Where do you get those ideas?

At some point, every science fiction writer gets asked, “Where do you get your ideas?”  I got asked the question this past weekend and I thought I’d answer it here.  This is a question that has been answered and blogged about by writers, perhaps more often than any other.  But it is also different for each writer.  What works for me, may not work for others, but it may give some insight for other new writers, like myself, and therefore prove helpful.  So, where do I get my ideas?

The very general answer is: anywhere.  I think this is true for most writers.  As a writer, and in particular, a science fiction or fantasy writer, we look for ideas in everything we see and do.  I find that my mind is always on the lookout for ideas, even when this might prove inconvenient, as when your wife is asking you to do some chore, or you are in a meeting with your coworkers.  Someone will say something, and that will trigger a chain of thought that usually begins, “I wonder what would happen if…?”  Many of these ideas are fleeting and a large number of them are cast away.  But some of them stick in my mind, sometimes for a very long time, and it is those ideas, the ones that feel most compelling, that tend to make their way into my stories.  So, just as Isaac Asimov once said, I think and think and think and think and that’s how I get many of my ideas.

Thinking is good, but for me, at least, there has to be some raw material that feeds the thinking process.  I get this raw material from a number of places, but perhaps most frequently from these four:  (1) the news; (2) science fiction stories; (3) science magazines, (4) flashes or images

Often time I will watch the news (or back when I lived in L.A., listen to the news on the radio) and hear a story that piques my curiosity in some way that starts the thinking process and gets me wondering, “what would happen if…?”  The germ for the idea of my first published story, “When I Kissed the Learned Astronomer,” came about in this way.  I was driving into work listening to the news on the radio and the Osgood File came on.  In this particular episode, Charles Osgood recited Walt Whitman’s poem, “When I Heard the Learned Astronomer”.  I’d never heard the poem before, but I loved it.  While the poem is about a romance with the stars, my mind jumped to a romance with an astronomer, and a small alteration to the title of the poem gave me a title for the story.

New writers trying to break into the science fiction field often feel that their ideas have to be completely original, but ask any seasoned science fiction professional and they will tell you that original ideas are almost unheard of.  New spins on old ideas, however, can be very useful.  And so in my reading of science fiction stories, I occasionally get an idea that is based on something I read.  Sometimes, it challenges the notions in the story; other times, it extends them.  Perhaps just about every professional writer has attempted to write a story in defense or opposition of Tom Godwin’s famous story, “The Cold Equations”.  I wrote a story of my own in reaction to Godwin’s, one called, “Wake Me When We Get There” which I used to illustrate the phases of loss in a person doomed aboard a malfunctioning spacecraft.

More often than not, these day, I get my raw material from the science magazines that I read.  I have subscribed to SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN for close to 15 years now.  And I’ve been a subscriber to NEW SCIENTIST for almost a year.  SCIAM is monthly, while NEW SCIENTIST is weekly, making it hard to keep up sometimes (the photo above shows my current backlog of science magazines, that I am diligently working my way through).  I read these magazines cover-to-cover, letters and all.  Not only am I educating myself on all areas of science and technology, but I find a wealth of story ideas within the pages.  Still, you have to be able to identify the real nuggets.  I try to find one good story idea in each issue of a magazine.  Often times there are two or three useful ideas–ideas that can help to better explain a technology that I use in a story–but that don’t form the basis of the story itself.  But one good idea per magazine means roughly 64 good idea each year.

With 64 good ideas each year, am I producing 64 stories each year?  Of course not.  For one thing, I work fairly slowly at this stage of the game.  While I wish I were as prolific as Isaac Asimov, I’m not.  In the past I’ve been lucky to produce two or three stories each year.  This year I’m aiming for 10-12.  Having a lot of ideas to choose from is helpful to me, however, in several ways.

First, I can’t write a story based on one good idea.  I have found that my best stories require the merging of at least two good ideas.  In “Learned Astronomer” I had the idea for the title, and the romance with an astronomer, but I needed something more.  A few years earlier, I’d read an article in ANALOG about how one would go about finding a starship.  Many s.f. ideas focus on “first contact” with aliens.  Using the science of the article as a basis, I wondered, “what would happen if we discovered a starship going from star A to star B?”  Clearly the ship would be so far away, it wouldn’t be aware of us.  Furthermore, we don’t yet have the technology to talk to it.  Finally, at a distance of hundreds of light years, what we are seeing now took place hundreds of years ago.  There would be nothing we could do, but we would know someone else was out there.  I merged this idea with the romance with the astronomer and the two ideas formed the basis of “When I Kissed the Learned Astronomer”.

Second, some ideas take a long time to develop.  I might have a list of 50 or 60 ideas, and I might be eager to work on one or two of them.  But I sometimes struggle, and usually that tells me that I’m either not yet ready to write the story, or I don’t yet have the ability I need to properly tell the story.  It is, therefore, good to have other ideas to turn to.  This year, at least, it has helped me keep writing, and avoid getting stuck on any one story or idea.

Last, but not least, I occasionally get ideas from an image I see either in the real world or in my mind.  The idea for my second published story, “The Last Science Fiction Writer“, came from something I saw in a Baker’s Square restaurant in North Hollywood.  There was a sad old man in a wrinkled, periwinkle suit, sitting all alone, scribbling all over his napkins in microscopic print.  That was the germ for the narrator of my story.

So, where do you get your crazy ideas?

Originally published at From the Desk of Jamie Todd Rubin. You can comment here or there.