An In-Depth Guide to Organizing Ideas for a Book
One of the most common questions I get when people find out I’m an author is, Where do you get your ideas?
I have lots of answers to that question, most of them are blatantly honest, even if the asker thinks I’m just being funny. When it comes to short stories and novels, my ideas come from some magical idea cloud that hovers above my head and occasionally rains an idea down on me, and Wala! A story is born. Basically, I wait for the idea gods to share their inspiration with me and then I write it down. That’s probably as good as any explanation that I can come up with. The honest answer is that I have no idea where most of my ideas come from.
My brain is like a popcorn popper with thoughts just pinging around in my head almost nonstop from the moment I wake until I go to sleep at night. My wife would say, based on my tossing and turning, that the popcorn machine is still going strong at three a.m. on most nights. Sometimes the popping creates some sort of logical thought process that turns out to be the beginning or middle or end of a story. A story that eventually turns into a book or short story. Other times, the thoughts just keep bouncing around until they fade away or evolve into something else. One thing that I am certain of is that the popping never stops. I wouldn’t have the slightest idea of what peaceful quiet inside my head would sound like.
Some of my favorite ideas are when I’m writing a novel and halfway through the story someone walks into a bar and, with no forewarning, a new character has just joined the mix. No forewarning to you, the reader. And no forewarning to me, the writer. It’s not all that unusual for me to sit back after writing a couple of pages and wonder, where the hell did that come from?
A couple parts of my first novel, Island Dogs, comes to mind. I have no idea where Stodgy, Arkansas came from, nor do I have any idea of where Jaspers Seven Winds Junction came from. I wrote a couple of words, then a couple of lines and then an entire chapter later it was clear that I was getting to know some people and places that did not exist in my mind and in my heart just an hour or so ago.
Another story idea that pops into my head is opening lines from the novel, Avis Humphrey. I’d like to claim that these lines grew out of fond memories of when I used to get laid by sexually charged women in the backseat of my car, back when I was young and wild. Just to be clear, this was not the case. Here is the opening line from the novel, Avis Humphrey.
“Having sex in the backseat of a 1982 Chrysler LeBaron was not as awkward as one might have imagined, given enough practice and experience. And while the make and model often varied, Lindsey Beckham had mastered the art of the backseat orgasm prior to climbing into that particular backseat on that particularly hot, humid night in Watermill, New Hampshire in August of 1983.”
I was sitting at a table with popcorn thoughts bouncing around in my head and I started typing. I’m not sure if the original car was a 1982 Chrysler, but I’m certain that I had not imagined this line when I decided to write a story about a guy who won a billion dollars playing Power Ball.
I’ve written a couple stories about old homeless guys, not that I’ve ever really got to know an old homeless guy. FYI… if I don’t go back to work soon, I might become an old homeless guy. I don’t know if firsthand experience would make my stories more authentic or not, but it’s possible that time will tell. I have written a couple stories about obsessive compulsive guys. And I’ve written a story about a prince and princess who were sent to live in a shed when they were just small children. I don’t really know where any of this stuff comes from. I am not homeless (yet), or OCD or a prince.
I’ve written quite a bit about expats hanging out in Caribbean bars and drinking too much rum and beer and then paying the price the morning after. I know where all those ideas came from. I smile when I occasionally get a book review and people say stuff like, “People do not behave like that on our island.” All I can say to that is I wish someone had told us before we drank all that rum. It would have saved me from quite a bit of pain and suffering. Just to be clear, those days are behind me now, but I assure everyone that there is still someone doing those things on their island, no matter which island it is. I once had a working version of song lyrics that said, “Jimmy Buffett wrote songs about me and my friends.” There are some parts of my stories and my life that Jimmy would have been able to relate to.
One of my favorite movies is Finding Forrester. It’s a story about an aging writer mentoring an up and coming writer. There’s a place in the story where the young writer is sitting and staring at the typewriter trying to think of something to write. When the old guy ask him what he’s doing, he says “I’m thinking.” The seasoned writer tells him to stop thinking and start typing. It’s my opinion that if you have a writer’s brain and if you have spent some time honing and mastering your craft, if you start writing, the ideas will come. That’s where most of my ideas come from. I start typing a word, a sentence, a paragraph or just an idea. Once I start typing, the story grows.
So, I suppose that’s it in a nutshell. My ideas come from typing on a page, and not the other way around. I don’t know why or how or anything else. I just know that when I write, the ideas come and the stories grow.
On the flip side, I know what does NOT work for me, despite it being a process that works for millions of writers. I am not able to write a fictional story once I outline it. I’ve tried creating a timeline of what happens in a story and then I made a document that briefly described the main characters. I defined who they are and how they fit in the story. After that, I sat down to write the story and… nothing. Not a word or sentence or paragraph. Once I created the outline and the characters, the creative popcorn in my head ceased to pop and my brain became eerily and uncomfortably quiet. I came up with nothing. Then I shrugged, deleted the work I had done, and moved onto another batch of popcorn.
Going all the way back to the original question of, where do I get my ideas? Damned if I know. I just write.