Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Writing, Magic and Electricity

by Janis Patterson

I am always astonished when people ask, “Where do you get your ideas?” The world is full of ideas. Almost anything can spark an idea. At a writers lunch not long ago someone brought a very technical book on statistical analysis they had just published as a part of their day job. The subject was so esoteric while I could read every word in the title, but could not understand what they meant as a whole. (I am definitely among the mathematically and scientifically inept!) When the author explained, I said, “But what a wonderful idea for a plot!”

Everyone looked at me as if I had just lost my mind and one writer was blunt enough to say, “Not for me, it doesn’t,” whereupon I spun out the skeleton of a tale including – as I recall – rogue scientists, an honest researcher and various unscrupulous types manipulating the future through scientific predictions based on statistical data.

It’s usually at this point where The Husband says, “You’re weird.” This impromptu story-spinning of mine has been part of me all my life and is now an almost obligatory performance at dinner parties and other social functions. Pity I don’t remember any of these tales for more than ten minutes or so.

The point of all this being that anything – anything! – can be the germ, the seed, the kernel of a plot. Of course, we all know that for a book you need hundreds of ideas, ideas that will interlink into a seamless whole, but every plot starts with a single idea, even if you don’t know from where it comes.

And they do come – in waves and deluges and herds… The only trouble is that they don’t necessarily mesh with each other enough to make a coherent plot.

In a way it’s a shame to let all those ideas die without even attempting to incorporate them into a manuscript, but sheer numbers and time crunches make that impossible. The whole exercise is extremely useful, though, as just that – an exercise for my imagination. As the saying goes, use it or lose it. Therefore I fully intend to keep on entertaining (and occasionally unnerving) those around me with my flights of fancy. As an acknowledged member of the Reality-Challenged, it’s great fun.

So how do I decide which idea becomes a book or even part of a book and which is an amusing piece of ephemera? Easy – I don’t. It’s the idea. It grabs ahold of me and won’t let go. No matter what else I’m working on – writing or cooking or anything – it’s somewhere there in my mind, as tenacious (and occasionally annoying) as a terrier. Eventually I give in and start writing. Generally every one of those books is finished, usually including a few ideas that somehow didn’t manage to stand on their own. I do have a few – a very few – of these stories that petered out before the final ‘The End’, but I don’t think they’re dead. They’re just dormant, and when the right combination of ideas comes together they will be finished, even if not in the form I originally intended.


That’s why I think writing is a form of magic. Like electricity, I don’t really know how it works, I just know that that it does.

4 comments:

Terry said...

Love this post! Especially since I am math-adept and love to read about math and science. (Maybe the only crime-writing author in the world who does). I find stories everywhere, too. Just read an article about an author whose father died, and immediately had a full-blown story idea in which....oh, you know.

Maris said...

That's the fun of being a writer. We see (or imagine)more than is actually there. Everything can warp into a story

Earl Staggs said...


So true. Story ideas are everywhere. Know what else is everywhere? Characters. Describing characters is tough for me, so I practice all the time. If I see someone on the street, in a store, anywhere, with a distinctive look, walk, haircut, facial tic, manner of speaking, whatever, I'll play with describing it in my mind and probably use it some time for a character in a story.

Irene Black said...

Husband gave me a little metal notebook with a pen that hold it closed that I keep in my pocket for those 'ideas' that don't last ten minutes. I also keep one that has a larger one with light when you pull out the pen & a pair of glasses so I can read what I've jotted down the next morning. Problem is getting organized enough to get them into a workable form.