There are no stupid questions.
Okay — there are a few stupid questions. If you walk into the dollar store, where there is an enormous sign on the door that says “EVERYTHING ONE DOLLAR” and you ask the clerk for a price check on an item, you have asked a stupid question.
But there are very few stupid questions, and “Where do you get your ideas?” isn’t one of them, no matter how stupid people have tried to make you feel for having asked it. It is the question most writers are asked most often by most would-be writers and most readers, and the reason why it is THE number one writing question is because it is a good, solid, complicated, vast, confusing, difficult question.
Easy to ask. Stone bitch to answer. But I’m going to give it a shot.
But first you have to understand that, even after I answer the question, odds are you won’t have what you need — you will not have the answer you really want to the question you meant to ask.
Because the idea is not the book. The idea is nothing like the book. The idea is a germ, a seed, a small, powerful bit of compressed potential energy that is going to consume vast amounts of fuel and time and effort and pain and thought to reach its full expression. And just as the germ does not look like the full-blown disease, and just as the seed does not look like the majestic tree, so the idea will in no way resemble the book that is finally grown from it. When you ask, “Where do you get your ideas?” odds are, the question you’re really hoping to have the answer to is “Where to you get your books?”
The answer to that one is easy. Apply ass to chair, apply fingers to keyboard, don’t move until the day’s pages are written. Bleed, suffer, hope, weep, laugh, and die a thousand deaths to rise again, and in the end, you cannot help but have a book.
But the seeds that grow the books? Such an easy question. No one answer that fits every writer, or even every book.
So I’ll answer by way of example, and hope my examples offer you something you can use.
I got the idea for the ending of the book I just finished proposing from a Reader’s Digest “Drama in Real Life” article I read when I was fifteen, while I was swinging in a hammock on the screened-in breezeway of the big adobe house that was part of the Friends Mission complex in Chicquimala, Guatemala, where I lived until the earthquake nearly shook it down on top of us. The breeze up in the mountains was fairly cool the day I read the article, and I was lulled by the sweet scent of blooming roses, and I’d already done the vocabulary quiz and read a handful of not-so-memorable articles when I came across this one that totally blew me away. Since I don’t want to spoil the book for anyone — should this be the one that sells — I’ll just say that it was a hell of an article. It had to be to still be with me in vivid detail thirty years later. It dealt with a woman who managed to survive a terrifying accident just by keeping her head, and I burned the details of how she survived into my memory, in case I should ever find myself in a similar situation. In my nightmares, I frequently do find myself in that very situation. Maybe in writing this book, I’ll exorcise that particular storyline from my subconscious.
Idea Number One: Article read thirty years earlier. You could call this particular seed slow to germinate. You could also note that it’s lucky the brain doesn’t unclutter itself in the best Home & Garden Network Organize Yourself! fashion, because if it did, I wouldn’t have had that ending I needed.
I built the SECRET TEXTS series (Diplomacy of Wolves, Vengeance of Dragons, Courage of Falcons) around several ideas. One came from years of childhood religious training, and it was: What if a messiah came back as promised, but died before he could save his chosen people? What would his chosen people do then? The second came from watching the Godfather movies back to back, feeling the epic threads of that story working their way across a broad canvas of time and space, and wondering, What would have happened if the Mafia had had access to magic? And the third came from this weird little twitch in the back of my brain that just wanted to know, What would happen if a hated, despised werewolf had a sense of honor, and was presented with a chance to save the doomed people who persecuted her?
Idea Number Two: Sixteen years of regular churchgoing and exploration of religion, and a whole lot of questions that kept being answered with “Because we say so or because God/ the Bible/ the minister says so.” In a emergency, if people are shooting at you and someone screams “GET DOWN!”, then Why? is a stupid question and Because! is an acceptable answer — assuming you’re still alive to hear it. But there were no bullets flying when I asked all those questions, and longer, well-reasoned answers were required. Eventually I trudged off to figure out the damned answers on my own.
Idea Number Three: Watching movies while impaired with a genetic brain defect. That’s my only excuse. How many other people in the world watched Brando and Pacino and De Niro in performances that were arguably the high points of their respective careers, and found themselves swept up into that amazing generational epic of honor and loyalty and betrayal and ruin and thought, Man, what those guys could have done with a couple of good spellcasters? And then wrote 345,000 words about in an entirely different world with completely different people to give the question an answer?
Idea Number Four: A strong personal compulsion to root for the underdog (in the case of those three werewolf books, literally), paired with an absolute requirement that my underdog be a genuine good guy who will play fair even when the guys with the power are cheating like hell. This is a me thing. It’s simply part of who I am and what makes me tick. I must cheer for underdogs, but I cannot cheer for underdogs who cheat, no matter how high the odds are stacked against them. I’m no fan of Loki.
I’ve lived in the Deep South for a lot of years now, by choice. I like it here. I like the people, I like the atmosphere, I like the community. It isn’t the richest area in the world, but does it need to be? Folks here are decent, crime rates are low, property is relatively inexpensive and so is everything else. Drivers will let you out in traffic, courtesy still means something, and I cannot remember the last time I heard someone blow an automobile horn for any reason. Wait, yes I can. It was a couple of months ago and the jackass wasn’t from around here.
I am not amused by redneck jokes — by the assumption that’s its fine to mock or hate the folks who live in trailers and work two jobs to scrape by and who have a couple hundred dollars in the bank at most. To deride them just because they’re white and their parents couldn’t afford to pay their way through college.
I tired of the inbreeding jokes. Know who the most inbred fuckers on the planet are? Royalty. The remaining royal families have been keeping the power in the family for so long by means of marrying each other that it’s amazing they aren’t born with two heads. Know who the second most inbred bunch of assholes are? The old-money rich. Same rationale — money marries money, and big money marries big money, and at the top you end up family trees that don’t branch and with some really, really, butt-ugly kids. George W. Bush and John Kerry, frat-boy Skull-and-Boneser pampered elites both, are from old, powerful families — and when you look at their faces, you can see the non-branching family trees have not been kind. Boston Brahmins, Daughters of the American Revolution, the Old Boys Network: Same story. Powerful shitheels who have been running things in this country since before it was a country, marrying each other to make sure the land and the money and the power aren’t diluted.
But people kiss ass to the rich. And now that it’s not okay for the rich to keep people from hating the rich by directing their anger to Indians or blacks or Chinese immigrants, they’ve carefully set their propaganda machines going against the last group its great to hate.
So now, because the upper-class media machines tell us to, we’re going to dump all the hate we have on the descendents of the guys who came over in chains as convicts because they they committed such heinous crimes as stealing food to feed there families? Or the descendents of the young men and women who sold themselves to drummers because they were starving (or were drugged and dumped onto white slave ships because they weren’t wary enough or quick enough to spot a con) and who came over under the euphemistic term “indentured servant” in their teens, and who, in the majority of cases, if they didn’t die in the Middle Crossing, did not survive their seven-year term of indenture? Who if they did survive where whipped and beaten and burned and raped, who if they got pregnant had the terms of their indenture doubled or tripled and the children they bore enslaved for up to thirty-one years? Who died in slavery in higher numbers than blacks (and I know that fact is going to piss off a lot of folks. Sorry, but it’s true.) And whose descendants have been scraping along, never quite getting a break, ever since. Don’t believe me? Read The Redneck Manifesto: How Hillbillies, Hicks and White Trash Became America’s Scapegoats. But meanwhile, keep reading here, because there’s a story idea in this, and I used it for three books.
Yes, I’m pissed off about the treatment rednecks get. I grew up in trailer parks. Teachers were invariably shocked (mouth hanging open, eyes wide shocked) when they found out where I lived and what I lived in, because in the eyes of just about everyone, every white person who lives in a trailer is an ignorant toothless barefoot slutty violent moonshine-swigging inbred lowbrow without hope of a future or possibility of redemption. And that just isn’t so.
So in three books, I made rednecks my heroes — and not back-handed heroes charming in their stupidity and delighted to occasionally get one over on the city boys. I made them genuine goddamned heroes, full of the same courage and self-sacrifice and honor and determination and grit that you’ll find in any other heroes worth their salt. These are the folks I know, and I didn’t create qualities they didn’t have to make them look better. I didn’t pretty them up for public consumption, but I didn’t dumb them down to get a laugh from the assholes only too willing to despise them, either. I stuck them in the Deep South because that’s where the ones I know actually exist — fine people without a lot of money but with all the courage in the world. But they’re all over. And all over, they’re still by and large good people.
And in the WORLD GATES novels (Memory of Fire, The Wreck of Heaven, and Gods Old and Dark), I let my redneck heroes be who they were, and they saved the world. Just like they have as the backbone of the military in all our wars. Just like they have as the working-class backbone of this country since it was founded.
Remember that bit about me cheering for the underdogs? Right. I earned that. Grow up in trailer parks and see the good people you know treated like shit because they’re poor and white, because they couldn’t afford college or a nice little house with a picket fence. Be treated that way yourself, for those same inexcusable reasons. And then see if you can cheer for the folks who have life handed to them by their mommies and daddies, and who manage to whine about how unfair everything is, and tell me again about how all white folks benefit from white privilege. Because I don’t think I heard you right the first time. Where are the redneck benefits, honey?
Idea Number Five: Rage at the mistreatment of any people because of the color of their skin or the size of their pocketbooks. My rage over racism extends to encompass all who experience it, and all who perpetrate it, and in my books I’ve written black heroes (Cadence Drake in Hunting the Corrigan’s Blood) and Hispanic/ Amerind heroes (Kait Galweigh in THE SECRET TEXTS) and one Any-Race-But-Swede heroine (Phoebe Rain in MIDNIGHT RAIN, who has black hair and black eyes and is never described in more specific race detail than that.) I’ve also written a lot of white characters, because I have a lot of experience there.
Culture is something worth fighting for. Or over. I get a hell of a lot of ideas from that.
But race is a figment of our imaginations — genetically we are no more different than a bunch of over-bred Cocker Spaniels. And our skin color is as meaningful as it is on those same dumb dogs. There are no true generalizations you can make about Cockers with one coat color that is not equally true about all the rest of them. The reds and tans and browns and blacks are all genetically the same under the fur. And so are we. Race does not define us. (Culture does, and not all cultures are equally worthy of respect. But that’s a fight for another time.)
Where do you get your ideas, then? You read everything, you watch everything, you live your life, you suffer your pain, you pay attention to everything, you get pissed off by the things that are genuinely worth getting pissed off about. You ask yourself questions, including those questions that seem weird or stupid. And if those questions interest you, you pursue them and you write them down so that you can find the answers. You plant the seeds, tend them with your own flesh and blood and dreams and effort and time. You go into a book you write with your heart and soul engaged a different person than you will be when you come out, because if your questions were any damned good at all, you didn’t know the answers going in. You weren’t writing polemic to shove your views down the throat of readers. You weren’t, trying to make a point. You were trying to answer something you wanted to know, and you were doing it for your own satisfaction, and finding out the answer is going to change you. If you don’t cheat.
If you cheat? Well, if you cheat, you’ll never be a hero of mine.