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After my first book and again after my second, I was petrified that I had no other books waiting in the wings, no great ideas. But somehow the ideas kept arriving. And this is where I begin to understand why some people don't like answering this question. The repetition is only part of it (I think). The rest, at least for me, is that...it's very difficult to explain to people where I get those ideas, because I tend not to think about it too much myself. There have been times when I wanted to simply say, "It's magic," because sometimes it really feels that way. I'll be standing in the produce aisle at the grocery store and an idea will suddenly be there, in my head, where no idea (other than choosing a cantaloupe) was there a moment earlier.
But...it's not really magic. Once I set my mind to coming up with a real and solid answer, I knew that while it often feels as if the ideas drop out of the clouds, there's more to it than that. The author is at least partly in control. Once a person decides to take the plunge and write, they turn their "idea radar" on. After that, anything and everything that goes on around them gets filtered through that radar. The fact that a lot of this takes place subconsciously makes it seem like magic, but it's really more a sense of heightened awareness, a way of looking at the world and seeing...characters, plots, settings, conflicts.
True, sometimes the radar doesn't work as well as it does at others. Fatigue, stress, illness all cloud the radar, but the rest of the time...it's there humming away in the background.
So, how do you make it hum harder and get the magic to happen? Here are a few things that have worked for me:
1. Read the newspaper. I don't know how anyone can be a writer and not read the news. For one thing, if you're going to write about contemporary times or humanity or history or...pretty much anything, all those things show up in newspapers. Then, too, some really bizarre happenings are reported in newspapers, and bizarre happenings can be just the ticket to turn on that What If? factor in an author's head.
2. Get outside. I know that you need to be at your computer to write, but the motors aren't going to keep turning and you're going to miss out on a lot of input if you don't get out in the world. Even taking a walk down the street can dredge up some good What If? questions. At the very least, it's exercise, and exercise will keep your mind from becoming sluggish.
3. Pay attention to what's happening around you. Anywhere. Everywhere. Yes, writers are terrible eavesdroppers. It's rude, possibly unsettling if someone finds you looking their way, but observing people teaches a writer a lot about how people (all kinds of people) interact. Even if I'm not actively listening to what's being said, observing people together often sends me off to some imaginary world. I project roles on those innocent diners that they'll never live up to in real life, but it doesn't really matter. In my mind, they've catapulted me toward new character ideas.
4. Brainstorm titles. It doesn't matter if those titles don't ever end up on the cover of a book. The mere act of coming up with titles sometimes jiggles something in my brain enough to give me a new idea for a book.
5. Watch television and movies. Yes, I am telling you to watch television. Often when I'm watching a show, one incident in the program will spin me off in another direction, and I'll have a speck of an idea. Totally unrelated and still crude, but the point is simply to inspire, not to walk away with a fully formed plot. You're trying to jiggle your subconscious and set it to imagining whole new worlds.
6. Visit museums. Places that house the history or footprints of those who have done great and amazing things often get me to thinking about characters.
7. Scribble down ideas, no matter how silly they may seem. You may come across what appears to be a meaningless scrap of an idea, but that idea can evolve and change and grow into something larger. Or it may be discarded completely but send you off on a new tangent and a better idea.
8, Pay attention to names. Even reading a baby name book can help me come up with ideas. That's because most of us tend to have rather strong ideas about what personalities fit different names. That reaction can sometimes set my mind to wandering and give birth to a character. And coming up with a character can lead to a book.
9. In the same way, take a whirl around the world. Looking at place names on maps or reading about other towns, countries or cultures can send questions flitting through an author's mind. And questions are always good. They tend to lead to an attempt to answer those questions. And that can lead to a great plot or an intriguing conflict. Or a character or (of course) a setting.
10. Listen to music. Not necessarily while you're writing but just to enjoy and to set the mood. Manipulating your mood can lead you to an idea you might otherwise have missed.
The point is, ideas do come from somewhere. They come from within the author, and by keeping your "idea radar" turned on at all times, you'll open your imagination and always be attuned to ideas. A chance comment at a dinner party, a line in a history book, a photo in a magazine. Anything can spark an idea. Because yes, there is an idea factory. It's in every author's head. Pay attention to it. If you keep your mind open to possibilities, the ideas will come. Fresh from the factory.