Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

That’s the classic question asked of writers, so classic it’s the subject of numerous jokes. (There’s this mail order house in New Jersey — send ’em 10 bucks and they’ll send you this week’s list of ideas.)

The trick isn’t finding ideas. I had a great one only this morning, while reading one of my Christmas presents, Jane Mayer’s The Dark Side. A novel-length idea, complete with core plot and leading characters. And no, my idea doesn’t involve a thinly fictionalized story of torture and other outrageous actions by the Bush administration; it hares off in a science fictional direction based on one sentence in the book.

I’m not going to tell you about it now; you’ll see it if I’m able to pull it off. Because having a good idea isn’t the trick; people have good ideas all the time. It’s what you do with it that matters.

The idea for the flash fiction I have up on Book View Cafe today, “Alert,” came from the emergency warnings sent out by the Washington, D.C., government on such things as bad weather, water main breaks, nightmare traffic jams, and terrorist threats.

I still get these messages, even though I moved to Austin about a year ago, because I can’t figure out how to unsubscribe. It’s OK, though; they help keep me in touch with my former home and sometimes they provide vivid images. For example:

Utility Outage-Smoking manhole in the 700 block of P Street NW, causing a power outage from 7th to 10th Street on Rhode Island Ave. NW. No restoration time determined.

The alerts can make you wonder about the underlying story:

North Capitol Street north & southbound is closed from Farraugut Street NW to Missouri Ave NW due to a house fire.

Sometimes they just provide useful facts, despite some typos:

Water main Break @ 33rd & M St.NW. M.St closed between Wisconsin Ave.& 34th St. traffic allowed eastbound on M. St.

While they provide useful information, they don’t pretend to be completely accurate:

NWS has issued a Winter Storm Watch for the D.C. Metro Area, in effect from Saturday morning through Sunday afternoon. The exact timing, strength, and precipitation type (rain vs. snow vs. ice) remains uncertain at this time.

The alerts let you know about the latest breakdown in infrastructure:

Metrorail Red Line trains are sharing the same track between Ft. Totten and Silver Spring stations due to a track circuit malfunction outside Takoma station. Long term delays are expected in both directions. The estimated repair time is 2 hours.

They can be downright poetic:

The late evening visibilities in spotty locations will be near zero.

And accidentally ironic:

The Department of Homeland Security has lowered the aviation threat level from red to orange for flights from the United Kingdom into the United States. The ban on liquids remains in effect.

You’ll see echoes of that last one in my story.



Where Do You Get Your Ideas? — 1 Comment

  1. I thought it was Schenectady and you had to subscribe.
    Occasionally I’ll have a couple of ideas floating around, when suddenly a third one arrives and fits together with the other two like a jigsaw puzzle to create a story as if it had always been there.