Monday, January 26, 2015

Playing Pinball--Where Do Story Ideas Come From?

“Where do you get your ideas” is a question all writers get asked fairly frequently, and it’s a hard one to answer—for me, anyway. It’s like there are all these pinballs pinging around in the back of my brain while I go about my daily routine and, at some point, they synchronize in some strange way and coalesce into a book or series idea.

And you can’t force those suckers to synchronize when you want them to in the way you want them to. The more you try to force them, the more they zing away from you.

I recently turned in the last contracted book in one of my series and, for the first time in a couple of years, I found myself sitting around and wondering what to write. Well, okay, for about a week I celebrated not having anything to write, especially on deadline, but once that wore off and I sort of caught up on sleep, I started shuffling my feet and looking for pinballs.

I’d been trying to force a couple of ideas—two particular sets of pinballs—into book ideas for quite a while and they just weren’t working. I’d even tried writing a few chapters of one of them, thinking that would get me in rhythm and make the pieces fall into place. Nope. Didn’t work.

That one was a good idea. There were wacky titles and spoiled animals and sassy veterinarians and crazy Southern relations. It was going to be such fun…in theory. I still might pursue it one day, but not now. You just can’t force these things.

The other one hasn’t quite died. There might be aliens in it. Or we might be the aliens. Or…well, those pinballs are still pinging around and haven’t come to rest in any pattern recognizable as a coherent story.

Then, what to my wondering eyes should appear but some pinballs I hadn’t consciously acknowledged were even in play. They hit me between the eyes and demanded attention. I swear I hadn’t thought about these characters or their jobs before, and yet there they were. They had names. They had backgrounds. They had stories that wanted to be told in books that needed to be written.

So, where do book ideas come from?

I don’t have a freaking clue. But in the meantime, I thought I’d offer up a little musical salute to those pinballs.


Annie Slasher said...

I have a small notebook that I randomly write down the plot bunnies that sneak up on me. The weirdest idea once came from my day job. I am a paralegal in TX and I typically read (or skim for relevant info) the TX BAR Journal when they come to the office. I received a great idea from an article and actually still have the magazine at my house. A paranormal story idea. =)

Suzanne Johnson said...

Ha--I can believe that a legal journal would have great paranormal possibilities! I subscribe to magazines like Discover and Smithsonian and Mental Floss. Great idea fodder in those!

Ali Hubbard said...

I'm that person who sees a regular story on the news and then it's a CRAZY story by the time I finish thinking of the possibilities. Or, a situation in the grocery store/restaurant (a lady in a restroom once asked me to hold her baby while she washed her hands. By the time she was drying off, I was convinced she had kidnapped the baby - she didn't have a diaper bag, what else could I assume?! Believe you me, I was mentally cataloging every detail about the woman so I could tell the cops when I saw it on the news!

You talk about forcing things...this last year I realized that my thriller/mystery ideas are much less forced than contemporary romance ones. So, I need to think about that in terms of how/what I write.

Pamela Mason said...

I have pinballs pinging inside my head All. The. Time!
There's one I've had for 7 years now... and another that's still congealing. But that's just it - it's as wiggly/jiggly as jello.
I think...
I Think...
That it's time I BICHOK and just writewritewrite the whole mess out and get something down. Because without that, the characters don't talk to you and tell you more story.
Now I'm looking for my vintage Pinball Wizard shirt and EJ glasses. Love Sir Elton!

Heather said...

I am similar to Annie - keep a notebook with ideas. Sad thing is that when I look back weeks (months, years) later, I start to wonder what I meant by "Tiny House Stripper"

Cari Hislop said...

I love Pinball machines. Love that sing song noise when you win points. I never connected pinballs and story ideas, but that's a very good analogy. They seem to come out of nowhere and start lighting up your brain...and making noise...causing stress if you don't catch them etc. Stories are strange creatures! Some are right there in your face demanding I am...write me! Some times they're whispy ideas floating in the back of your mind as you keep reading a new author or genre. The contemporary romance I'm currently working on came to life after reading a number of stories that left me unsatisfied. Whether I was reading those stories because my story was trying to come to the surface or my story emerged because I read those stories I couldn't tell you, but
all these different elements are weaving/bumping together making magic happy noise.

I do keep what I call a Story Starter file. All story ideas get put on the list...sometimes it's an idea, sometimes it's a character speaking, sometimes it's a concept or a mental image or the first few words. Anywhere, anytime stories may hit a buzzer and start making noise! ;) Good luck catching those balls!!!

Suzanne Johnson said...

Thanks for the comments! I was hijacked by the Evil Day Job today (and, being Monday, it was especially evil).

I don't keep a physical notebook, but a virtual one on my Dropbox account called "Brain Farts," which is what most of my bright ideas end up being. But you never know. If I come up with something when I'm away from my computer, I email a few keywords to myself on my iPhone. Because if you ever catch me without my iPhone attached to me somewhere, I'm probably dead :-)