A writer never knows from where or when an idea may come. While my wife and I were on a road trip through Northern Arizona, one of the hotels we considered staying at had a very masculine looking Native American woman – Navajo, I believe – behind the front desk. We ended up not staying there. Not because of the masculine female Navajo, but because the hotel was booked solid. No vacancies! As I drove us off to find another hotel, I wondered…
Was she transgender, or did she have a few too many Y chromosomes? If she was transgender, was she a he becoming a she, or a she becoming a he? What were the circumstances of their life before, during, and after their physical transformation? And at what point of her/his transformation was she/he in? What is the Navajo culture’s take on transgenders? Are they accepted or ridiculed? I once watched a documentary about a Native American teen who was struggling with her desire to play La Crosse – a male dominated sport in her tribe. Her desire was ridiculed such that she had to travel a great distance to play on a team in another county. She was not accepted by her culture…
This is how writers think, the process by which they create and nurture ideas for stories. It can happen very quickly, and seeds for thought can come out of nowhere.
I remember when I first saw Kevin Brownlow’s “Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film.” In one episode about stuntmen of the era, a veteran in the profession laments about those long gone days; his sentiments are so powerful and touching that the idea for a novel came upon me like a flash flood down a barren ravine. I sketched an outline, from start to finish, in only a matter of days. Years later, it has become my second (and soon-to-be-released) novel, The Quieting West.
For the novel I’m currently writing, I came up with the idea while reading an article in the Wilson Quarterly about a mechanical toy duck from the 18th century. The novelty of the duck is that it would eat, and then poop! (You’ll have to wait a while to see exactly what I came up with for a story; I’ve just begun writing it.)
This doesn’t exactly answer the question posed in the title of this blog, however, does it? To that, exactly, my response is: I don’t know.
As a reader, I love a good story. As a writer, I’m conscious of the elements that went into making that story, just like a cook knows what ingredients to use and how to combine them to make a tasty meal. But exactly how the ideas come, I can’t say. They just come. I think any artist would agree with me there. It’s what makes me a writer, I guess.
I believe it is something that can be cultivated. The more you write, the more susceptible you become to ideas. Like a sponge. I’m certainly more aware of that in recent years, as I’ve been writing more. Perhaps that’s the secret: experience, and being open and aware. Open to the world around you, its tragedy, humor, and beauty; aware of being human, with all its flaws and potential for greatness, and aware of yourself, as a writer.
Usually, I’ll get hit with minor insights into a particular character or situation that I can use later while I’m stuck in traffic or in the middle of some other mundane activity, like jogging (when I used to such a thing), walking, or taking a shower. The worst, and most embarrassing, is when something will come to me in a group setting. I’ll zone out to a concept forming in my brain only to find someone has been talking to me about a subject important to them, and I hadn’t heard a single word they’ve said. The victim of this occurrence is often my wife. She knows all-too-well my distracted acknowledgements as she shares the details of her day; she knows when I haven’t been listening by my vacant, disengaged smile. This is perpetuated by the fact that I’m often inspired by the very people around me. Snippets of the personalities I interact with and the conversations I hear are great fodder for writing, and I try to keep my mind open and aware to all that is going on about me.
So, if you know a writer, you might want to be careful what you say and how you behave in their presence. You may find yourself part of one their stories.
An idea does not always culminate into an entire novel. In fact, for me, it rarely does. As far as the transgender Navajo, they are not an idea I’m passionate about. They might make a good character; a part of something bigger. I just don’t see building an entire book around them.
If anything, they gave me the idea for a blog post.