The Birth of Ideas

by Mur Lafferty

It’s become a cliche by now- people always want to know where writers get their ideas, and writers never know what to say. They joke that they buy them at a store, or get them from a guy in Poughkeepsie. The people always seem very impressed that such a wonderful idea would come from such a creative mind. But really. We do know where ideas come from, but that’s like saying “where do you buy all of your clothing?” You buy some things from one store, wacky t shirts from cons, fun socks online, and more. All sorts of places.

Ideas do have a generation point, though, and I simply call it a “what if.” For me, it’s triggered by something slightly odd, and then I take it as far as I possibly can. I’m offering my latest novella, Marco and the Red Granny (available via audio at Hub magazine and via Kindle and Smashwords in ebook form), up as a subject for idea generation.

Fact- writers, while creative individuals, stimulate the imagination, not the five senses. More than one person can view a painting, or taste a pastry, or hear music, or watch dancing, but writing, and reading, are solitary. And although you can use eyes and/or ears to take in a book, the true beauty of the art takes place in your head, not on the page you’re looking at. No one wants to watch a writer create. The closest thing we get to pleasing audiences is live readings, and even then we rarely get to read the whole work. Sometimes this makes me bitter.

So when President Obama was having his big inauguration hurrahs, I heard a news report on a nobody fashion designer who was an overnight sensation because Michelle Obama chose his dress to wear to one of the balls. And I imagined being the name someone shouted out when someone cried out “who are you wearing?” But no one can wear a novel.

Or can they?

So that was my trigger, my “what if” moment. What if you could wear a novel? not wear it like making a dress of the paper from a book, but to experience the novel in a dress as if you could experience a painting screen printed onto fabric. Well, we couldn’t do it, but probably some alien people could. Then my mind concocted Marco, a down and out artist, who couldn’t get a break. And the break was a literal ticket to the moon, to get a patronage from these aliens who had created the new cultural artistic hub of humankind, Sally Ride Lunar Base, nicknamed “Mollywood.”

So yay. I had Marco, bitter and hungover and not sure why he got called on to get a patronage while he’s at the low point of his career, on a shuttle. I wanted his seat companion to be an irritating old woman, and I based her on a woman I once sat next to on a plane who took my “leave me alone” headphones to mean “Please touch this woman on the arm to get her attention so you can tell her the important news that a Macy’s is coming to Raleigh.” But I after they talk a while, I realize I want this woman to be more than she appeared, something that you don’t expect from a little old lady.

What if she were violent? No, better, famous for her violence. A reality show star. A gladiator? On the moon, the low gravity would allow for a little old lady to excel in hand to hand combat.

And the Red Granny was born.

Introduce some aliens who view art and reality shows – anything that creates passion within the human soul – on equal footing, and I had a story.

Ah yes- one more weird trigger. Remember that Marco was hungover during his shuttle flight? Well, the shuttle does a short jump to the moon, and I remembered beloved SF author Douglas Adams’ character from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Ford Prefect, suggesting that beer cushions the systems of people who are transferred through space. I used that, and then the Red Granny said the throwaway phrase about the Alcoholic’s Guild and how she hoped the wouldn’t find out that hangovers were removed by shuttle jumps.

Whoa. Alcoholics Guild?

Incidentally, this is why I can’t be an outliner. Because stuff like this doesn’t come to me when I outline. I have to be writing and have a character say something throwaway and then realize they are mentioning things that will change the course of the book. My ideas work like Dominoes- I get an idea and push one over, and then follow the stream of falling bricks to see where it goes.

So that’s where ideas come from. Mine, at least. For this novella, at least. What about yours?

You can listen to the audio from when Mur was a guest of Blog Host, Gail Z. Martin’s Ghost in the Machine podcast here:  http://www.audioacrobat.com/play/Wy6cjX0k

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