A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Sunday, January 16, 2022

Scrivening 1: It Came from Schenectady!

Whence find writers Ideas for their Stories or Novels?
You can’t tell just by reading the stories.  What the Story is "about" may not be the reason why the author initially applied butt to chair and began tickling the keyboard. 
Steven Crane got the idea for The Red Badge of Courage not from any wartime experience of his own – he had none – but one day, after reading dryly written stories of famous Civil War battles and military leaders in Century Magazine, he reported thinking, "I wonder that some of those fellows don't tell how they felt in those scraps.”  And this gave him the idea of capturing the emotions of combat. 

Ideas are to literature what light is to painting. 
Paul Bourget

Thomas Kinkade and the Literature of Ideas

The media a few years ago carried the news that Thomas Kinkade, The Painter of Light™, had died.  Many of those who had purchased his paintings and prints bowed their heads in contemplation of the mortality of man and the likely amortization in the values of his paintings.  The art world breathed a hearty sigh of relief.  Kinkade was regarded with disdain by many as the Master of Kitsch.  Consider these two paintings of the Chicago Water Tower:

Of these two nearly identical paintings, Joe Carter comments:

“the first is unquestionably technically superior.  The use of texture and shadow puts the viewer within the picture.  You can feel the chill of the cold Chicago wind and hear the sounds of the serene yet bustling city. 

In contrast, the second painting distances the viewer from the scene.  Artificial light oozes out from every window and the background lights resemble a brushfire, presenting a faux golden glow that is unrealistic and dull.  And the carriage, though more sharply drawn than in the first painting, is two-dimensional and distracting; it could have been added in using Photoshop rather than daubs of paint.  While the first work is worthy of gracing a museum wall, the second is only worthy of garnishing a greeting card.
As you could probably guess, the second painting is by Thomas Kinkade, circa 2004.  But what about the first painting, the more aesthetically superior rendition of the Water Tower?  It too is by Thomas Kinkade. He painted it in 1998.”
Joe Carter, Thomas Kinkade’s Cottage Fantasy  
And that is why many artists disliked Kinkade.  He knew art; but chose kitsch.
All Kinkade did (and he did it deliberately, and was very explicit about doing it deliberately) was treat his paintings like authors in our society are expected to treat their literary works and like musicians in our society are expected to treat their music. 

-- Siris, "Thomas Kinkade"

And if ideas are to literature what light is to painting, as Paul Bourget put it, how can the Literature of Ideas, which Science Fiction likes to call itself, be distinguished from the Painter of Light™?   
Well that all depends on the kinds of ideas, doesn't it?  Everyone likes a light entertainment now and then, and at other times perhaps a dense thought-provoking novel, and still other times may even enjoy something abstract and experimental.  

The Four Dimensions of Ideas 

When asked where he got his ideas from, Harlan Ellison famously made the following reply:
When some jamook asks me this one (thereby revealing him/herself to be a person who has about as much imaginative muscle as a head of lettuce), I always smile prettily and answer, "Schenectady."
And when the jamook looks at me quizzically, and scratches head with hairy hand, I add: "Oh, sure. There's a swell Idea Service in Schenectady; and every week I send 'em twenty-five bucks; and every week they send me a fresh six-pack of ideas."
Leaving only two questions: has the price gone up since then? And what the heck is a “jamook”? 
Of course, Harlan meant that ideas are everywhere.  It’s raining soup and you have either a bucket or a colander.  It’s what you do with the idea that matters.  A common writer’s exercise is to take any random item and write about it, just for practice.  Once, when TOF was in high school on detention, he was tasked with writing a 500-word essay on a tse-tse fly.  It was supposed to be busy-work; but I thought it was cool, and crafted a marvelous adventure involving a mutant tse-tse fly and his sundry companions.  The next time our class managed a full monte detention, we were told to do 500-words about the inside of a ping-pong ball.  TOF wrote it as a sequel to the tse-tse fly adventure in which said fly was trapped inside a ping pong ball and must needs escape with the help of his aforesaid trusty companions.  If you can’t write a mere 500 words on either a tse-tse fly, the inside of a ping pong ball, or both, you have no business committing fantasy or science fiction. 
The genesis of a story can fall into several broad categories: Theme, Character, Plot, and Setting.
1. Ideas about a Theme: James Jones wrote From Here to Eternity because he wanted to show that service in a peacetime military was detrimental to a man’s character. 
Ed searched for
a "character"
, found
a novel
2. Ideas about a Character: Donald Westlake began writing his “Parker” novels (under the name Richard Stark) because he was seized of a character he envisioned walking across the GW bridge snarling at motorists who offered him a ride. He wanted to know more about him; so he started writing. Edward M. Lerner wanted to have a new type of monster, science fictional and sympathetic “as all good monsters are.”  In the resulting novel, Fools' Experiments, the creature is an artificial intelligence developed in a computer-science lab – but unwilling to remain there.
3. Ideas about a Scene or Plot Element: John Fowles got the idea for The French Lieutenant’s Woman from a painting of a woman on a quay looking out to sea.  The image intrigued him and he wanted to know how and why she had come to be there.  Larry Niven tells us that Destiny’s Road formed around an irresistibly simple image: a road shaped by a fusion drive, its far end lost for two hundred years. 
4. Ideas about a Setting: Sometimes worldbuilding can lead to a story.  J.R.R. Tolkien began to write Lord of the Rings because he wanted to explore the world of Middle Earth he had crafted.  Hal Clement wrote Mission of Gravity because he was intrigued by the problems of a very-high-gravity planet. 
Dunning wanted to write
a particular kind of book
John Dunning wrote his novel Denver because he wanted to write a blockbuster and so included in the novel all the elements that he thought were necessary.  That is, he wanted to write a particular kind of novel, and from there he went on to develop characters, setting, plot, and so forth.  The one thing he knew for certain was that the book would start with a steamy sex scene. 
What an idea. 

Write What You Know 

The paradigmatic advice to writers is to write what you know.  This is dangerous advice, since most of us don’t know very much.  There are too many quasi-biographical novels out there, anyway.  The better advice is use what you know. 

But one obvious source of ideas really is what we do know, either from personal experiences, education, or observation.  John Dunning worked as a hot walker at a race track and has an avid interest in old-time dramatic radio.  He used these not to write about his own experiences but to create The Bookwoman's Last Fling and Two O'Clock, Eastern Wartime, respectively. 
Ideas rise dripping and leech-covered
from the black water swamp of the mind.
And sometimes even the writer may not be quite aware of where the idea comes from.  Larry Niven tells us that “The Wisdom of Demons” fell into my head during a grocery expedition.  Now, as tempting as it would be to imagine Larry acquiring the occult wisdom of the netherworld and becoming an evil sorcerer while innocently buying corn flakes, he meant the idea for a story with that title “fell into” his head, not demonic wisdom per se.  Yet the notion of someone standing in the checkout line and somehow getting filled up with demonic wisdom is itself an interesting idea for a story. 

The Ponds Wherein Fish Do Swim

Others go to bed with their mistresses; I with my ideas.  – José Martí.
Let us leave aside the evidently lonely life of José Martí and look at some examples of where actual writers have gotten actual ideas. And the first is...
1.      Actual Personal Experiences
You can get ideas for stories from events in your own life, dramatic or simple.  Ernest Hemingway was moved to write For Whom the Bell Tolls by his personal experience as an ambulance driver during the Spanish Civil War.  Similarly, Charles Dickens’ childhood experiences led him to write David Copperfield.  But how can a SF writer have actual personal experiences with, say, alien cultures? 
Juliette Wade tells us “I get my ideas primarily from my experience overseas – essentially, from unusual situations or interactions that were extremely awkward because of misunderstandings on one or both sides.”  One day when she and her husband and some friends went into a major department store in the Ginza, her husband asked one of the shop helpers, in Japanese, to show him a pair of shoes and tell him the price.  The shopkeeper replied by crossing her forearms in front of her and saying, ‘No Engurishu!’  
When my husband and I politely explained that in fact we were speaking Japanese, and so could she show us the shoes, please, she replied in the same way: ‘No Engurishu!’ Whereupon we were dumbfounded.  Fortunately we'd been noticed by another shop attendant who came over and apologized, and showed us the shoes.”  
But this experience gave Juliette the idea that that humans could speak an alien language, but the natives wouldn't recognize they were speaking it.  This led to her short story "Let the Word Take Me," (ANALOG, July/August 2008).
2.      Vicarious Experience: Observations
Experience extends beyond what we have done to that which we have seen and heard or read.  John Steinbeck was not blown off his farm in the dust bowl.  He was a marine biologist in California.  But one day he saw a jalopy full of Okies piled high with their possessions and he was consumed by a desire to write their story, which became Grapes of Wrath. 
A writer spends his time observing – or ought to.  Stay awake and pay attention to “atoms of fact and attitude.”  Observe people and how they react to situations, especially those reactions that may expose a characteristic.  Here is a man in a diner, carefully counting out coins to pay his bill.  Perhaps he is stingy.  But perhaps he is penniless.  Or perhaps he is a coin collector and is looking for a wheat penny or a rare coin among his change.  (Start with the fact; then spin theories about it.)  Joseph Conrad said that in a series of chance encounters with various people he “met” all the major characters for his novel Victory. 
Reading counts, too.  Larry Niven wrote “Neutron Star” after reading a science article by Isaac Asimov and combining that with a story he had written for his Composition class at Washburn Univ.  Isaac Asimov said that he got the idea for the Foundation stories from reading Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in which he vicariously experienced the collapse of a world-spanning empire.

Vicarious Experience: Friends and Acquaintances 
A closely related source is to find ideas in the experiences and comments of friends or acquaintances.  Louis Bouilhet mentioned the case of a Norman physician’s wife who committed suicide to his friend Gustave Flaubert, who turned it into Madame Bovary.  Henry James was sparked to write The Ambassadors by a chance remark which Wm. Dean Howells’ made to Jonathan Sturges (and which Sturges then reported to Henry James!)

Harry Turtledove had been corresponding with fantasy writer Judith Tarr.  (This was during the chartilithic period; i.e., before email.)  “One of the things writers do when they talk with other writers,” he tells us, “is piss and moan about cover art for upcoming books.”  Judy complained that the cover for one of hers [showing a knight in the wrong armor for his century] was “as anachronistic as Robert E. Lee with an Uzi.”  Harry looked at that and thought, “What a great line!”  He wrote back, printed out the letter, and under his signature wrote a hand-scrawled PS – "Who'd want to give Robert E. Lee an Uzi?  Time-traveling South Africans, maybe?"  That was the genesis of Guns of the South.  “It was the book that let me quit my day job,” he tells us, “so I owe Judy big time.”
4.   Current Events: What’s Happening, Baby! 
Another source of ideas is current events.  Theodore Dreiser was inspired to write An American Tragedy by reading of the Chester Gillette-Grace Brown murder case in the papers.  Less current, but similar, was Lawrence Block’s mid-1970s novel Not Comin’ Home to You, which was inspired by the mid-1950s Starkweather/Fugate murder spree.  But current events need not be criminal.  Daniel Defoe decided to write Robinson Crusoe after he read a newspaper account of a rescued castaway; and Herman Melville got the idea for Moby Dick after reading an account of a ship sunk by a maddened whale. 
Wells wondered how airships
would affect future war.
Social and political upheavals may also suggest stories.  Mark Twain wrote The Guilded Age: a Tale of Today to satirize the greed and political corruption in post-Civil War America.  Tom Wolfe tried to capture the 60s in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.  Gore Vidal went for changing sexual mores in Myra Breckenridge. 
Among current events of interest to us skiffy types are developments in science and technology.  H.G. Wells could see that airships were a coming thing and wrote The War in the Air.  
5.      History: What Happened, Baby!
You may also find story ideas in historical events.  This is obvious in the case of actual historical novels, like Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy.  But events in history may also inspire stories set in the future or in fantasy worlds. We've already mentioned Asimov and the Roman Empre.  Harry Turtledove was inspired to write the Videssos books by the history of the Byzantine Empire.  He took the map of Byzantium and literally turned it upside down, renamed all the countries and people; then added a soupcon of magic. 
Juliette Wade takes inspiration from literature, such as ancient Japanese literature, and from history, mostly French and Japanese history.  My own short story, “The Steel Driver,” was the story of John Henry told in a SFnal way: that is, the collision of human beings with new technology. 
One element of history with built-in dramatics is war.  In science fiction, there is a whole sub-genre of “military SF.”  But we’re talking about authors who get a story idea from a war, or some incident in a war, not necessarily writing about a war. 
Joe Haldeman drew on his Vietnam experiences for The Forever War but its impetus was reportedly to “answer” Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Trooper (who himself wrote partly in rebuttal to Kipling’s “The Army of a Dream”).  But the germ for Starship Trooper was not “to write a war story,” but to write the story of an eighteen-year old boy coming of age in the military of the future.  That a story involves war-time adventures doesn’t always mean that the story’s genesis was a desire to write a war-time adventure. 
6.      Desires for an adventure
Though it could be. And speaking of which, there are other kinds of adventures: journeys, explorations, encounters of various sorts, whether in a past, future, or alternate world.  Rafael Sabatini wrote Scaramouche because wanted to write swashbuckling adventures. 
The Maltese
Falcon in Space!
A great deal of science fiction and fantasy falls in this category, where the inspiration doesn’t come so much from the cutting edge of science, but from a desire to explore strange new worlds and civilizations.  John W. Campbell's The Moon is Hell is not concerned with rocket ship and space travel, but with a crew shipwrecked on the Moon who then must find a way to survive. 
One of the ideas that led to my own The January Dancer was The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett.  I liked the “look and feel” of multiple characters in a long and deadly search for a valued ancient artifact.  
7.      Interest in a business /industry / field / profession
Think about your profession or your hobbies.  There may be something there to suggest a story.  Think about fields in which you have an interest.  Arthur Hailey was fascinated with airport operations and this led him to write the appropriately-named Airport.  Lawrence Block’s wife is an artist, and he once painted a Mondrian of his own, figuring he’d never be able to own an original, “and how hard could it be?”  That gave him the idea for The Burglar Who Painted Like Mondrian.
Juliette Wade is a linguist and tells us she sometimes gets story ideas from theoretical linguistics.  “I'll find a particular phenomenon – such as status language – that I don't think people understand too well, and go about creating a story around it that will exemplify its use.”  Her short story "Cold Words" was based on the general idea of status language (combined with the idea of wolf physiology.)

Wright What You Know

Sometimes you can find ideas by playing changes on experiences and other sources mentioned above.  No one wants to read the unadorned story of Things That Happened To Me.  (Not unless you have led a far too interesting life.)  Experience must be wrought into ideas.  There are several ways of doing this. 
Look at Life from Both Sides Now
Take something and look at its possible consequences.  Working as a marine biologist in S. California, John Steinbeck met many poor pearl fishermen.  One day he wondered, what if one of them found a really valuable pearl?  The result was The Pearl.  John Le Carré, working in the British Secret Service, wondered “what if” one of his colleagues were a mole?  The result was The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. 
Exploring the consequences
of the Alderson Drive...
Larry Niven tells us that one key to The Mote in God’s Eye lay in exploring the consequences of the Alderson space drive.  “Jerry had an interstellar empire of Man,” he writes.  “I had a leftover alien.  I saw that his Alderson Drive permitted undiscovered worlds inside his Empire.” 
Juliette Wade enjoys taking phenomena she has seen in other stories and turning them on their heads.  Her story "The Liars" takes the idea of a "primitive" alien language with very few words and takes it in rather a different direction, because there's a very specific reason why the language has such an apparently small vocabulary. 
How Does It Feel?
More generally, writers can find ideas in their own philosophical conclusions about life or their feelings or emotions toward any of the items mentioned previously.  You want to write a war story?  Fine.  How do you feel about that?  Mark Twain hated slavery and wrote Huckleberry Finn as a savage indictment of that institution.  Henry Fielding’s personal experiences had convinced him that man often fails to see the goodness in anything – and chose a bastard – Tom Jones – as his protagonist to show this. 
Nancy was tired from
lack of sleep
Brian Garfield one day found his convertible top slashed by vandals and was consumed by a sudden and uncontrollable rage against the perpetrator.  He wanted to hunt him down and kill him.  And if not the actual perp, then another like him.  The mood quickly dissipated, but then he wondered, What if it didn’t?  And the result was the novel Death Wish. 
Nancy Kress tells us that Beggars in Spain grew out of an emotion – envy.  “I need a lot of sleep, and I resent the lost time.  One day I thought, What if I didn't have to sleep at all?  How might that come about?  Okay, not me, but someone created that way....”
It Takes Two to Tango
Man and woman; yin and yang.  Sometimes one is not enough.  Or rather, one idea is not yet an idea for a story. 
Keep a notebook of your observations.  Some writers write their ideas on index cards and put them in a shoe box.  Now and then, they will pull two cards at random and consider the otherwise unconnected ideas together.  Sometimes this strikes a spark and a story is born.  Sometimes it doesn’t.  This is very much like the “morphological charts” proposed by Fritz Zwicky for engineering design.
Don’t laugh.  Mozart used to roll a set of three dice to generate random chord progressions to see if they would suggest a theme or motif.  If using random association as a jumping-off point was good enough for Mozart, it’s darned well good enough for us. 
Of course, you could just dump all the observations into your reptile brain and then one day some wacky combination just pops up in your cortex, apparently from nowhere. 
Lawrence Block once read a magazine article on sleep, which included a tidbit on people whose sleep center had been destroyed.  This gave him an idea for a character (Evan Tanner).  He thought he might like to write a story about this character and started wondering what a sleepless person would do with all that extra time.  Then, during a chance encounter at a party, he fell into a conversation with a numismatic journalist who mentioned the “lost gold of Armenia.”  He had gotten a lead on where the coins had been hidden from the Turks; but when he and his colleagues, under cover of night, dug up the place, they found the cache had been emptied long before.  He fused these two ideas into The Thief Who Couldn’t Sleep, the first of his Evan Tanner books.

(BTW, you might notice that both Lawrence Block and Nancy Kress wrote novels about people who had no need to sleep.  Utterly different stories in two different genres.  The weird thing is that Nancy was Block's successor as the fiction columnist for Writers' Digest.  Cue Twilight Zone music.)
Two ideas collided
in Stan's head
Stan Schmidt tells us that most of his stories have sprung from the collision of at least two ideas. 
“Once, for instance, I read a John Campbell editorial describing artificially produced waves with properties no natural waves had.  That made wonder: What about the waves that constitute matter?  Could artificial versions be made with properties impossible for natural matter?
“John didn’t like the first story I wrote based on that, but a little later, in my first year of full-time teaching college physics, I was preparing a lecture on Newton and for the first time really grasped the enormity of his accomplishment in formulating his laws of motion and gravitation: Would I have thought of it, knowing only what he did?  The next day, in the midst of delivering that lecture, I was suddenly struck by the thought: What if Newton, at the crucial time, had seen things that didn’t follow his laws?  The result was Newton and the Quasi-Apple.”

Transforming Ideas Into Stories

Eventually, ideas have to become stories.  Jerry Pournelle made a stack of notes for near-future predictions.  “We already had a title,” Larry Niven said.  Oath of Fealty.  “And we worked from the notes.  One day he tried to hand me more notes and I said, ‘We’ve got enough notes.  What we need is a story.’  We worked up an outline and ran from there.”  

Only those ideas that are least truly ours can be adequately expressed in words  --Henri Bergson
Who knows where this
came from?

It's Up to the Fish

John C Wright, proud founder of the Space Princess Movement, provided the following thoughts about where ideas come from:
"A great writer steals his ideas from ancient and classical sources, where he can find genius greater than his own. A mediocre writer steals from his contemporaries, where he finds material more popular than his own. A bad writer tries to be original, and ends up creating rubbish.
"No one knows from where ideas arise. If you believe in the faulty and unscientific theory of Freud, you believe there is an awareness inside your awareness of which you yourself are unaware, a sub-conscious or un-conscious mind that can deduce artistic and symbolic ideas of great subtlety and complexity and present them to you. If you believe the scientific theory of Homer, you know that there are nine Muses whose divine footsteps haunt the slopes of Mount Ida or Parnassus or Helicon where flows the Hippocrene where smote the shining hoof of Pegasus.
"I can tell you this: trying to come up with an idea is like fishing. A fisherman can select his bait and lure and find whatever shady spot he thinks the trout are biting, but whether he gets a small inspiration or a large, or one he must throw back is not up to him. It is up to the fish.
"For science fiction writers, the bait is always what you yourself like in books you've read, the lure is how your personal philosophy and outlook on life would reflect on it, and the waters are your own experience and memories and meditations.
"Let me use a famous example: According to Asimov, John W Campbell Jr prompted Asimov to write the story “Nightfall” after discussing a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote:
If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore, and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown!
"Campbell’s contrariwise opinion was: 'I think men would go mad.'
"Campbell's idea is taking something he'd read, in this case Emerson, filtering it through his particular philosophy (that men are products of their environment, creatures of no fixed nature and no pre-established or instinctive notions of the sublime or beautiful), and came to the astounding conclusion that one of the sights we all regard as noble and awe-inspiring would be by men born of a different environment, a world without night, as Lovecraftian in its horror.
"Isaac Asimov was accomplished enough as a writer to take this idea and execute it to make one of the more memorable short stories of SF.
"Execution is everything. The idea is only the hook."
+ + +
Your Assignment
Tomorrow as you go about your life (assuming you have one), take notes of things that you see or hear or read.  Then pick one and try to imagine a story idea stemming from it.  No: come up with three story ideas.  Remember the guy carefully counting coins?  Come up with three different reasons for what you observed, each revealing a different character trait or plot element, etc.  Not a story "about" it, but one suggested by it.  Report back here.  
Coming Soon: Entitlement

1 comment:

  1. What was read: The Hopi tried to interpret the intention of Apache groups approaching by omens. A rain cloud in the same direction was a good omen, of trade. But in the Southwest, not common.

    A powerful king is accompanied by rain when he travels, if he is pleased.

    A sorceress conjures rain to make people more peaceable.

    Searching through a book of omens to try to deduce the intentions of approaching travelers in strange weather.


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