book for you to write.” It’s usually a half-baked idea that wouldn’t work. But like you I am polite and suggest they write it themselves. Of course, they have a million reasons why that isn’t possible.

    I also get the question: “where do you find your ideas?” My answer, we’re surrounded with them. People we know, our own lives and families, books, newspaper and magazine articles, all provide fodder we can twist and use in our writing.

    Excellent topics!

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  4. Pretty often, a person will say his/her life had been so amazing that it merits my using it for a book. I usually suggest he/she write that book. One man wanted to but said he didn’t “have the words.” A long-distance truck driver, he read constantly. He said truck drivers have lots of time to read during layovers. I suggested he come to our writers’ group, which he did, to my surprise. People suggested he get a pocket tape recorder and dictate his stories, then find a typist to put them on paper for him. His wife dusted off her typing skills and he began bringing these absolutely charming stories to our group. The oldest of 12 children, he wanted to write memories of growing up in a remote community in rural Oklahoma for his mother and dad and his siblings. He often had us doubled over with laughter listening to his stories. I especially remember the one where his school teacher let out school, told everyone to get home immediately because a “homicidal maniac” had escaped from the nearby prison. All the students, including many of this fellow’s siblings, took off in a panic. None of them knew what a homicidal maniac was, but they knew they needed to run, some leaping barbed wire fences with form that would be a credit to the finest ballerina. At our urging, he submitted one of the stories to a contest. He won first place and $50. He had written a dozen of these when he quit coming to our meetings. I tracked him down. His mom and dad had died suddenly, his wife got tired of typing, and he lost his “muse.” I pleaded with him, but he was “out of the mood.” I think TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD began with a series of short stories remembered from Harper Lee’s childhood. I wonder how many more of those memoirs there are that will never see print.


  5. Loved this post. My pet peeve is the person who stands in front of the table where you’re selling books and goes on and on about the book he/she plans to write someday, telling the whole plot.


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