Schenectady, or, Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

People ask writers this all the time.  Sometimes it is asked in a tone of awe tinged with horror:  What a sick sordid mind you must have — where do you get those gruesome ideas?  I bet Stephen King gets that one a lot.  Sometimes it is a query of pure wonder: Who would ever have thought of being shot out of a cannon towards the Moon?  This is a favorite of elderly relatives: Darling, you are sooo cute! where do you get your ideas?  [sfx: cheek pinch]

But most often it is emulative:  Where do you get ideas for best-selling fantasy trilogies, and where can I get me some?

Harlan Ellison got asked this often enough that he developed a standard reply: Schenectady.  Tossed off in passing, his quip rapidly evolved into a mythical PO Box in northern New York state manned by a little old lady, who for a modest payment of $10 would send you, by return mail, three ideas.  Sometimes you have to be a member of SFWA to get it.  (And, by the way, observe how this is done.  The idea, Schenectady, immediately snowballed into a character, a background, and a setting.  The only thing missing now is conflict — the plot.  From there to action — to the blazing AKs at a bad drug deal or a space-sled dogfight over Lake Erie — is but a step.)

If this service existed it would be both a stupendous bargain, and a major rip-off.  It is a bargain, as you probably know, because a great idea is solid gold.  The right idea, in the right hands, is literally worth a fortune.  Don’t believe me?  Ask J.K. Rowling.

But ideas are not one-size fits all — that’s why the hypothetical little old lady in Schenectady is running a scam.  Ideas are truly everywhere.  They are cheap and easy, as recycleable as newsprint and ubiquitous as dust.

Shall I demonstrate?  Here’s a classic hardy perennial:  an alien arrives on earth and hangs around learning local customs.   You have seen this idea — we all have.  It’s ET THE EXTRATERRESTRIAL.  It’s THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH.  It’s MORK & MINDY.  It’s Superboy in Smallville, the Sub-Mariner in Manhattan, Howard the Duck, Alf, Lilo & Stitch.  It’s not the idea that is special.  It’s the execution of it, the rubber ET or Robin Williams or the little silly wings on Prince Namor’s heels.  Any pro will tell you that she has millions of ideas.  It’s the time, time to write them, that is valuable.

The right idea, for you, will fit you perfectly: playing to your writing strengths, avoiding weaknesses.  It will thrill you and devour you; you will get up in the morning burning to add a couple thousand words to that ms before breakfast., and you will dream about horrible things to do to your hero at night.  You are not going to buy that idea through the mail.  But then how do you do it?  My fellow BVC bloggers will kick in, in our new series of blogs, and tell us how they get their ideas.



About Brenda Clough

Brenda W. Clough spent much of her childhood overseas, courtesy of the U.S. government. Her first fantasy novel, The Crystal Crown, was published by DAW in 1984. She has also written The Dragon of Mishbil (1985), The Realm Beneath (1986), and The Name of the Sun (1988). Her children’s novel, An Impossumble Summer (1992), is set in her own house in Virginia, where she lives in a cottage at the edge of a forest. Her novel How Like a God, available from BVC, was published by Tor Books in 1997, and a sequel, Doors of Death and Life, was published in May 2000. Her latest novels from Book View Cafe include Revise the World (2009) and Speak to Our Desires. Her novel A Most Dangerous Woman is being serialized by Serial Box. Her novel The River Twice is newly available from BVC.


Schenectady, or, Where Do You Get Your Ideas? — 1 Comment

  1. Melissa Scott was once driving through Schenectady and thought of finding the discount outlet, where the mail-order firm sold its outdated, imperfect, or slighted blemished ideas.