Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

It’s a question kids ask all the time. Sometimes I think they expect you to answer: “Oh, I just consult The Big Book of Book Ideas,” or maybe “I shop online at the Idea Store. All authors do.”

Once the playwright David Mamet was asked that question, and he answered: “I think of them.”

But that’s a bit snarky as an answer to kids who are genuinely curious about the writing process.

So here’s what I say instead. I tell kids I get my ideas from three main sources:

1) Random Things Around Me. I look at people. I pay special attention to body language. (That’s where the first chapter of TRAUMA QUEEN came from: observing one girl’s self-protective posture when she showed up to her middle school school for Pajama Day). I also eavesdrop a lot–at Starbucks, on trains. I listen in on phone conversations (Hey, if a cellphone conversation occurs in public–loudly–it’s fair game!) I even keep a small notebook in my pocket, so I can jot down snatches of conversation. I’m a big fan of dialogue, so much of my writing I get through my ears.

2) Emotional memories. Kids often suspect fiction is autobiographical. I explain that while my characters usually reflect something of my own temperament and interests, I never merely transcribe events from my own life. (My life isn’t that interesting, truth be told.) But what I do use is memories of how I felt as a kid–when I was bullied. When I developed a crush. When my mom embarrassed me. When my friends made me laugh. Sometimes it’s painful to revisit certain middle school emotions, but doing this helps me create relatable characters.

3) My imagination. I write realistic fiction. It drives me crazy when I hear kids saying that they prefer fantasy “because it’s more imaginative.” I tell them that actually, realistic fiction requires MORE imagination than fantasy, because if your characters are in trouble, you can’t just summon a dragon or chant an incantation or transport your character to another dimension. You have to solve their problems in a way that obeys the laws of the real world–a world that’s basically a triangle, with Family, School and Friends as its three points. And here’s the tricky part: you have to create a triangle that’s somehow fresh and surprising, because otherwise, why would your reader bother to read your story?

Creating a fresh, surprising, emotionally resonant narrative within the confines of that triangle isn’t easy. Sometimes it take several imaginative leaps before you get it right.

But you know how you tell that you’ve done it? When the reader assumes your story is really just autobiography.

Barbara Dee’s sixth novel, TRUTH OR DARE, will be published by Aladdin/Simon & Schuster in September 2016.

Barbara Dee
  1. I do a lot of what you do, but I love the “I think of them” answer! I also love “a world that’s basically a triangle, with Family, School and Friends as its three points.” I had never thought of it in just that way, but of course it’s true. And I’ve got to move BIG MAGIC up on my tbr list. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Great post and so true!

  3. Great post, Barbara! I also really, really love the theory Elizabeth Gilbert gives in BIG MAGIC, which is that ideas are all around us all the time and they come find us. If we’re closed off to them or say no, they flit away, but if we’re open and we say yes…

  4. Ideas come from all kinds of places. We just need to be open to them. Thanks for the post.