Over at Upstart Crow Literary, Chris has a question about where writers get their ideas. I've already written a post about this, so I won't repeat all that, but Chris's post got me thinking in general about how I get ideas, and I think the thing that works for me is noticing stuff.
I know...that's really specific right? Y'all are like "oooh, thanks Jay for the handy tip about noticing things, if you want to write." I'm a visionary, what can I say?
Seriously, though, that's how I get my ideas. And that's how, if you dig into many writers' stories about where their ideas come from, they get their ideas, too. For example, I remember reading Stephen King's recent book Cell, and knowing exactly where he got the idea for the book. It's right there in the opening scenes, when the pulse goes off and everyone on a cell phone turns into a raving zombie lunatic. And I know (even though I don't really know) that King was standing in line at the coffee shop behind some annoying jerk on a cell phone and thought to himself "what if that damn thing turned him into a zombie?" and BOOM! Book.
That's what happens to me. I hear a snippet of a song and BOOM. Idea. I see someone on the street and BOOM. Idea. I read and article about something and then and see a commercial for something else and BOOM. Idea.*
But it's not like it happens all the time, like I'm constantly bombarded with ideas for books like a nerd in a dodgeball game. It just happens occasionally, so I have to be prepared when it does by noticing stuff all the time.
For example, I proctored an LSAT this weekend. Proctored exams are a great place to notice things because people aren't focused on you but on themselves. Please I sit at the front of the room and can stare at them without them noticing because they're all looking at their tests.** During the break I was listening to a couple of girls chatting about something called English Club (they're watching Dead Poets Society this weekend, by the way), and they started talking about Josh, the former president of English Club, who resigned in a fit of pique because people were "usurping his power" and not "suspending their belief" and what not. This conversation? Is perfect for an idea for me for several reasons:
1. I was an English major. We didn't have English Club, but we should have.
2. I was a member of a very tight knit group of fellow English majors (we were English tutors), so I'm familiar with the dynamics that can develop amongst a group of highly literate and emotionally insecure young people who say things like "you are usurping my authority!" and mean it.
3. I love Dead Poet's Society. Okay, that last one is sort of irrelevant, but still.
Did I get a whole idea from this little snippet of conversation? Nope. It wasn't a flash of lightning this time. But I'm filing this little snippet away in the back of my brain for the day that some other idea comes along and say "hey, you know what we need? Josh! From English Club!"
That's what I mean when I say I try to notice stuff. It doesn't mean I write it all down (although I do keep a sort of journal), and it doesn't mean that I've got a steel trap brain where I remember everything I've ever seen. But if I get in the habit of noticing stuff, especially stuff that doesn't have anything to do with me except that I am there to notice it, that stuff will come bubbling up out of the subconscious when I really need it.
Or, that's the theory, at least.
* I think of this particular method -- when two different things come together to create an idea for me -- as the Trask Radio method after that old movie Working Girl starring Melanie Griffith. In it, she plays a secretary who has a great idea about a deal that is stolen by her ambitious boss, played by Sigourney Weaver. Complications ensue and at the end of the movie, Melanie has to explain to the client how she got the idea. She tells the client, whose last name is Trask, that she was reading the paper and there was a picture of his daughter on one page and an article about a radio station on the other. "And so I got to thinking," she tells him. "Trask. Radio. Trask. Radio."
** Proctoring: Providing Fodder For Novels Since 2006.