Probably every serious writer has had the experience of fielding the question, "Where do you get your ideas from?" If I have to answer that question off the cuff, I generally say, "Out of the woodwork" or perhaps, "Out of the ether." Over the next few weeks, I'll be going into some background of the tales in Tangled Woods and Dark Waters. Let me just kick off this discussion with some general thoughts. For those who'd rather read their own meanings into these stories, fine. Your interpretation is probably as good as mine.
Sometimes the stimulus is so overt that I can put my finger on it – a photo, a song, a poem, short story or novel. I remember reading, as a teenager, a poem titled "Psalm" in a collection of science fiction pieces. This was a sarcastic updating of Psalm 23 for the age of nuclear weapons. The writer's challenge is to recast the old and make it seem new. Those who read Julius Caesar may not recognize that they're paying tribute to Shakespeare's appropriation of Plutarch's biography of the great man. The truly masterful can do this with the (apparent) effortlessness of Garry Kasparov winning a game of chess. Several of the pieces in Tangled Woods are of this type. Alas, I can only dream of reaching such a level of skill.
Dreams are another obvious contributor. If I were to submit myself to the care of a Freudian psychoanalyst, that person would quickly ascertain that I'm obsessed with preparation, deadlines, and schedules. That makes me anal-retentive, or perhaps I suffer from mild OCD. One variant that has popped up repeatedly in my dreams is the theme of arriving at an airport for an international trip, only to remember at the last minute that I've forgotten something essential – passport, luggage, or money. I think there may be a story there but I'm still digging for it.
There are times when a stimulus comes in the form of a title for a story, not the story itself. When I get into it, the plot line follows from the title. Case in point: I was driving through town one morning five years ago when the radio played Helen Reddy singing "Angie Baby." Some of you may remember that "Angie" is a mentally challenged girl, who nonetheless has an extraordinary power. I reworked that idea into a story in the anthology Nights of Horseplay, in which "Angie baby" is a girl with Asperger's syndrome.
Then there are people, a source which presents the challenge (even for fiction writers) of stering clear of writing things that could be considered defamatory. Hence, the usual disclaimer, "This story and all the characters in it are fictional," or words to that effect. Yet people can still creep into what we write, despite our best efforts to exclude them. When my wife read the first chapter of my unfinished novel Kilroy's Shadow, she remarked that the protagonist was a dead-on rendition of my father. Among the host of those now departed – parents, grandparents, in-laws, cousins – are many memorable tales. Alas, I think that a literary rendition of their lives and experiences that would do them justice is beyond my abilities.
In my next post, I'll talk about the connections that form the framework of our stories.