• Mark Meier

Questions I Don't Like Answering

Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?

By JS Watts


Most writers will tell you there are questions they don’t enjoy answering. Ironically (or perhaps not) they are often the questions we are most frequently asked.


I’m writing an occasional series of lighthearted blog posts looking at some of my personal “oh no, not again!” questions and exploring why I don’t relish having to respond to them (though I recognise other writers may feel differently).


The third question in the series is, “Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?” or, to be precise grammatically, I suppose I should say, “From where do you get your ideas?” I am, after all, a writer.


The answer is, depending on my mood: from everywhere, from nowhere, from inside my head, and I really don’t know. The trouble is, all of the above responses are correct and probably all at the same time. The other problem is, I have found people like simple answers and I don’t have one.


So, before providing the long, not at all simple answer, let me say, for the record, that I have no hidden cache of ideas or one simple way of obtaining them.


Sometimes I might see something (an object, a landscape, a person, weather…) and it, they, will prompt an idea for a poem or short story. Sometimes it’s something I’ve read, or seen on TV or heard on the radio or from someone. Sometimes it’s an experience I have had. In other words, ideas can come from anywhere around me, but sometimes they seem to come from nowhere.


One night, say, I dream something or, for no reason I can can see, suddenly think something and voila I have an idea. But of course the nowhere idea really comes from somewhere inside me, however deeply buried. In a similar way, the external stimulus idea probably wouldn’t stimulate me if it didn’t already resonate with something inside me. So maybe the ‘inside me’ answer is correct, but then, in the time honoured tradition of the chicken and the egg, ‘inside me’ doesn’t always come up with an idea until I receive the external stimulus.


As an example of external stimulus, I read and watch a good deal of fantasy. In many stories the young protagonist (aged anywhere between ten and sixteen) discovers there is something special about them (they’re a witch, a wizard, offspring of a god, a vampire slayer) at a crucial point in their youthful development. Perversely (because I’m like that) I began to wonder what would happen if the protagonist was a mature adult with a mortgage, a career and a train wreck love life when they discover they are special. In my mind the protagonist became thirty-eight and a witch and thus the premiss of my novel Witchlight was born. What came after, however, followed its own individual course.


Ideas sometimes pop into my head that have no source I can recognise at all. That often happens as I am physically writing and something in my train of thought takes me to some place I hadn’t expected to go, but there I am. It’s as if the very act of writing produces ideas from nowhere, but part of me suspects they must have been inside me all the time. Who knows? Maybe the “I have no idea” response is the right one, except sometimes I do know, as evidenced above, so…


In summary, I get different ideas from different places and in response to different and extremely varied stimuli depending on my mood, state of mind, what I am doing and possibly if there is an ‘r’ in the month. To make matters even more complicated, it’s sometimes a coming together of several things. For example, I read something that resonates with me, then I see something that combines with the resonance and an idea is born from this complex coming together.


I think the only thing I can say simply in response to the original question is that, “It’s complicated,” but I remain neurotically convinced it’s not what people are hoping to hear.


The next in the series of Questions I Don’t Like Answering will be: “When did you start writing?”

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