Where do you get your ideas?”
When I visit schools and libraries, this question invariably gets asked. It’s the most difficult one to answer because I really don’t know. I usually fumble through the answer by giving examples:
From a newspaper article – Case Files: 40 Murders & Mysteries Solved by Science
The article explained how a forensic study of a single strand of Beethoven’s hair provided insights into the cause of the composer’s mysterious death. What other cases from the past has modern science solved?
While lost on a mountain hike – Survivors: True Death-Defying Escapes
Years ago, my wife, two young children & I wandered off a mountain trail and spent several panic-filled hours trying to find our way back. We succeeded but the experience led to a question: How do others escape life-threatening experiences?
From a presentation – At the Edge: True Death-Defying Escapes
In 2006, Andrew Brash, a Calgary teacher, came to town to talk about his Mount Everest climb. In his presentation, Brash described his team’s rescue of Lincoln Hall, an Australian climber given up for dead by others in Everest’s Death Zone. To rescue Hall, an act that Brash felt was the morally correct choice, he had to abandon his own climb. In Brash’s story, I found a theme. With the clock ticking, when faced with death or loss, what choices do you have? What action would you take?
From research for a different book – Surviving the Hindenburg
I was looking for a story about a fire to include in Case Files. The Hindenburg’s tragic end came to mind, but the science behind the fire didn’t fit the theme of the book. The story of cabin boy Werner Franz’s remarkable escape, though, stuck. It led to another book.
The truth is, I tell my young audiences, ideas are everywhere. You just have to be open to finding them. Be curious. Ask questions.
It’s a pretty simple answer. But then, the original question is a complicated one, and it leads to other equally complicated questions. What is the source of inspiration? Is there a way to jump start the creative process? Why do some people have a surplus of ideas while others have difficulty coming up with one?
In his web article, Where Do Ideas Come From?, Dustin Wax describes two schools of thought about where ideas originate. He calls one the ‘artist as antenna’. Here ideas free float waiting for someone to pick them up, the same way a radio antenna picks up signals when tuned to the proper frequency.
The second school of thought maintains that ideas are the product of hard work and concentration. For writers, it means this: Put words on the page, think long and hard, keep your nose to the grindstone, and write, write, write and behold, ideas will surface.
Looking back at my own experiences, I can see both of these schools of thought at work. Simple as it might seem, the answer I give my young audiences is probably an apt one. Ideas come to those who are prepared to find them, to those who are curious, who pay attention, and keep plugging away even during dry spells when it seems hopeless.
From now on, when I am asked the question, I will give the same examples, but add one more. It is this:
I took this photo while hiking in Arizona. I first spotted the dog and his master at the trail head. Later, I saw them again, this time midway along the hike. There was something about the dog’s determined spirit, his willingness to rise to the challenge in spite of his short legs that struck a chord.
I am happy to say that this encounter was a productive one. I just finished the first draft of a middle grade novel. No surprise, it features a dog not so different from this one.