A New Idea

It started with a character, a woman.  I could see her face, read her thoughts.  She was very much a stranger to me, unlike any other character I had written before.  But she showed up in my mind one morning when I should have been working on something else, and insinuated herself into my thoughts.  So, I did what I usually do:  I took a few notes, jotted down some descriptors, and went back to the stuff that was hurtling toward a deadline.

But she showed up again the next day.  This time she had a friend.  I took notes on this second character, too.

Which didn’t prevent them both from coming back once again the next morning, with a few more of their kind, as well as a magic system, a setting, and the beginnings of a storyline.

I have a book in production, another with my editor.  I have two more books in the same series that I want to pitch, an urban fantasy that needs one last rewrite, a middle reader book that’s half done, and several short pieces I want to write.  I really don’t have time for another book, much less a series.  But at this point I have about as much control over these new characters and their story as I do over the storm system sweeping across the Southeast this morning.

God, I love being a writer.

“Where do you get your ideas?”  It’s one of those questions that writers dread, and that we get constantly.  Our dread, and the questioners’ curiosity is born of the same thing:  it’s impossible to explain.  I don’t know where this woman I imagined came from.  Maybe she’s been in my head all this time, and only made herself known to me now.  Maybe she is a composite of a bunch of people I met right before she came to me.  I honestly don’t know.

I do know that I can’t make new book or story ideas appear on demand.  It’s not a process over which I have conscious control.  But I also know that this isn’t entirely true.  I’ve been teaching a writing class for the past few weeks and have been asking my students to write character sketches and scenes in class as exercises.  I’ve been doing the exercises with them, and have found that I can, in fact, come up with story ideas on the spur of the moment, without waiting for them to bubble up inside me.

I’ve heard writers say that they get their ideas by asking “What if?”  I’ve said as much myself, and I know that at least one of my series grew out of a string of “what ifs.”  But that’s a bit misleading.  The “what ifs” came after the initial spark.  The idea came to me in the form of a scene — I imagined a festival, and in particular one tent where a young man was having his future revealed to him.  I wound up with a five book series.  My new series, Chronicles of the Thieftaker (which I’ll be writing as D.B. Jackson) began with a footnote I read in a history book, Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore.  I once had an editor ask me if I wanted to submit a story to a Dragon-themed anthology she was putting together (Dragon’s Lure, edited by Danielle Ackley-McPhail).  I had never written a dragon story before, and told her as much.  But as we were speaking, an idea came to me, and by the time we had finished our conversation, I knew exactly what I would write.  Best story I’ve ever written.

I guess my point is this:  creativity is completely unpredictable, at least it is for me.  I would love to be able to control it all the time, to come up with a perfect story idea every time I need one.  I can’t.  And as frustrating as that sometimes is, it’s also what makes every new idea so thrilling, so precious.  I actually think that if I could bottle the Idea Genie, and get my ideas whenever I needed them, it would take quite a bit of the fun out of being a writer.  Creativity is an act of discovery, or many acts of discovery linked to one another.  The initial idea feeds new concepts — additional characters, secondary and tertiary plot threads, nuances of a magic system or a created world.  And watching that first notion develop into something deeper, broader, watching it expand and take on a life of its own — that for me is the greatest joy in my professional life.

So I don’t know where this new woman in my life came from.  I don’t really care.  She’s here now, and I find her fascinating.

How about you?  Is there someone new in your life?  Have you started writing his/her story yet?  If so, how is is going?  If not, what are you waiting for?

David B. Coe

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There are 11 comments. Get the RSS feed for comments on this entry.

  1. 1. Paul

    I’ve only ever written a novel for Nanowrimo…

    I get ideas for scenarios: locations, places, situations. The ideas that swim in my head rarely begin with character, they begin with ideas.

  2. 2. Phiala

    New ideas are so much fun! I love the thrill of finding a shiny new idea and expanding it into a story.

    I just finished a novel draft, and am spending a month or so writing short fiction before I tackle rewrites. Lots of ideas taking form, some of which I’ve been hanging on to for months while I pushed on the novel. Very satisfying.

  3. 3. Olivia

    My ideas come to me in images. I’ll see a character, standing or sitting somewhere, and the stuff around them. I build from there. I woke up with the image for my completed manuscript.
    The one for the MS I’m working on now appeared in the middle of my 6th grade math class (I started writing it then. I have since re-begun from the beginning).

  4. 4. David B. Coe

    Paul, I’m usually the same way — plot ideas or magic systems often present themselves before characters. Maybe that’s why I find this new character so compelling. She’s different.

    Phiala, I agree. The new shiny is, in many ways, my favorite part of this crazy job. Glad to hear that your work is going so well. That’s a great feeling.

    Olivia, for me the images come a little more slowly. Sometimes. The truth is, there’s no rhyme or reason to any of this for me. That’s part of the fun, I think. Thanks for the comment!

  5. 5. Jamie Todd Rubin

    David, I wrote up a similar post last week talking about where my ideas come from. I called it, “Daddy, where do stories come from?. Good to see I’m not the only one… :-)

  6. 6. David B. Coe

    That’s a great post, Jamie. Robert Frost once said “An idea is a feat of association.” I think he would relate to what you wrote in your post.

  7. 7. Mary

    I usually start with an incident, which are character and action and setting all together — but very truncuated.

  8. 8. L. Jagi Lamplighter (Wright)

    You know David, I just realized that I read your articles on writing regularly and almost always enjoy them very much…and I almost never read anyone elses…

    Not sure what that says. I realy enjoyed this one, though.

  9. 9. David B. Coe

    Mary, that’s interesting, and something I’d love to try, you know, if I had any conscious control over my creative process…. Thanks for the comment.

    Jagi, thank you so much. What a kind thing to say. I’m flattered.

  10. 10. Mikaela

    I got a new idea yesterday. I was watching a documentary about Epigenetics, and I asked myself: What if the genes that controlled magic was epigenetically controlled? Oooh. My brain started to spin with possibilities.

    So far, no characters have stepped forward :) .

  11. 11. Mary

    Well, on the downside, it can be very hard to pry the character out of the matrix and see what he looks like in other situations.

Author Information

David B. Coe

David B. Coe (http://www.DavidBCoe.com) is the Crawford award-winning author of the LonTobyn Chronicle, the Winds of the Forelands quintet, the Blood of the Southlands trilogy, and a number of short stories. Writing as D.B. Jackson (http://www.dbjackson-author.com), he is the author of the Thieftaker Chronicles, a blend of urban fantasy, mystery, and historical fiction. David is also part of the Magical Words group blog (http://magicalwords.net), and co-author of How To Write Magical Words: A Writer’s Companion. In 2010 he wrote the novelization of director Ridley Scott’s movie, Robin Hood. His books have been translated into more than a dozen languages. Visit site.



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