Where writers get our ideas

"But where do you get your ideas?"

Every writer, from the bestselling author of fiction for adults to the self-published children's book writer, gets that question from time to time. There are stories of how some famous authors of the past answered that question, often by joking that they purchased their ideas in bulk from popular stores.

The truth is that ideas for fiction are everywhere (presumably, non-fiction writers would say something similar, but I can only speak as a fiction writer). The best explanation I've heard says that every one of us passes by ideas for a good story every day, but the writer is the person who will notice most of them, and file at least a couple away for future use.

In one sense, writers of fiction retain that childlike imagination that drives young children to see fiction wherever they look (and, at times, to have trouble remembering what is fictional and what isn't). Spend an afternoon with a child between the ages of two to five, and you will see that imagination hard at work. Whole books full of ideas can unfold around a toddler who has an interesting toy and a place in which to play with it; and a mundane walk through a local park becomes a quest, a journey fraught with hidden dangers and potential opportunities for heroism.

As we grow up, we begin to lose this ability to a certain extent. We know the difference between the real world and the world of our imagination, and we also learn that spending too much time in our imaginary worlds may cost us in terms of social interaction or school accomplishments. For the writer of fiction, the years leading to adulthood do not erase the wonder of the imagination, but we do learn not to mutter plot ideas aloud or act our scenes from our stories where people can see or hear us (at least, most of the time).

But we do retain that connection, that bridge between what is real and what is imagined, and we make use of it on a fairly constant basis. So when story ideas appear in the real world, we see them, those of us who write fiction on a regular basis. Perhaps a news article sparks the imagination; perhaps a phone call awakens a memory of something that belongs in a novel; perhaps a simple shopping trip turns into a plot idea for a work-in-progress. It happens all the time, if you've gotten into the habit of dabbling in fiction.

One thing people who don't write fiction don't know is that finding the ideas is the easy part. It's what comes next that poses the real difficulties.

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