Often, especially when I visit schools, I am asked this question: “Where do you get your ideas?” Usually this is followed by a moment of stunned silence from me while I fumble for an answer. Mostly this is because it’s a complex question and I am amazed that for all the times I’ve been asked it I still don’t have a stock answer. Ideas are everywhere, I say lamely, which is true enough, but hardly a satisfying response. Next question…..pleeaase.
Some ideas are easy to trace. Years ago, after scaling a mountain in Colorado with my wife and our two young kids, we took the wrong trail on the way down. We wandered for hours fraught with worry until we finally stumbled upon a creek we had crossed earlier. We followed it, retraced our steps, and eventually arrived back at our starting point forever grateful to be alive. The writer in me wondered how other people who faced dire circumstances got out of their sticky situations. Voila – the birth of an idea. The end result: Survivors: True Death Defying Escapes (Scholastic Canada, 2003).
Most ideas start in far tamer ways though, and they are not so much born as cultivated. A casual conversation, a TV broadcast, an article in the newspaper or a magazine – something stirs the pot. A seed is planted. Most writers whether of fiction or non-fiction have ways of keeping track of these ideas when they come. Some jot notes and keep an “idea” book set aside for the purpose. Others use post-its or index cards. Those who are hell bent on technology record their brainstorms on iphones and computers. I use a ‘futures’ box.
Really this is just a large cardboard box. A bankers box or anything similar will do. Here’s how my system works. Every time I read something in a newspaper or magazine that interests me, I cut out the item. If the article is in a book or a borrowed magazine, I photocopy it. If it comes from television, radio, or another audio-video source I can usually find the same thing online so I print it. If a gem of an idea, a particularly clever phrase, or something striking that pops into my head, I jot a note to myself. On the top of each item, I write the date and the source. Then I throw it in the cardboard box and forget about it.
I let the box fill for two or three months – sometimes longer. When I have the time and inclination, I dump the box and sift through the contents. By now, I’ve forgotten what’s in there so it’s a little like opening a gift on Christmas morning. Each item hold surprises and often entire themes emerge.I learn a lot about myself when I do this. Once, for example, I discovered that I had at least 10 clippings about people who had done valiant things when really, they could have just as easily stepped aside. I didn’t realize that this was a subject of interest for me. The end result was At the Edge: Daring Acts in Desperate Times (Scholastic Canada, 2009), a book about people and the moral dilemmas they face in times of crisis.
Another time I found an article about Beethoven in my futures box. Scientific tests on a strand of the composer’s hair showed high concentrations of lead, shedding light on the cause of Beethoven’s erratic behavior towards the end of his life. That article jumpstarted Case Files: 40 Murders and Mysteries Solved by Science (Scholastic Canada, 2011).
It’s not just non-fiction themes that emerge from the box. An item about a recently discovered plane that had gone missing 50 years ago struck a nerve and eventually became an important element in the plot line of a novel I am still writing. A clever advertising jingle has become the backbone for a picture book that is simmering on the back-burner. And then there’s an article about a meteorite the size of a melon that fired through a roof, bounced off a coffee table and ricocheted off a woman sleeping on a couch. Now how can I not write about that?
Ideas are everywhere. Just dig through a futures box – or some such system – and you’ll find them.
“I kept always two books in my pocket, one to read, one to write in.” — Robert Louis Stevenson