Friday, June 27, 2014

The Idea Factory

A short while ago I got an inquiry from a student who asked the classic question that all writers get from time to time.  "Where," she asked, "do your stories come from?"  Note that she didn't ask about ideas, concepts, or characters. She specifically asked about stories.

Most people ask where my ideas for the stories come from, seeking the wellspring from which all literature flows.  If they have a scientific turn of mind they might ask the question in technological terms, seeking the source, the article, the paper, the magazine, or the discussion that provided the spark for the central McGuffin of the piece.  The more literary might ask what well-known (to them in most cases) writer's works inspired the style in which I wrote this or that.

My answer to all is the same.  Ideas are all around you, in the very air you breathe, the water you drink, and the affection that others lay upon you.  You can no more ignore ideas, once you open your mind to them, than you can stop breathing.  We humans swim in an ocean of cognizance where daily we are bombarded with questions, assertions, conflicts, and contradictions that stimulate our minds.  Each of these influences can generate a story, a tale, or a logical extension that resolves the issue. Only the dead can ignore the flood of ideas surrounding them.

This is an easy answer one can shrug off easily, but the answer to the student's deeper question stopped me.  Where do my stories come from?

 I admit that I sometimes model characters on people I've met. I use memories of places I've been and situations I've encountered or only read about. I also liberally steal snippets and bits from other writers, drawing on the vast library of expositional material generated by our genre. Sometimes I even borrow plots after carefully repurposing characters, settings, and times* But all those are simply component parts and the pieces from which I assemble the whole. Simply snapping these elements together like Lego blocks does not a story make.

A story is more than the simple aggregation of words and ideas, more than a logical arrangement of more or less connected scenes, more than the words themselves, and manages to transcend its mechanics.  The writer must also imbue the tale with heart and soul to become a living thing.

My answer to her is that my stories come,, just as a river is fed by a thousand streams, from the experiences of a lifetime and all that I have learned.

*Some of the Sam Boone series used Wodehouse's plots 


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