So where do I get my ideas?

One of the questions I have come to almost dread is the standard one about where I get my ideas for a story or a novel. The question is frustrating because no one really knows where an idea of any sort comes from. These things pop into our heads and we either play with them or toss them. But this morning I was trying to recall a thought about a particular memory that had been nagging at me. And that got me thinking about story ideas.

Some of my story ideas are not story ideas at all but arrive first as an experience I’ve heard about or undergone and can’t quite shake. One day, while still employed in social services, I was working quietly in my office when a conversation beyond my door caught my attention. A woman waiting to see her social worker had gotten into a conversation with the volunteer on the desk, and they were exchanging information on what happens after you’ve been convicted, served time, and are released. The man explained that the County House of Correction bus took you back to where you were originally picked up, usually right outside the courthouse. As he pointed out, you were wearing the clothes you had on when you were picked up. In his case, he was wearing shorts and was sentenced to six months. He was released when it was January and snowing. The woman said the situation was different for women. No one provided transportation for women. She got a voucher for a bus or train ticket and had to walk to the station. Two stories grew out of this overheard conversation.

I had seen the navy blue bus before, along with the man checking off names, and never really thought about it. Now I did. In “Kenny Orslow Shows Up on Time” (Mystery Weekly February 2020), a young man is convicted of buying drugs and shows up at the bus stop at the appointed time, but he’s not on the list and the officer won’t let him on. Kenny is now homeless and stranded—and desperate. I had a lot of fun with this story.

The second story grew out of the differences between how the men and women were treated. In “Francetta Repays Her Debt to Society” (AHMM October 2014) a young woman is released from prison but no one is there to meet her. While away, her boyfriend died and she has nowhere to go. She makes her way back to her hometown and arrives at her cousin’s apartment. The cousin is cool and then surprisingly friendly.

The overheard conversation took place in the early 2000s, but it stuck in my imagination for years until I figured out what to do with it. Another odd bit of information came to me more than thirty years ago. A college student drowned in a snow-covered reservoir. The chief of police attributed the accidental death to the student being from the Midwest and not recognizing that the flat expanse was not a field or pasture but a body of water. That comment stuck in my head for years until it emerged in “The Pledge” (AHMM July/August 2020).

Years and years ago I came across a poster of cartoon faces (like the smiley face) showing a range of emotions, with titles underneath—rows of little round faces each with a different expression. This had been developed as an aid for autistic children learning coping skills. This made me wonder how a person otherwise capable could manage in a world where human interaction seemed so opaque. That question lingered in the back of my mind for years (probably decades) until I finally got an idea, which appeared in “Picture This” (Saturday Evening Post, online edition Friday, April 30, 2021).

When one of these factoids, or odd bits of information, comes to me, I don’t think, Oh, there’s a story here. I just remember it because it seems so peculiar, so different from my regular life. Most of my short stories and novels grow out of this kind of tidbit. Right now I have a few of these rattling around in my brain and I’m not sure what to do with them. One involves a man probably in his sixties. He parked his pickup out front of my house and knocked on the door. He wanted to know if I would trade some of the apples in my tree for a bucket of his—he had several buckets in his truck. I agreed because, why not? While he harvested what he wanted (“Please, take more. I can’t use them all.”) he told me about all the fruit trees in Salem that were on public land and therefore whatever they produced was free for the taking. He’d been harvesting, hence the filled buckets in his pickup. I know he’ll end up in a story but I can’t say when.

Meanwhile I’ve been working on a story about an inept hustler who learns damaging information about a friend and tries to use it as leverage with a drug dealer. The idea came from an interview with one of the guards at the Stewart Gardner Museum. A reporter tracked him down in a shabby apartment in a small town and told him some people thought he was in on the robbery. His comeback? “Would I be living here if I had been?” We’ll see where that one goes.

So when someone asks me where my ideas come from, the answer is, Well, it’s complicated. Mostly from life.

10 thoughts on “So where do I get my ideas?

  1. Great post, Susan! I agree, ideas can come from so many different places. Live experience, conversations overheard, something in the news, or just a conversation with a friend.

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  2. Interesting post, Susan! I remember at least one of the stories that grew out of that overheard conversation. Where a writer gets his/her ideas is a question I find endlessly fascinating. I’m always amazed at how a chance conversation or sighting of something a little out of the ordinary can spark a story. It’s a testimony to the importance of writers keeping their ears and eyes wide open.

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  3. It’s fascinating how much time can elapse between an idea and its fruition, but when you factor in the original source of the idea, that’s takes it even farther. My ideas comes from similar sources, as well as some crazy dreams (who knows how they were sourced), overhead conversations, my own and others’ experiences, and other observations. They often shape very differently when put into the lives of new characters.

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    1. Yes, years and years can elapse between capturing the idea (or experiencing the moment from which it arises) and the story. But I’ve never based a story on a dream, nor have I ever wondered why not. Maybe I will now. Thanks for adding that.

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  4. Thank you, Marilyn. When my husband and I used to go out to dinner, he often nudged me under the table to listen to what people were saying behind him or behind me. I’ll be glad when we can eavesdrop again. Agatha Christie also talked about getting ideas from the newspaper, but as much as I enjoy papers, I rarely get an idea from them. Perhaps that will change if we can’t go out to eat.

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  5. I enjoyed this post. Some of my ideas come from things I experienced in the past, and some from newspaper articles, and a few from eavesdropping, especially on conversations in restaurants. No so easy with social distancing.

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