Every writer is asked the same question: how did you get the idea for your story? Inevitably, we lie to make ourselves seem more intelligent than we are and weave yet another story about how the idea came to us. Because the truth is, most of the time we just don’t know.
The secret to getting story ideas, I think, is to be a spy. Watching, listening, noting. In other words, stealing. Stealing from life, but also stealing from what you read, see in the movies, watch in the theater or on TV or YouTube or any of your social media sites. We all do it.
Ideas come from oddest places. Whole scenes for my first novel, NOT ME, emerged fully blown in the middle of a Bible class I was taking that year. I’ve culled ideas from people passing me on the street – I notice something odd, like a weird pair of shoes, or something normal, like a hundred people texting at the same time. I used to pass this guy in North Beach who was a screamer – every day he stood on the same corner and screamed at imaginary people – I don’t remember if I put him in any of my stories, but that very corner, and the feeling he evoked in me, the sense of this being so very “San Francisco” – forms a critical scene in my latest book, THE HEART OF HENRY QUANTUM. For my last book, THE WANTING, the big idea – a Russian living in Israel – came to me over a very fine bottle of wine up at Squaw Valley—literally came to me, because it was someone else’s idea. He said it, I stole it.
Stealing is the oldest trick in the book. Stealing from the Bible, of course, is the oldest of all, but so is stealing from Greek mythology, fairy tales, histories. Shakespeare stole just about everything he ever wrote, often from other writers. Joyce’s masterpiece is a mash-up of Homer, isn’t it? Flaubert’s Emma Bovary is based on something he read in the paper. But these thefts are only the outlines of ideas. The deeper theft requires more work.
This work is ongoing, fairly relentless, and a great deal of fun.