Writers Are Magpies–or Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

Writers are magpies. We watch everything, we pry into everything, and we take whatever shiny bit we might like. We haul it back to our nests and pile it like dragon’s treasure. And then we turn into replicators (pardon me Stargate SG1). But we take our treasure and sift through it and make things out of it. Amazing, wondrous things. We sculpt, we ratchet, we bend and weld . . . . We are writers.

People ask us all the time where we get our ideas. How did you come up with that? A glib answer is Walmart. But the real truth is, we don’t know how to deal with that question. The real answer is to stare around ourselves in pointed astonishment–where DON’T we get our ideas??? Seriously, we are magpies. We pry little bits off of everything.  Whatever strikes our fancy. We may have no idea why or how that bit might become useful or relevant, but merely that it is worth remembering. Then, eventually, it connects to something else. And then something else. And suddenly we’re wondering, we’re adding in more bits and soon we have story.

My uncle knew Robert Heinlein (found out this after Heinlein’s death). Anyhow, Heinlein would carry this notebook in his pocket and randomly (or so my uncle would think–he’s a judge) would scribble down notes about something. He never said what. Then he would close the notebook, tuck it away, and say “thank you.” Later he would file the notes in various files and every so often, he’d take the files out and sort through things and create story.

See? Magpie.

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  1. 1. Keith

    Sometimes it just takes a question to spark a story/idea, like “Why would aliens come to Earth”, the answer I came up with, hint, they didn’t come specifically for Earth or Earth’s people/resources, spun off at least 3-4 more story ideas! one they come to help, another they come to enslave us, and one they are indifferent to us, one of these days I need to get busy and write one(or all) up. Can you have too many ideas? lol

  2. 2. Lydia Sharp

    Looks like I have something in common with Heinlein. I do the notebook thing, too. I’ve received questioning looks on more than one occasion.

    The world is constantly throwing ideas at us. I picked up one just yesterday by simply walking into my apartment building, and the woman who lives above me was out watering her flowers. The poor things looked horrible – wilted, brittle, stiff – and she’s dumping a BUCKET of water over them.

    I said, “They’re having a rough time of it, eh?” And she said, “Yeah, I’m just trying to save the little darlings.” The way she said it, with her rosy-cheek grin…how could I NOT use that? Suddenly, I’ve got a new supporting character for my next novel: the overly optimistic gardener.

  3. 3. Kelly McCullough

    Ooh, shiny! The topic that is. Very nice post.

  4. 4. Missy S

    Oh don’t I know it… I have several notebooks full of several random thoughts and ideas. Working on something now for one random thing that has sparked a 13 page outline. :)

    I love watching people, seeing reactions, hearing strange words… when I’m researching, if I read a word I like, I write it down b/c it will help me remember it later.

    *settles into nest* Yeah, I know exactly what you mean.

  5. 5. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    Keith~ when I first read yours, I read “spank and idea.” I rather like that. Now I will have to use it. I’m a magpie. Never can have too many ideas, unless it keeps you from writing. :D

    Lydia~ I love it!

    Missy: Welcome to the birdhouse.

  6. 6. JZ

    I recall reading that Roald Dahl (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) did the notebook thing as well. On one occasion, he apparently left the notebook at home and ended up writing the idea in the dust on his car.

  7. 7. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    JZ–that is Awesome. My truck is plenty dirty . . .

  8. 8. Victor Powell

    Haha, like the previous comments, I too have a notebook that I am constantly scribbling ideas or new ideas for a novel I’m working on. And idea do indeed come from everywhere. I had a recent idea that I got when I was running late and noticed that the clocks in my house wasn’t sychronized. I, later, got another idea because I was sitting in my office, feeling cold.

    I like the Magpie name rather Packrat, as I’ve been called because I seem to collect stuff from everywhere.

    Today, I thought I lost my notebook and nearly had a heart attack…it’s then I realized that it’s one of my prized possessions–worth more than gold.

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Author Information

Diana Pharaoh Francis

Diana Pharaoh Francis has written the fantasy novel trilogy that includes Path of Fate, Path of Honor and Path of Blood. Path of Fate was nominated for the Mary Roberts Rinehart Award. Recently released was The Turning Tide, third in her Crosspointe Chronicles series (look also for The Cipher and The Black Ship). In October 2009, look for Bitter Night, a contemporary fantasy. Diana teaches in the English Department at the University of Montana Western, and is an avid lover of all things chocolate. Visit site.

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