Sunday, September 30, 2012

Seeing Differently: Where Ideas Come From

Where do ideas come from? I'm getting ready for Picture Book Idea Month, which is about opening your mind to story ideas -- seeing the world as a story to be written. But to be a story, an idea isn't about just recording the world -- it's about seeing it differently and describing it in a way that's simultaneously fresh and recognizably true.

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


  1. How fun! At the lake where I walk, there's a tree with a root that looks like a leaping dog. I must not have been the only one to see it, because somebody put a collar around its "neck".

  2. Take a picture! Take a picture! I would love to post it for you as a guest photographer.

  3. What a great post. I am mostly inspired by heavy metal music--won't make as nearly an eloquent post as yours.

  4. This is a wonderful post! That top tree blows my mind. Most of my ideas come from a phrase I'll hear or a brain-storming session. But the MG novel I have on sub right now literally came to me as I woke up early one morning. The first line just popped into my head. I'd take more of those!


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