It's easy to see the difference in picture books. An anecdote is something cute or funny that you see your child do or that you remember from your own childhood. A story is that anecdote transformed -- bigger, neater, funnier, more universal, more specific, better. It's making that anecdote magical, even when you're writing contemporary realism.
Ideas for novels are more complicated. Sometimes they start as an original idea -- a blast of inspiration, even in a dream. Sometimes it's a twist on a trope. Sometimes it's a "what if" from looking at the ordinary world in a different way.
The story of DEADWOOD was inspired by one of those little "what ifs." I noticed how certain trees in the park were carved with messages and names, some of them really old. I didn't even know what kind of trees they were (beeches). I didn't know that the messages have an anthropological name (arborglyphs). But I wondered, "What if the messages were mystical? What if they were a channel for magic? What if the tree could use them to communicate?"
That idea isn't a story, and it certainly isn't a book. I need plot, character, setting, voice, dialogue, description -- but all those things came from seeing something ordinary and looking at it in a different way.
I'm sharing some photos from my tree blog as a fun example. I started taking pictures of arborglyphs, then I started noticing that a lot of trees (bumpy London planetrees especially) look a lot like people -- generally grumpy people. Here are a few of my favorites -- they might take a little imagination and squinting, but once I started looking, I started seeing them differently.
And that's what writers -- and photographers, and all kinds of artists -- do. The thing, person, or experience that washes over others can be a source of inspiration.
|Contemplative tree, Belmar, Nj|
|Cartoon tree. Looks like Bart Simpson. Wynnewood, PA|
|Cubist tree. Eyes on same side of head. Wynnewood, PA|
|Skeptical tree. Philadelphia, PA|