One of the top questions we as writers get is “but where do you get your ideas?” I don’t know about you, but this question always gives me pause. I usually launch into a long, rambling story about the specifics of how a particular idea came to me, but if somebody is truly wanting to know a method for how I consistently develop ideas that become books… I don’t have one.
The truth is, my ideas are almost always completely random. The idea for my debut novel came from a children’s song. The idea for the next book I wrote after that came because I was annoyed about my husband always leaving shaving cream and stubble in the sink. The idea for the book that’s next up on my drafting docket came, I kid you not, from a typo that tickled my funny bone and seemed too serendipitous to pass up.
So when people ask me where my ideas come from, I usually end up responding with something generic, like They come from everywhere. Because what I’ve come to believe after many years of writing practice is this:
The important thing isn’t where the ideas come from; it’s what you do with them after they come.
And, as a corollary to that, what you do to encourage more ideas to come. For me, at least, the answer is to cultivate a writing mindset in which ideas are honored, and in which they’re free to grow and flourish. When I’m in this sort of a mindset, it doesn’t actually matter that much whether or not one idea is really viable enough to make a novel; what matters is that I use the ideas that come as opportunities to flex my creative muscles and teach my brain how to be receptive to, and how to build upon, the ideas it finds.
How, exactly, do I do that?
- I write them all down. Usually not right at the beginning—the first part of my writing process is always just thinking, and sometimes that thinking goes on for months. But once the idea gets to a point where it could be summed up in a sentence—even if there’s still only the barest bones of a story in it—then I make a note on it. I’ve used lots of filing systems over the years; as a teenager, I kept my ideas in notebooks or index card holders; as an adult, I have a Scrivener file where I have a corkboard with one card per idea. These ideas come from everywhere—dreams, random thoughts, funny occurrences, questions. The important thing is just to get it down. For me, at least, the act of creating space for a new idea in and of itself activates the part of my brain that churns new ideas out. In times when I’m making notes on a new idea, I’m much more likely to discover still more ideas waiting to be written.
- Cultivate curiosity; always ask “what would that book be about?” When an idea strikes my fancy, I take some time to ask myself what would a book about that be like? Usually, I spend a few months—or a few years—daydreaming about what that story might be, until I eventually have enough of a ghost idea to make notes on it. Plenty of the books I make notes on won’t ever be written, but they’re all fun to think about.
- Write regularly. Inevitably, the times when I’m working the most on one book are the times when other book ideas beat down my veritable door. Partly because creativity begets creativity, partly because when I’m in the middle of drafting something I’d give almost anything to work on something that’s not that book, I am never so full of interesting new ideas as when I’m actively working on something else.
- Stop and notice. As I mentioned in my introduction, my ideas come from literally all over the place, and often come accidentally. Many are small things that might not stand out much—except that over the years, I’ve trained myself to notice them, to hold space in my mind to welcome new ideas and think about what kind of story they might turn out to be. Two years ago, when we moved to Portland, Oregon, where wild blackberry brambles cover everything in the summertime, my husband and I rented an apartment in a complex that had a strange abandoned shed, completely overtaken by blackberries. The day my toddler and I discovered it I was struck by what an odd sight it was, and found myself wondering for months what the story behind it could be. Eventually, a fully-fledged story idea—for a book I’m hoping to write someday soon—grew out of that scene. Stopping and noticing can mean a lot of things for me: sometimes, as in the case of the blackberry shed, it can mean literally stopping and looking at something that’s in front of me. Other times, it can mean allowing my imagination to run away with me while I’m reading books or watching movies, dreaming of how I might have crafted that story differently. Still others, it just means paying attention to my thoughts and the things I strike my fancy—like the funny typo I mentioned at the beginning of this post. Whatever the case, this sort of intentional noticing is key, for me, to finding ideas that inspire me to write.
I may never know exactly how to answer a question about where I get my ideas. The creative universe is, after all, a funny thing. Still, by focusing on the how of cultivation and not the where of finding, I feel confident that I won’t spend too much of my writing life lacking inspiration!
Cindy Baldwin is a Carolina girl who moved to the opposite coast and is gamely doing her part in keeping Portland weird. As a middle schooler, she kept a book under her bathroom sink to read over and over while fixing her hair or brushing her teeth, and she dreams of someday writing just that kind of book. Her debut middle grade novel is forthcoming from HarperCollin’s Children’s in 2018. Find her online at www.cindybaldwinbooks.com and on Twitter at @beingcindy.