Daddy, where do stories come from?

I figured it was about time for me to write about my answer to that age-old question, “Where do you get your ideas?”

Ideas for me are, quite honestly, a dime a dozen. I have no problem coming up with them. I find them just about everyone: reading science magazines like New Scientist and Scientific American; eavesdropping listening to conversations in an elevator; thinking about a story or novel I just finished reading. I used to worry that the ideas I got weren’t very original, but I stopped worrying about that a long time ago, since very few ideas are truly original. But as John W. Campbell once said to Isaac Asimov, “I can give the same idea to three different writers and get back three different stories.” He also said that if he gives the writer a story idea, he expects the writer to transform it into story, add something of himself to it; that he didn’t waste more ideas on writers who gave back exactly what he gave to them.

So in my experience, the key question is not where ideas come from by where stories come from.

Around the time I wrote the first story that I sold, I learned something that has made all of the difference in my stories; your mileage may vary. What I learned was that for a story to work–and by work, I mean be something that an editor of a science fiction magazine would buy–it required more than one “idea.” It was a fascinating discovery for me. The idea for my first professional story sale, “When I Kissed the Learned Astronomer” (IGSM, July 2007) was a kind of light romance. The title of the story, of course, comes from Whitman’s famous poem, “When I Heard the Learned Astronomer” which I heard for the first time, read on the radio by Charles Osgood. The immediate idea that came to mind was what if the title had been “When I Kissed the Learned Astronomer”? What was the story behind that?

The story languished in my mind for years. I’d start it and it would never quite work out. I’d quit and come back to it a year later with the same result. The title was gold but the idea was bleh. There was no story. But I’d had this other idea lingering in my head. I’d read lots of “first contact” stories and yet I’d never read one in which the contact never actually happened. What if we discovered the exhaust signature of an alien starship–but it was hundreds of lightyears away, and heading away from us as if it had no idea we were out here. We knew they existed, but they didn’t know we existed. This idea percolated up through my mind and I realized that to make a story out of “Learned Astronomer”, I could combine my romance idea with the notion of this intersellar discovery.

And as soon as the two ideas were combined, the story was born, was sold, and was published.

This has been true for just about every other story that I think has “worked”–and certainly every other story that I’ve ended up selling. I start with an idea, turn it around in my mind, think about it from a dozen different angles, and then I try to find another idea that will compliment the first one. Together, the two ideas make a story. And as story is more than the sum of it’s ideas and I think that’s what makes them work. I used to worry that I’d run out of ideas and so I’d save some for a rainy day. I’d ration them: one per story. That never worked out. In the end, for me anyway, it takes two good ideas to make a story. And the ideas don’t always have to be plot-related. In “Take One for the Road” which will appear in the June ’11 Analog, one of the ideas was plot-related and the other was a character.

I imagine that one day, my little boy will discover that I am a writer, read some of my stories and come to me with a curious expression on his face. He’ll say, “Daddy, where do stories come from?”

And I’ll sit him down, and we’ll have the talk: “Well, that’s a very good question,” I’ll say. “You see when you have a couple of ideas rattling around in your head, eventually those ideas will meet. It will be love at first sight. They’ll play around for a little while, feel each other out so-to-speak, and eventually, fall in love. And when these ideas get together, well, the result, son, is a story.”

He’ll smile knowingly and then ask, “Okay, but where do babies come from?”

“I’m just a writer,” I’ll say, “Go ask your mother.”