Posted in Backstory, Ideas generation

The genesis of an idea

I’m not a literary writer in the artistic sense of the word.  I don’t write literary novels or short stories.  I write both fiction and non-fiction stories (and make no mistake, the non-fiction is based on story-telling in its best sense) that result from an active process of looking for ideas.  Oh, once in a while I stumble on something, or I end up using an idea in a very different way than the way I started out; but on balance, finding ideas is for me a very proactive process.  And although I am not part of the high-brow literati, I can still appreciate that those who are might be able to articulate an idea in a different way – not better or worse, but differently.

Emily Dickinson, a literary-minded writer in her own right of course, put it this way: “Not knowing when the dawn will come, I open every door.”  I wish I had written that – I didn’t but I identify with the concept. I open every door to see where those doors might lead.

The idea of inspiration, and what it is, has shown up here before; being open to inspiration is a kind of internal process.  There is clearly a relationship between the ethereal notion of being inspired to create something – whether it’s a piece of choreography, a new theory, a strategic plan or a new book – and the idea upon which that creation will be based, but in my view they are not exactly the same thing. So, finding ideas is an external process – or at least requires interaction with the external world.

Being open to inspiration requires a certain frame of mind that makes that mind a fertile place for that idea generator to take root and grow.  The question now is not how to keep your mind open, but how to find that genesis.

So, where does an idea for a creation come from?  I’ve gleaned ideas from any number of places over the years.  Some of these have included the following:

  • Long conversations over wine (this is essential) with my husband and sometime collaborator.  Never underestimate the power of those meandering conversations with someone whose ideas you respect. Putting your two heads together even without the goal of finding a writing idea often results in transformative ideas.
  • Newspaper articles.  This is a no-brainer for writers no matter what kind of writing you do.  It might be that headline story (you’ve heard of the ripped-from-the-headlines type stories), but my experience tells me that more often the idea is likely to come from a small piece, the piece that you might easily have overlooked.  I’m currently working on a contemporary piece that is based on a ten-line article in a newspaper.  This is when you take up your trusty scissors or those newspaper cutters that should be beside your reading chair at all times, cut it out and paste it in your journal.  Or if you re reading electronically, use a select and paste  tool (but I do need to point out that often these ten-line gems of stories that fill up column inches often don’t make it to the electronic version).
  • Interviews with both celebrity types and every day people.  Sometimes you’ll be watching someone being interviewed on television, or hear it on the radio while you’re driving your car and one line might get you thinking.  You need to have a way to capture those lines – a journal if you’re not driving, a voice recorder if you are.
  • Conversations overheard.  Everyone expects writers to be slightly odd, so eavesdropping isn’t as far off the radar as you might think.  If you take public transit for example, you are awash in a sea of possible writing ideas.  I’ve sat on the subway in Toronto more than a few times and overheard snippets of conversation that seem to evoke a sense of character or even a story.  (I don’t live in Toronto and never take public transit at home – so I really feel I’m missing out on that one!).  And what about listening to other parents when you’re waiting for your children at school?  Or at the school concert?  Or audience members around you at the ballet, the theater or even the movie?  The hockey rink? On a beach while on vacation?  At a bar?
  • Online conversations “overheard.”  This is a bit more controversial, but nevertheless full of juicy material.  If you lurk around on social media sites, people might think that you are spying, but practically everyone does it to one extent or another.  Reading posts on forums without actually participating in the conversation is the definition of lurking and it has its controversial side – but it can be for the greater good.  For example, if you are interested in women’s health issues and you lurk around a social network focused on these issues, you might very well be inspired to write an article or book that will help people.  So, it’s not all bad!

And finally, my personal favorite…

  • Academic articles.  For anyone who happens to read academic articles, you’d be surprised how often one of them can contain the germ of a story.  I once read an article in a medical journal back in my medical writing days about how Edgar Allan Poe died (or what wasn’t known about it to be more specific), and that ignited an idea.

These are just a few places where ideas spring forth.  Ideas come from everywhere and often coalesce to form that big idea that eventually becomes the genesis for a story.   It then takes on a life of its own as the settings, characters and plots take over the writing.  Ask a writer where his or her idea actually had its genesis, and sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint.  But for me, I can usually tell where the germ actually comes from.

And when it comes to my historical fiction work, the idea is usually as a result of an unanswered question from history.

GRACE NOTE began to take shape many years ago.  In the late 1990’s, there was a resurgence of interest in a little-known Roman Catholic mystic who lived in 12th century Germany.  Her name was Hildegard of Bingen.

Hildegard was born in 1098 and when she was about fourteen years old (the historical dating is inconsistent) she was tithed to the church and walled up in a hut attached to a Benedictine monastery, proclaimed dead to the world, to live her life as an anchorite.  Of course, history tells us that she didn’t stay walled up forever, rather went forward and accomplished a great many things in her career as a nun and abbess.  She has been proclaimed a feminist (!), physician, mystic, teacher, and very prominently, a composer, often referred to as the very first female composer to live.  The problem is that there isn’t hard evidence of the actual authorship of her music and in 1998 an article appeared in the journal Early Music provocatively suggesting that there is no evidence that she accomplished so much.  That’s where my story began.  And GRACE NOTE is the outcome of the idea genesis followed up by lots of research on what is known and what is not known.

Where have you found your ideas?


Reading, writing & publishing. Doing things differently.

3 thoughts on “The genesis of an idea

  1. I rely on many of those same avenues for inspiration and story ideas, but have a few more of my own. Travel, especially, is a wonderful opportunity to free your mind into a state of openness. Particularly if you can make cultural observations, but even if it’s just to step away from the computer and watch the world around you. Poetry, music and just about any visual or performance art can also inspire me, as can a walk. I’m glad that you mentioned eavesdropping, as I often “justify” this as a professional duty, and was struck just today by the rich stories I am hearing out of the Truth and Reconciliation hearings in my Twitter stream. It’s odd that if I’m not writing I feel unproductive, yet the only way to have ideas to write about is not be writing but to be experiencing life or contemplating ideas.

    1. Oh, the plight of the writer! The idea that not writing (i.e. the actual act of putting words down) constitutes non-productivity (and for some reason productivity is always a good thing) is one that certainly resonates with me! I think it’s time we gave some thought to what Erica Jong calls “ambitionless activity.” In her book “Fear of Fifty” (which I had to read a couple of years ago after coming of age as a woman with her “Fear of Flyng” and the notion of the “zipless f**k”) she wrote this: “A society is impoverished…by its scarcity of outlets for ambitionless activity. Meditiation, athletics, poetry, watercolor painting, journal writing, prayer, are only as enriching as they are without outer adulation…” I think I’ll go and meditate now! (Maybe I’ll do a blog post about the meditation classes I took a few years ago!)

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