Ideas

Seeds 1
It's a truth, not unrelated to this topic, that a post here often grows out of a prior post and the ensuing comment thread.

A case in point: Last time, I talked about Craftsmanship, and in the comments Quantum said, "It seems to me that generating ideas for new plots is even more important…Can you comment on how ideas for new novels are generated. Do you have to work at it or do the ideas just float into your mind from the aether?"

And since that seemed to be a topic too involved for me to give a good reply within the comments, I asked Quantum to bear with me while I thought it through properly.

“Where do you get your ideas?” is one of those questions that all writers struggle to answer. For me, at least, it’s difficult to come up with one pat answer that explains the process, because every book I’ve written has begun a different way.


MarianaFirstPageWith my second novel, Mariana, for example, I was sitting on my sofa one night when I “saw” a scene in my imagination, so I grabbed a piece of paper and wrote it down, with dialogue and everything. And when I read it over, I could tell it was a woman of the modern day experiencing something in the very distant past—another century, in fact. Which meant a story in two times…except when she was in the past she didn’t seem to be aware of any other life, so that meant, what? Reincarnation? Possibly…

And so, from that beginning, grew the novel. I went looking for the setting, which I stumbled on while travelling through England with a friend who made me board a bus to Avebury (I didn’t want to go) where I discovered all the buildings—pub and manor house and church and grey stone house—just as I’d “seen” them in my mind. I picked the Plague Year as my time frame (likely thanks to my own interest in King Charles II, and my too-young reading of Forever Amber), and the rest just…happened. It just grew.

Scottish CardThe Winter Sea began when I picked up a little history book entirely by chance, because the title caught my interest: Playing the Scottish Card, by Edinburgh historian John S. Gibson. “The Franco-Jacobite Invasion of 1708” read the subtitle, and never having heard of the Franco-Jacobite Invasion of 1708 I started to read it, and became completely riveted, letting Gibson’s bibliography carry me back to the primary sources, where I found John Moray, and everything, again, just grew from there.

Every Secret Thing began at a dinner with friends, when one of them (an older man) was recounting his father’s experiences in World War II intelligence, and an injustice he’d witnessed and spent the last years of his life trying to bring to light. “He’d set up a meeting with a journalist,” my friend said, “but he died before the meeting could take place.” And everyone agreed that was a sad thing, and the talk moved on. But my brain, with its writer’s love of angles, had already started building possibilities, and by the time we’d finished our dessert I had the character of Andrew Deacon firmly lodged within my mind, beginning his adventures.

Kathryn2The Rose Garden grew from the death of my sister, because that’s what writers do. Writing is how we make sense of the world, how we process life. Things happen, and we work through them with stories and characters.

But if every idea that starts a new story arrives in a different way, what do they all have in common?

I’ve thought about this, since you asked, and while I wouldn’t say they “float in from the aether”, exactly, I do think they’re like those fluffy seeds that float by on the summer wind, except instead of floating past, they fall into a bed of soil that’s already prepared and has been waiting for them.

Let me use, as an example, my novel The Shadowy Horses. The simple answer would be that immediately after reading something about Rosemary Sutcliffe’s The Eagle of the Ninth (which I still haven’t read, incidentally), I chanced to read a chapter in H.V. Morton’s In Scotland Again where he mentions the Eyemouth Disaster of 1881, in which nearly their entire fishing fleet was wiped out by a freak storm, and the two things—those two groups of men being lost in the same general area, in different times—just crossed wires in my mind and formed the seed of story.

The Eagle of the NinthBut I’d argue that the bed of soil was already prepared and waiting for that seed to float by and fall into it. My mother, when I was a little girl, read stories to me of the Roman Empire, and passed on to me her fascination with not only Rome but Roman Britain. Though I’d never read The Eagle of the Ninth I was aware of the mysterious “disappearance” of Legio IX Hispana, and like many others wondered what had really happened. Also when I was little, I’d spent time on an archaeological dig (again thanks to my mother, who was volunteering) and found that fascinating, too—an interest I was able to explore a little more when I entered museum work myself.

So while in any other writer’s garden, that small story seed might have dried up and come to nothing, it was just the kind of seed that I could tend and grow.

Where do ideas come from? I’m afraid I still don’t have an easy answer

Seed 2I’d imagine that for every writer it’s a different place, a different process. But for me, I guess it really is a whole lot like a garden. Some seeds look like they’re about to grow, and don’t. Some shoot up quickly and with purpose. And then there are others, like the seed that grew to be The Winter Sea, that take their time, and bloom the brightest of them all.

65 thoughts on “Ideas”

  1. It’s cool to read about how random conversations and passing thoughts have cultivated a novel that I have read so many times. Having read Shadowy Horses so many times, I’m now on the hunt for “The Eagle…”. I’m not a writer by any stretch, but I have the kind of imagination that grabs something potentially inane and wonders what “might have happened”, particularly with history. I always love that you give voices to history’s minor characters.

    Reply
  2. It’s cool to read about how random conversations and passing thoughts have cultivated a novel that I have read so many times. Having read Shadowy Horses so many times, I’m now on the hunt for “The Eagle…”. I’m not a writer by any stretch, but I have the kind of imagination that grabs something potentially inane and wonders what “might have happened”, particularly with history. I always love that you give voices to history’s minor characters.

    Reply
  3. It’s cool to read about how random conversations and passing thoughts have cultivated a novel that I have read so many times. Having read Shadowy Horses so many times, I’m now on the hunt for “The Eagle…”. I’m not a writer by any stretch, but I have the kind of imagination that grabs something potentially inane and wonders what “might have happened”, particularly with history. I always love that you give voices to history’s minor characters.

    Reply
  4. It’s cool to read about how random conversations and passing thoughts have cultivated a novel that I have read so many times. Having read Shadowy Horses so many times, I’m now on the hunt for “The Eagle…”. I’m not a writer by any stretch, but I have the kind of imagination that grabs something potentially inane and wonders what “might have happened”, particularly with history. I always love that you give voices to history’s minor characters.

    Reply
  5. It’s cool to read about how random conversations and passing thoughts have cultivated a novel that I have read so many times. Having read Shadowy Horses so many times, I’m now on the hunt for “The Eagle…”. I’m not a writer by any stretch, but I have the kind of imagination that grabs something potentially inane and wonders what “might have happened”, particularly with history. I always love that you give voices to history’s minor characters.

    Reply
  6. Barry Longyear, a science fiction writer has a standard response to fans who ask that question: “It came from Schenectady.” He has a collection of short stories by that name. I have always loved the answer as a short version to a difficult question.
    The science fiction authors, I have talked to at SF conventions would mirror your more meaningful answer. Not as to specifics, but as to the thought that the ideas are out there (like your fluffy seeds) and they sometimes fall on fertile grounds, but need to be nourished and tended to.
    I am particularly interested in your descriptions of the beginnings of Marianna and the Shadowy Horses. Those books are why Kearsley books find their way to my shelves and stay there.

    Reply
  7. Barry Longyear, a science fiction writer has a standard response to fans who ask that question: “It came from Schenectady.” He has a collection of short stories by that name. I have always loved the answer as a short version to a difficult question.
    The science fiction authors, I have talked to at SF conventions would mirror your more meaningful answer. Not as to specifics, but as to the thought that the ideas are out there (like your fluffy seeds) and they sometimes fall on fertile grounds, but need to be nourished and tended to.
    I am particularly interested in your descriptions of the beginnings of Marianna and the Shadowy Horses. Those books are why Kearsley books find their way to my shelves and stay there.

    Reply
  8. Barry Longyear, a science fiction writer has a standard response to fans who ask that question: “It came from Schenectady.” He has a collection of short stories by that name. I have always loved the answer as a short version to a difficult question.
    The science fiction authors, I have talked to at SF conventions would mirror your more meaningful answer. Not as to specifics, but as to the thought that the ideas are out there (like your fluffy seeds) and they sometimes fall on fertile grounds, but need to be nourished and tended to.
    I am particularly interested in your descriptions of the beginnings of Marianna and the Shadowy Horses. Those books are why Kearsley books find their way to my shelves and stay there.

    Reply
  9. Barry Longyear, a science fiction writer has a standard response to fans who ask that question: “It came from Schenectady.” He has a collection of short stories by that name. I have always loved the answer as a short version to a difficult question.
    The science fiction authors, I have talked to at SF conventions would mirror your more meaningful answer. Not as to specifics, but as to the thought that the ideas are out there (like your fluffy seeds) and they sometimes fall on fertile grounds, but need to be nourished and tended to.
    I am particularly interested in your descriptions of the beginnings of Marianna and the Shadowy Horses. Those books are why Kearsley books find their way to my shelves and stay there.

    Reply
  10. Barry Longyear, a science fiction writer has a standard response to fans who ask that question: “It came from Schenectady.” He has a collection of short stories by that name. I have always loved the answer as a short version to a difficult question.
    The science fiction authors, I have talked to at SF conventions would mirror your more meaningful answer. Not as to specifics, but as to the thought that the ideas are out there (like your fluffy seeds) and they sometimes fall on fertile grounds, but need to be nourished and tended to.
    I am particularly interested in your descriptions of the beginnings of Marianna and the Shadowy Horses. Those books are why Kearsley books find their way to my shelves and stay there.

    Reply
  11. Susanna, I’ve read that when Stephen King was asked where he got his ideas, he used to say, “From a little mail order shop in Toledo.” *G* Would that it was that easy! It’s a mysterious process, varying from writer to writer and book to book even for the same writer.

    Reply
  12. Susanna, I’ve read that when Stephen King was asked where he got his ideas, he used to say, “From a little mail order shop in Toledo.” *G* Would that it was that easy! It’s a mysterious process, varying from writer to writer and book to book even for the same writer.

    Reply
  13. Susanna, I’ve read that when Stephen King was asked where he got his ideas, he used to say, “From a little mail order shop in Toledo.” *G* Would that it was that easy! It’s a mysterious process, varying from writer to writer and book to book even for the same writer.

    Reply
  14. Susanna, I’ve read that when Stephen King was asked where he got his ideas, he used to say, “From a little mail order shop in Toledo.” *G* Would that it was that easy! It’s a mysterious process, varying from writer to writer and book to book even for the same writer.

    Reply
  15. Susanna, I’ve read that when Stephen King was asked where he got his ideas, he used to say, “From a little mail order shop in Toledo.” *G* Would that it was that easy! It’s a mysterious process, varying from writer to writer and book to book even for the same writer.

    Reply
  16. I know a lot of writers give one-liner answers to the question because it IS a tricky question to answer, but I also know readers wouldn’t ask it unless they genuinely wanted to know, so I’ve tried to give a more in-depth answer. Thanks for your kind words about the books. Glad you enjoy them.

    Reply
  17. I know a lot of writers give one-liner answers to the question because it IS a tricky question to answer, but I also know readers wouldn’t ask it unless they genuinely wanted to know, so I’ve tried to give a more in-depth answer. Thanks for your kind words about the books. Glad you enjoy them.

    Reply
  18. I know a lot of writers give one-liner answers to the question because it IS a tricky question to answer, but I also know readers wouldn’t ask it unless they genuinely wanted to know, so I’ve tried to give a more in-depth answer. Thanks for your kind words about the books. Glad you enjoy them.

    Reply
  19. I know a lot of writers give one-liner answers to the question because it IS a tricky question to answer, but I also know readers wouldn’t ask it unless they genuinely wanted to know, so I’ve tried to give a more in-depth answer. Thanks for your kind words about the books. Glad you enjoy them.

    Reply
  20. I know a lot of writers give one-liner answers to the question because it IS a tricky question to answer, but I also know readers wouldn’t ask it unless they genuinely wanted to know, so I’ve tried to give a more in-depth answer. Thanks for your kind words about the books. Glad you enjoy them.

    Reply
  21. Isn’t it the truth? Every book is such a different animal. In THAT respect, I think, books are like children–just when you think you’ve figured out what you’re doing, the next one comes along and proves you know nothing at all 🙂

    Reply
  22. Isn’t it the truth? Every book is such a different animal. In THAT respect, I think, books are like children–just when you think you’ve figured out what you’re doing, the next one comes along and proves you know nothing at all 🙂

    Reply
  23. Isn’t it the truth? Every book is such a different animal. In THAT respect, I think, books are like children–just when you think you’ve figured out what you’re doing, the next one comes along and proves you know nothing at all 🙂

    Reply
  24. Isn’t it the truth? Every book is such a different animal. In THAT respect, I think, books are like children–just when you think you’ve figured out what you’re doing, the next one comes along and proves you know nothing at all 🙂

    Reply
  25. Isn’t it the truth? Every book is such a different animal. In THAT respect, I think, books are like children–just when you think you’ve figured out what you’re doing, the next one comes along and proves you know nothing at all 🙂

    Reply
  26. Harlan Ellison said “I get my ideas from a post office box in Schenectady”. It was a fairly new joke and a really old question when he said it 🙂

    Reply
  27. Harlan Ellison said “I get my ideas from a post office box in Schenectady”. It was a fairly new joke and a really old question when he said it 🙂

    Reply
  28. Harlan Ellison said “I get my ideas from a post office box in Schenectady”. It was a fairly new joke and a really old question when he said it 🙂

    Reply
  29. Harlan Ellison said “I get my ideas from a post office box in Schenectady”. It was a fairly new joke and a really old question when he said it 🙂

    Reply
  30. Harlan Ellison said “I get my ideas from a post office box in Schenectady”. It was a fairly new joke and a really old question when he said it 🙂

    Reply
  31. Thanks for these wonderful insights Susanna … loved the garden analogy.
    I was also struck by the similarity to the scientific process.
    In her blog ‘Seduced by Science’ Andrea remarks:
    ‘during the Regency era, the artists and scientists all thought of themselves as kindred souls. For them, exploration and discovery in any discipline required imagination and creative thinking’
    When confronted with a strange new phenomenon a scientist will try out various possible explanations by analysing consequences (preparing the ground). Often nothing seems to fit until one morning the seed of an idea may float into the conscious mind and take root. Everything can then click into place and a new theory is born (after a lot of further work!).
    Interesting how creativity seems to be universal.

    Reply
  32. Thanks for these wonderful insights Susanna … loved the garden analogy.
    I was also struck by the similarity to the scientific process.
    In her blog ‘Seduced by Science’ Andrea remarks:
    ‘during the Regency era, the artists and scientists all thought of themselves as kindred souls. For them, exploration and discovery in any discipline required imagination and creative thinking’
    When confronted with a strange new phenomenon a scientist will try out various possible explanations by analysing consequences (preparing the ground). Often nothing seems to fit until one morning the seed of an idea may float into the conscious mind and take root. Everything can then click into place and a new theory is born (after a lot of further work!).
    Interesting how creativity seems to be universal.

    Reply
  33. Thanks for these wonderful insights Susanna … loved the garden analogy.
    I was also struck by the similarity to the scientific process.
    In her blog ‘Seduced by Science’ Andrea remarks:
    ‘during the Regency era, the artists and scientists all thought of themselves as kindred souls. For them, exploration and discovery in any discipline required imagination and creative thinking’
    When confronted with a strange new phenomenon a scientist will try out various possible explanations by analysing consequences (preparing the ground). Often nothing seems to fit until one morning the seed of an idea may float into the conscious mind and take root. Everything can then click into place and a new theory is born (after a lot of further work!).
    Interesting how creativity seems to be universal.

    Reply
  34. Thanks for these wonderful insights Susanna … loved the garden analogy.
    I was also struck by the similarity to the scientific process.
    In her blog ‘Seduced by Science’ Andrea remarks:
    ‘during the Regency era, the artists and scientists all thought of themselves as kindred souls. For them, exploration and discovery in any discipline required imagination and creative thinking’
    When confronted with a strange new phenomenon a scientist will try out various possible explanations by analysing consequences (preparing the ground). Often nothing seems to fit until one morning the seed of an idea may float into the conscious mind and take root. Everything can then click into place and a new theory is born (after a lot of further work!).
    Interesting how creativity seems to be universal.

    Reply
  35. Thanks for these wonderful insights Susanna … loved the garden analogy.
    I was also struck by the similarity to the scientific process.
    In her blog ‘Seduced by Science’ Andrea remarks:
    ‘during the Regency era, the artists and scientists all thought of themselves as kindred souls. For them, exploration and discovery in any discipline required imagination and creative thinking’
    When confronted with a strange new phenomenon a scientist will try out various possible explanations by analysing consequences (preparing the ground). Often nothing seems to fit until one morning the seed of an idea may float into the conscious mind and take root. Everything can then click into place and a new theory is born (after a lot of further work!).
    Interesting how creativity seems to be universal.

    Reply
  36. Wonderful post, Susanna! Isn’t it fascinating what tiny little things trigger a story idea. I’m a very visual person, so I often get ideas from wandering around a museum or gallery and seeing a small object that captures my imagination.
    For example, I saw an amazing miniature pistol at a Sotheby’s auction—when you pulled the trigger a little bird popped out and sang a short tune. I immediately knew I just had to write a scene where the villain and hero or heroine were locked in combat, and the villain snatches up the pistol and . . . tweet, tweet.
    Which of course meant I had to figure out how to get the pistol there in the first place . . .and thus the hero in my Cara Elliott book, Passionately Yours, was a rogue who sometimes performed spying missions for the government but was also secretly a craftsman who built complex “automata”. Naturally, that took me down the rabbit hole of researching automata in in history (a fascinating subject!
    And so it goes!

    Reply
  37. Wonderful post, Susanna! Isn’t it fascinating what tiny little things trigger a story idea. I’m a very visual person, so I often get ideas from wandering around a museum or gallery and seeing a small object that captures my imagination.
    For example, I saw an amazing miniature pistol at a Sotheby’s auction—when you pulled the trigger a little bird popped out and sang a short tune. I immediately knew I just had to write a scene where the villain and hero or heroine were locked in combat, and the villain snatches up the pistol and . . . tweet, tweet.
    Which of course meant I had to figure out how to get the pistol there in the first place . . .and thus the hero in my Cara Elliott book, Passionately Yours, was a rogue who sometimes performed spying missions for the government but was also secretly a craftsman who built complex “automata”. Naturally, that took me down the rabbit hole of researching automata in in history (a fascinating subject!
    And so it goes!

    Reply
  38. Wonderful post, Susanna! Isn’t it fascinating what tiny little things trigger a story idea. I’m a very visual person, so I often get ideas from wandering around a museum or gallery and seeing a small object that captures my imagination.
    For example, I saw an amazing miniature pistol at a Sotheby’s auction—when you pulled the trigger a little bird popped out and sang a short tune. I immediately knew I just had to write a scene where the villain and hero or heroine were locked in combat, and the villain snatches up the pistol and . . . tweet, tweet.
    Which of course meant I had to figure out how to get the pistol there in the first place . . .and thus the hero in my Cara Elliott book, Passionately Yours, was a rogue who sometimes performed spying missions for the government but was also secretly a craftsman who built complex “automata”. Naturally, that took me down the rabbit hole of researching automata in in history (a fascinating subject!
    And so it goes!

    Reply
  39. Wonderful post, Susanna! Isn’t it fascinating what tiny little things trigger a story idea. I’m a very visual person, so I often get ideas from wandering around a museum or gallery and seeing a small object that captures my imagination.
    For example, I saw an amazing miniature pistol at a Sotheby’s auction—when you pulled the trigger a little bird popped out and sang a short tune. I immediately knew I just had to write a scene where the villain and hero or heroine were locked in combat, and the villain snatches up the pistol and . . . tweet, tweet.
    Which of course meant I had to figure out how to get the pistol there in the first place . . .and thus the hero in my Cara Elliott book, Passionately Yours, was a rogue who sometimes performed spying missions for the government but was also secretly a craftsman who built complex “automata”. Naturally, that took me down the rabbit hole of researching automata in in history (a fascinating subject!
    And so it goes!

    Reply
  40. Wonderful post, Susanna! Isn’t it fascinating what tiny little things trigger a story idea. I’m a very visual person, so I often get ideas from wandering around a museum or gallery and seeing a small object that captures my imagination.
    For example, I saw an amazing miniature pistol at a Sotheby’s auction—when you pulled the trigger a little bird popped out and sang a short tune. I immediately knew I just had to write a scene where the villain and hero or heroine were locked in combat, and the villain snatches up the pistol and . . . tweet, tweet.
    Which of course meant I had to figure out how to get the pistol there in the first place . . .and thus the hero in my Cara Elliott book, Passionately Yours, was a rogue who sometimes performed spying missions for the government but was also secretly a craftsman who built complex “automata”. Naturally, that took me down the rabbit hole of researching automata in in history (a fascinating subject!
    And so it goes!

    Reply
  41. Terrific post. But, I reckon y’all are just not willing to admit that each of you is a genius…so your ideas just come full grown out of your giant brains.
    Go ahead, admit it. We will all believe it if you say it.

    Reply
  42. Terrific post. But, I reckon y’all are just not willing to admit that each of you is a genius…so your ideas just come full grown out of your giant brains.
    Go ahead, admit it. We will all believe it if you say it.

    Reply
  43. Terrific post. But, I reckon y’all are just not willing to admit that each of you is a genius…so your ideas just come full grown out of your giant brains.
    Go ahead, admit it. We will all believe it if you say it.

    Reply
  44. Terrific post. But, I reckon y’all are just not willing to admit that each of you is a genius…so your ideas just come full grown out of your giant brains.
    Go ahead, admit it. We will all believe it if you say it.

    Reply
  45. Terrific post. But, I reckon y’all are just not willing to admit that each of you is a genius…so your ideas just come full grown out of your giant brains.
    Go ahead, admit it. We will all believe it if you say it.

    Reply
  46. My father had two “old saying” I would grit my teeth over, but as I continued to grow up, I understood why he used them.
    The most frequently used was “Unexpressed is half thought.” The second (and more common) was “What is worth doing, is worth doing well.”
    Our Wenches here are craft persons. I think they adhere to these adages even if they never heard them.
    And that is why they work at their craft if the way they describe it to us.

    Reply
  47. My father had two “old saying” I would grit my teeth over, but as I continued to grow up, I understood why he used them.
    The most frequently used was “Unexpressed is half thought.” The second (and more common) was “What is worth doing, is worth doing well.”
    Our Wenches here are craft persons. I think they adhere to these adages even if they never heard them.
    And that is why they work at their craft if the way they describe it to us.

    Reply
  48. My father had two “old saying” I would grit my teeth over, but as I continued to grow up, I understood why he used them.
    The most frequently used was “Unexpressed is half thought.” The second (and more common) was “What is worth doing, is worth doing well.”
    Our Wenches here are craft persons. I think they adhere to these adages even if they never heard them.
    And that is why they work at their craft if the way they describe it to us.

    Reply
  49. My father had two “old saying” I would grit my teeth over, but as I continued to grow up, I understood why he used them.
    The most frequently used was “Unexpressed is half thought.” The second (and more common) was “What is worth doing, is worth doing well.”
    Our Wenches here are craft persons. I think they adhere to these adages even if they never heard them.
    And that is why they work at their craft if the way they describe it to us.

    Reply
  50. My father had two “old saying” I would grit my teeth over, but as I continued to grow up, I understood why he used them.
    The most frequently used was “Unexpressed is half thought.” The second (and more common) was “What is worth doing, is worth doing well.”
    Our Wenches here are craft persons. I think they adhere to these adages even if they never heard them.
    And that is why they work at their craft if the way they describe it to us.

    Reply

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