Back Off, Pal. I’m An Author.

Jeffrey Cohen

Where do you get your ideas?

I’m not exactly Stephen King–people don’t know my name, my frightening visage is not seen in the front row of Yankees/Red Sox games, and oh yeah, millions of people don’t buy my books based on the byline alone–but I get asked the above question relatively often. Readers, radio interviewers, the guy at the dry cleaners who pressed the lapel on my sport coat wrong: they all ask The Question, because at least some of them know I’m an author (I’m not sure about the dry cleaning guy–he’s just learning the language, and I think he might ask everybody where they get their ideas) and they find the process of creating fiction to be weird, otherworldly and inexplicable. All of which it is; don’t get me wrong.

Where do you get your ideas?

I am far from alone. I’m willing to bet that everyone who has ever dared commit their fantasies to the page, from Edgar Allan Poe to Edgar Rice Burroughs to Edgar Klymowitz, who used to live down the street from me, has been asked about the origin of their ideas. Which is kind of a bizarre concept: where do you get the idea for anything, really? Don’t they all, finally, stem from the same source?

To be fair, not really. Yes, your ideas all come from your brain, but that’s not what the person is asking. They don’t really mean, “geographically, where does an idea originate in your body?” If they’re actually asking you that question, you need to call someone for help, and make sure the sharp objects have been locked up.

No, when you hear The Question, you’re being asked about your creative process. And since there are few things writers like to do more than talk about how brilliant they are, it’s not unusual for the answer to The Question to be longer than the Questioner might have hoped. In fact, it’s possible the answer will go on for weeks if left unchecked.

Honestly, it used to irritate me when someone would ask me The Question, but in retrospect, I think it was really because I couldn’t answer truthfully. I don’t always know the genesis of my story ideas. Sometimes, they just sort of happen when I’m not trying to think about such things, like in the shower, or when I’m writing the book that someone has actually asked me to write. You know, down time.

So, my stock answer to “where do you get your ideas” used to be, “the Lillian Vernon Catalog. If you order three ideas, the shipping is free.” That was sort of a snarky response (and who would expect such a thing from me, right?), and it might have been a tad unintentionally insulting (“how stupid are you to ask such a thing?”), but it was really a deflection from the fact that I had no idea what the real answer might be.

These days, given that I have more time for reflection (because when you have two teenagers about to end a school year, an actual book deadline, no fewer than three classrooms full of students expecting you to say something pithy, and the need to drum up new freelancing work, you have tons of time for reflection), I don’t say that anymore. I try to answer honestly about the story in question, about what train of thought led to the book, about how my process works, but in reality, it’s still a dodge. I haven’t got a clue where my ideas come from, mostly. That’s what makes them ideas. As Captain Kirk once said, “you can’t wake up one (insert Shatner pause) morning and say, ‘today I will be brilliant.'”

“You should write about this in your next book.”

People, particularly people who have never written a word in their lives, love to tell writers this one. They like to point out an amusing, or unusual, situation, and suggest that said author should use it in a fictional setting. I suppose it’s a natural impulse, but boy, it ticks me off.

There are two reasons I don’t suffer this particular comment with grace. Well okay, three reasons, given that it’s my nature not to suffer things with grace. The two reasons in particular that this comment annoys me:

First, do I go around telling the plumber who comes to my house, “hey, you should solder this pipe next?” Do I suggest to my doctor that perhaps I’ve found the next treatment he should consider trying–on someone else? Do I inform the State Trooper who stops me for speeding about some new reflector sunglasses I think he ought to try out? No, I don’t. I assume that these people are professionals, they know what they’re doing, and I should stay out of their business.

But the problem with writing is a contradiction: everybody thinks it’s a mystical, paranormal process, an art, a piece of witchcraft–and they all think they can do it, but they don’t have the time. I don’t think I’m a carpenter, an upholsterer, a mechanic or a dairy famer, but everybody, deep down, thinks they can write. For evidence, I refer you to my post about memoirists that appeared here a couple of weeks back.

The other thing that sets my teeth on edge when I hear this particular comment is that it usually comes from someone who knows I’m a writer, perhaps has read one of my books, and then refers to a real situation as something I should immediately base a novel upon. This, for those of us searching desperately for something to be insulted about, is a double hit: it assumes that we didn’t make up the fiction in our previous work, but that it came from life experiences, and it assumes that I’m too stupid to recognize a ripe situation when I see one. Two put-downs for the price of one!

There’s nothing wrong with talking to an author about the writing process–in fact, it’s our favorite form of procrastination, which is the writer’s chief occupation. And most authors I know–in fact, almost all excepting myself–are very gracious about such things. Even I am perfectlly nice to people I don’t know when they ask me The Question or comment on what I should write next (to be fair, it’s rare to hear that comment from someone you don’t know–strangers rarely stop you in the street and suggest future plotlines), because they might want to buy my books, and I want them to like me. It’s only those near and dear whom we can lambast for not knowing what it’s like.

People shouldn’t be at all hesitant to approach a writer and talk about writing. I love it, as does every other writer on the planet (well, the ones I’ve met, anyway–can’t actually vouch for Mr. King). And I’m not suggesting you should change one word of what you’d say to your favorite author when you run into him/her at a convention, signing, or in line for a hot dog at Nathan’s. Readers are the people who make the publishing industry viable, and we are all in debt to them.

But don’t be surprised if I suggest the next book you should read. It’ll probably be one of mine.

So… where do you get your ideas?

8 thoughts on “Back Off, Pal. I’m An Author.

  1. Lorraine T.

    Great post. As an unpublished writer, have no idea how I’d answer the question because ideas pop into my head from God knows where.I have a few “test” readers, who can be annoying. Wrote a short story about a widow a week ago, gave it to my niece to read and she says, “it’s autobiographical, Aunt Lorraine?” And there her uncle sits dozing in his recliner. Sure, the widow uses the same perfume I do, and loves to walk her dog, as I do, but those are just minor coincidences.Once I’m a published mystery writer, will people think I’m cheerfully bumping annoying acquaintances?

  2. JT Ellison

    Jeff, you’ve nailed it. Very accurate, and very funny. Next time someone suggests I write a mystery about people who are turning green because they drink diet soda with chemicals (seriously, that was a suggestion last week), I’ll smile and nod and thank them for the idea.

  3. Iden Ford

    Good post. But I think it is different for many authors. Ian Rankin’s latest book, The Naming of The Dead, was inspired by the G8 meeting in Edinburgh last year. My wife’s novels (Maureen Jennings), according to her, all eminate from a theme she wants to tackle, ie Night’s Child is about the abuse of a young girl and how the pornography trade was dealt with in Victorian times. All the bad guys have a grisley end and get their just desserts. But she spends countless hours in the Archives of Ontario once she gets the seed of an idea. It might be different for writing a contemporary book, but archival research is one of her favourite things to do and is a font of ideas for her work. So ideas do come from somewhere, I think they are driven pure and simple by what interests you, as an author. The passion and committment it takes in writing a novel requires an idea that is truly inspiring. It never bothers Maureen if someone asks that question. I think it is the creative process that perplexes a lot of people and that is what they are truly interested in.

  4. JLW

    Guyot says: “I have a muse. He is a large black Newfoundland dog. I never know when he’s going to show up or how long he’s going to stay. He is a talking dog, but tends toward lax grammar.” But then spoils it all by adding, “Anybody who asks this question is not and never will be a writer.”

    I can add that the dog also has some trouble with spelling and punctuation, but is hell on wheels when it comes to catchy phrases and psychological motivations.

    Cartoonist Wiley Miller has something to say on the subject (be sure you look for today’s strip, today being Sunday, June 4), at

    In fiction, ideas are far less important than how they are used. A good idea cannot guarantee a good story.

    Ideas can float in from anywhere at any time to anybody. Sometimes it’s serendipity, what the Fench called un trouvaille, some little fact or comment that pops into your head. Sometimes you hunt them down — my current WIP required an unusual means of murder, so I did some brainstorming until I came up with a method that pleased me. It’s good for the story, of course, but more importantly, the story had better be good enough for the idea.

    I will close with one observation and a quote.

    The is observation is that the worst thing you can ever tell a writer of fiction is what he should write. It’s just insulting.

    The quote is from an editorial in today’s L.A. Times by Elliot S. Magin, the primary writer for the Superman comics in the 70s and 80s:

    “Fiction, when it’s any good, is a fantasy that tells the truth.”

    Now THAT’s a good idea.

  5. Mark Terry

    I hate THE QUESTION, and I’m not at all good at answering it, either seriously or facetiously. I usually shrug and mutter something like, “They’re everywhere.” I rather like Joe Konrath’s answer: “I sift through James Patterson’s garbage looking for the one’s he didn’t use.”

    THE QUESTION is bad enough, but I absolutely despite, loathe and really, really try to avoid: I have this great idea for a novel, but I can’t tell you what it is unless you promise you’ll split half the profits with me, because I’m sure it will be a bestseller and Spielberg will make it into a blockbuster movie.”

    What I say, with a friendly smile on my face, “Perhaps you shouldn’t tell me then.”

    What I’m thinking: You are a fucking moron. If you think that’s all there is to it, try it. You are a fucking idiot. Go away. Go to hell. I’m never telling anybody ever again that I’m a writer. Do accountants have this happen to them? Do bricklayers? You are a fucking nutcase. Do you know how many novels get published each year and how few become bestsellers? You are a fucking lunatic. Do you know how many scripts Spielberg or anybody else reads and rejects each year? Do you know how many he DOESN’T read? You are a…

    Yeah, you get the idea.



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