It's a common question writers are asked, but the answer is often elusive. Some ideas for novels or short stories are consciously developed, thoughtfully constructed to suit a particular purpose. Some are generated by strongly held beliefs or opinions. Others, perhaps most, seem to spring from our subconscious minds without apparent effort. In fact, though, many ideas spring from simple, often mundane things. An everyday object, a familiar phrase, a random thought or observation about people, places, or things. The letters on the license plate of the car ahead of us, or a sign on a passing truck. Then our imagination takes over...says "What if...?" and extends or extrapolates a larger idea from that humble beginning, turns it inside out or backwards, and creates something new and wonderful from it.
Let's explore some examples of how certain elements of stories came to be....
A JUNGLE IN THE BACKYARD
In my science fiction novel, "THE GODS OF CERUS MAJOR" (Doubleday 1982), there is a scene as the crew of a stranded spaceship begin a trek through a jungle of immense alien plant growth. The description reads, "Below the highest canopy of plant growth, the great treelike structures, was another level of vegetation. Slender rods reached up to a height of twelve meters, surmounted by large spheres of coarse growth in which blossoming flowers protruded." Giant plants of remarkable design, like nothing on Earth...right? Well, not quite.
The giant alien plants were inspired by a much, much smaller thing. As a child playing in the backyard, I had always been fascinated with the tiny plants which grew among the grass blades, and how looking down at them from my own eye level was like flying over some vast jungle terrain. It was like an alien world, in miniature. One particular plant, with fragile stalks topped by bulbs bearing almost microscopically small flowers, stuck in my mind over the years, and eventually "grew" into the giant plants of Cerus Major. Those very same tiny plants still grow in the backyard and serve as a reminder of both my childhood and the jungle world of my imagination. Another part of the novel describes large vines with bulges swollen by insect venom into nests. Well, this too is drawn from our own yard. I had noticed small twig-like branches of our oak tree swollen into bulbous nests for some type of ant, and extrapolated this into the alien vines and an entire city grown from plant tissue and connected by vine-tunnel roadways.
WHAT'S IN A NAME?
In my fantasy novel, "MORLAC: THE QUEST OF THE GREEN MAGICIAN" (Signet/NAL 1986), names play an important role. Morlac, the lead character, has been conjured from the living flesh of a large green sea turtle and the soul and memories of a human warrior named Calrom ("Calrom" spelled backwards becomes "Morlac"; part of the conjuring process). The Green Magician of the book's title is named Sordros, which is spelled the same backwards and forwards, making it harder to use his name in spells cast against him. Broct, Morlac's best friend and fellow transmutant, has been conjured from an octopus, and this jovial, lusty giant of a man has a name which combines the "Br" of brave, bravura, brash, and brawny with the "oct" of octopus, his origins. Hopefully, on a subconscious level, his name suggests something of his nature.
But perhaps the most unusual source of a character name was what inspired the name of Broct's fiesty girlfriend, the red-haired Rila T'Faen, master thief, pickpocket, and con-artist. The name supposedly means "The Devil's Flame" in the language of her people (or so she says!), but what is the real source of inspiration??
One day while working on the novel, I was looking at the cover of a Reader's Digest magazine, absent-mindedly trying to find words or phrases within the blocks of words forming the article titles. One such article, about a sailing race tragedy at sea, was titled, "In Peril at Fastnet." Hmmmm.... IN PERIL AT FASTNET IN PERIL AT FASTNET RILA T'FANE! But that didn't look quite right, so I swapped the "N" and the "E" around and got: RILA T'FAEN Perfect! The sound of it suited her, suggested her nature, and that's how it came to be.
Watch for more topics! Explore the Realm of the Imagination!