Tag Archives: ideas

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

This evening, I solved a mystery that has been plaguing me for years, but in order to understand the context, we have to begin with the question that writers often get, “Where do you get your ideas?”

I answered this question eight years ago, but it is worth revisiting here. Harlan Ellison may have gotten his ideas from an idea factory in Schenectady, but I get mine in the shower. Of all the places from which to get ideas, the shower is the most inconvenient. I don’t recommend it. Usually, the idea rises like a soap bubble, just as I have finished lathering up my hair with shampoo. Under those circumstances, it is impossible to dash out of the shower and scribble the idea down. You have to fight for it. And like a soap bubble, the idea is clear but delicate, so you have to keep a close eye on it, and avoid jostling it lest it burst.

This is not as easy as it sounds. If the idea is strong and clear, it is one thing. But if it is a fleeting thing: the perfect line of dialog for a character, worded just right, then it becomes a lot more tricky for me. My shower becomes an exercise in repetition, and I can be heard muttering the line over and over, like someone trying to remember a phone number.

I have often wondered why a shower stimulates ideas at the rate that it does compared to just about any other activity. I think it is because it is the only time in my day when my mind is completely unburdened of other activity. My default idle is reading. If I am not doing anything else during the day, I am reading, whether a physical book, a magazine, a newspaper, or listening to an audiobook. There is no time in my day when I just sit and do nothing, just let my mind wander–except for the shower. I guess my mind, cooped up all day like dog, runs free once I hit the shower. It is remarkable how often I get useful ideas in the shower. These can be ideas for anything–blog posts, stories, dialog, working out a problem I’m having with something I am writing. The shower rarely fails me.

Of course, it is difficult to capture the idea in the shower. You have to treat it carefully. But I’ve learned not to worry too much about that. With the except of the perfect line (or dialog or prose), if the idea doesn’t make it out of the shower, I assume it really wasn’t that good of an idea after all. Or perhaps I just tell myself that to make me feel better.

How does this relate to the mystery that I have finally solved? Well, let me tell you… beginning a few years ago, I started to experience a strange phenomenon in the shower. At some point, I would reach for the shampoo–and hesitate. I could not recall if I had already washed my hair. Washing it twice is no big deal. It just takes more time. But it bothered me that I had been so preoccupied that I couldn’t even remember if I had washed my hair. This didn’t happen all the time, but every now and then, there’d I be, my thoughts drifting and I couldn’t recall if I had already washed my hair.

This evening, in a flash, it came to me–in the shower, of course–that there seemed to be a direct correlation between my absentmindedness and the abundance of ideas that come during the shower. When the ideas are ripe for the picking, I get into that same mental state that drivers get into when they leave the office, end up in their driveway, and have no memory of anything in between. I go on autopilot, my mind completely focused on the emerging ideas, and the lizard part of my brain taking care of the basic functions, like washing my hair.

If you are wondering, the idea that came to me in this evening’s shower–one in which I really had to focus because I wanted to keep the wording precise–was: “Harlan Ellison may have gotten his ideas from an idea factory in Schenectady, but I get mine in the shower. Of all the places from which to get ideas, the shower is the most inconvenient. I don’t recommend it.”

I’m pretty sure I washed my hair twice.

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.