You hear sometimes of a writer being asked, gushingly, “Where do you get your ideas?” When such questions are answered, it’s often with a slight air of bewilderment: what can you say? “It just came to me,” is honest, but is a little too “The Muse and I are such Buddies” for my taste. ”I was sitting in a bar with a bunch of friends” is often truthful, and has the advantage of sounding colorfully dissipated. More bizarre and therefore more appealing are: “I buy them in the family pack at Costco;” “The little men in my head whisper ideas to me;” or my favorite, “I come to you at night and steal your dreams…”
My experience is that each story or novel comes from somewhere different from the last time, and that a work may have multiple starting points. Reading a story or seeing a film that irritates me is a good one. Talking about writing and technique can be a great hopping-on point. And sometimes it’s just a line that comes to me and suggests something else, and before I know it–poof. Idea. And hopefully, story to follow.
With “Abelard’s Kiss,” my contribution to ROCKET BOY AND THE GEEK GIRLS, it was one line, and it came to me out of the blue when I was seventeen, young enough to be living in my parents’ house. The line was: “Beatrice’s lover was made of lip; she wouldn’t say where she’d found him.” Even then I was a fan of the semi-colon.
I remember writing it down on lined notebook paper from my school binder, and looking at it. Over and over for several days. And I finally came to the conclusion that I was not old enough or experienced enough to figure out what came next. I put the paper in a drawer, deciding to let it sit there until I was “old enough” to know what to do with it. And there the story sat for another seventeen years, until one day I pulled it out and started writing it. Suddenly I had characters, and a setting, and a point of view about the idea of artifically created servants of any kind, and about the way we humans endow the things with which we interact with personality.
I finished the story and sent it off to Asimov’s SF and in short order got a nice rejection from Gardner Dozois, who didn’t feel it was right for the magazine. An old friend of mine, who is an even older friend of Gardner’s, read the letter over my shoulder and between the lines and said “Oooh! You icked him out! You icked Gardner out!” as if this were a signal accomplishment. I couldn’t have icked him out too badly, because he subsequently bought reprint rights for Dying for It, a book of sexually themed stories.
In truth, that first line icked my 17-year-old self out, which is why it took me so long to finish. I discovered, as I was writing it years later, that it took place in the same universe as my dark urban fantasy The Stone War, which was interesting; I hadn’t thought of Stone War when I first imagined “Abelard.”
I have a drawer–actually, a folder on my Mac desktop–that is full of snippets and lines and bits of stuff I haven’t yet found a use for. Which makes me wonder what story will come out of all that stuff in another seventeen years.
Madeleine Robins’s short story ”Abelard’s Kiss” appears in ROCKET BOY AND THE GEEK GIRLS. Her Saturday Special this week is “Willie.” Robins blogs here on the 7th and 21st of the month, and more regularly at Running Air.