Where Ideas Come From (or Things That Make You Go Hmmm….)

by Alafair Burke

Of all the questions writers get on tour and online, the one many of us hear most is, “Where do you get your ideas?”  In truth, the question is raised so frequently that some writers barely suppress an eye roll at its utterance, but I’m always glad when I get this one because I think I actually have a decent answer: Ideas come from everywhere if you only use your imagination.  (Hey, I said it was decent, not groundmaking!)

I’ve heard many writers talk about the “What if” process. You read a newspaper article or stumble on a little nugget of a thought and start to think, What if X had happened instead of A?  And then what if because of X, Y happened?  And then what if the reason Y happened was because of Z?  Before you know it, you have a plot that’s quite unrecognizable from its inspiration.

Ideas also come from characters, and, for me at least, characters come from watching the world with empathy.  I try not to wonder “What would I do in situation X, Y, or Z?”  Instead, I watch people in the world and wonder how they’d react, how they’d speak, and how they became the people they are today.

But not every story, and not every person, sends my imagination running.  There are stories, and people, who, in the once great words of C&C Music Factory, “make you go hmmm.

A couple weeks ago, I stumbled upon a little gem of a news story online about an Orange County woman who drove for months with the body of a dead homeless woman in her car.  According to media coverage, a 57-year-old former real estate agent “befriended” the homeless woman at a neighborhood park in December and allowed her to sleep in the car overnight.  When the car’s owner found the woman dead, she was too scared to call the police, so simply continued to use the car while the body sat covered in clothes in the passenger seat.

Police broke a window to enter the car after first noticing a foul odor and then observing the dead woman’s exposed (and now mummified) leg beneath the pile of clothing.  They found a box of baking soda that the driver had placed inside to reduce the smell, although she told them that she had “gotten used to it.”

Comments posted online about the story tended to focus on the yuck factor. 

Or to make jokes about the driver’s desperation to use California carpool lanes.  (Warning: Those of you who don’t like the course language or humor probably won’t enjoy this clip from Curb Your Enthusiasm…but the rest of you might.)

But yucks and yuks aside, this is the kind of story that made me go hmmm.  News reports indicate that police believe the driver, but that doesn’t mean a crime writer can’t go makin’ stuff up if she wants.  So what if the driver were lying?  What if she and the other woman weren’t just casual acquaintances from the neighborhood park but co-conspirators?  What were they planning?  And what went wrong? 

But perhaps even more interestingly, let’s assume that the driver is telling the truth as all reports indicate.  Why did she offer her car to the other woman for sleep?  Might it be related to the fact that she is a “former” real estate agent who “once” lived in Corona del Mar, an affluent Newport Beach neighborhood, but is now experiencing “difficult financial times” and “staying with a friend” while she drives a 1997 Mercury Grand Marquis registered to her sick father? 

And why was she so afraid to call the police when she found the body?  Did she do something she’s trying to hide, or is there something about her personality or experiences that makes her fear police generally? 

And who was the poor dead homeless woman?  How did she come to be homeless in a park?  And how did the two women become friendly?  And how did she die?  Did she know it was happening?

I never know where these kinds of ruminations will take me.  I published a book earlier this year, 212, that involves women living dangerous double lives in New York City.  Many readers thought it was inspired by the so-called Craig’s List Killer case, where the victim was a New York woman who, unbeknownst to her friends and family, was using Craig’s List to book private massage sessions.

But I turned in the manuscript for 212 two weeks before that case occurred.  If I had to guess where the idea came from, I’d trace it back to a winter morning more than five years earlier.  I had just moved to the city and was staring out my little window in the east village, marveling that my Wichita-raised self was living in great big important Manhattan. 

I noticed an attractive younger woman walking on Mercer.  She was tall, thin, well-dressed, gorgeous.  I wondered what it was like to be her.  She probably shopped at Barney’s, I figured.  Dated investment bankers.  Whizzed past the red velvet ropes outside the hot clubs she frequented long after the likes of me had fallen asleep.

And then she stopped at the corner trash can and looked in all four directions before pulling out a discarded pastry and eating it.

My fictional image of her life suddenly changed. The “character” I had momentarily created in my head was no longer cliche.

So if your friends and family ever find you daydreaming — paying too much attention to people you don’t know, staring into space wondering “What if?” and “What must it be like?” — tell them you are busy writing.

Now time for comments: Why in the world would someone drive her car for months with a dead body in the passenger seat?!  (And/or feel free to talk about where your ideas come from!)


31 thoughts on “Where Ideas Come From (or Things That Make You Go Hmmm….)

  1. Dana King

    I'm with you: the ideas for stories can come from anywhere, and are floating around in such quantity that it's all we can do not to trip over them. The trick is identifying which stories match up with how each of us likes to write, and are the kinds of stories we can tell well. Some people have a gift for this. Sadly, some don't, and many potentially fine writers never get their due because their idea selection skills aren't up to their writing skills.

  2. Cornelia Read

    My ideas tend to start with stuff that actually happened to me or my family, and then I try to riff on it until it makes sense as fiction. This might be because it makes so little sense as real life, and I'm trying to figure out why so many people in my immediate orbit did such crazy shit over and over again.

    The detail that really gets me in your homeless dead lady story is the box of baking soda. So ineffectual, so well-intended… poignant, in a really really macabre way.

  3. J.D. Rhoades

    <i>Why in the world would someone drive her car for months with a dead body in the passenger seat?! </i>

    Better company than some people I know.

    As for ideas: in addition to what you mentioned,. I sometimes get ideas when reading other books by wondering "what would happen if instead of x, this was happening to y?" Example: Yesterday I was reading one of Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden books, about a wizard fighting various supernatural baddies in modern day Chicago. There's a minor character in the story who's a priest. I started thinking, "what if there was a priest fighting evil beings…and what if his best buddy and co-hero was a rabbi? And what if they were joined by an imam who's an expert in evil critters from his own culture to battle an evil djinni?" (And what would happen if they all walked into a bar?)

    I may never do anything with this, but you see what I mean.

  4. Debbie

    Dana I like the way you expressed that!
    Alafair, thought of another line of questioning. What if car owner woman was innocent of homeless persons death but had other crimes she was not willing for the police to find under investigation?
    Three of my strongest story ideas stemmed from dreams. One so intence that the characters demanded it be told…and through me, they told it, supplying nearly all the details and storyline. I myself knew few of the details but when I needed inspiration, I turned to situations and stories, my own and those of people around me, adjusted, tweaked, pulled out what I needed, embellished, made them more believable (truth IS stranger than fiction )and wrote. The characters supplied nearly everything, the world around me, everything else!
    I used to think that similar stories and novel ideas came from information being leaked, stolen…. Now I think it's just there, almost tangible, breathable…offered to anyone willing to grab hold and write it, paint it, play it, sculpt it…create it with their own personal touch.

  5. Jake Nantz

    Hmmm….I sometimes feel overwhelmed with guilt when I find out about a tragedy. My wife and I will be watching the news, and we'll hear of some horrific murder, or accident (that just instinctively feels fishy to me) or something on the news, and before I know it I'm WWAAAAAYYYY past the, "Oh how terrible and tragic" stage, and right on to the, "If I were writing this, I'd have it play out like…." And I feel terrible, because I should feel some remorse for the loss of someone's loved one, and instead I'm already trying to think of a way to profit from it by having a good story idea.

    Then again, I tend to beat myself about all kinds of shit, so I guess this is just one more. Still, I like your answer, Alafair, because it is honest, accurate, and helpful if someone wants to be a writer but just can't get ideas to come. Though I (were I published) might be a bit more sarcastic and say something like, "Sears, whenever they're on special" if I were asked the same question.

  6. Brett Battles

    I don't know why that woman had the body in the car, but I know I keep the dead body in my car because I like the company. (Dear concerned citizen, just joking.)

    As for ideas, they come from anything and anywhere. Where I think they'll come from, they often don't. Where they do come from, I'm often surprised.

  7. Alafair Burke

    Debbie, Yes, I also immediately went to my usual "Oh that person is hiding something" place on this story. Even stories that are supposedly heartwarming, touchy-feely stories send me there.

    Funny how we all seem to agree that idea we work on the hardest often don't pan out, but meanwhile we get hit in the head with something we didn't even know we'd been thinking about. Aren't we amazing creatures?

  8. Louise Ure

    Alafair, that dead body in the car story would certainly spark creativity. But for me, your well-dressed woman rooting out an old pastry is even more powerful.

  9. Tammy Cravit

    I wonder if perhaps the "former real estate agent" needed, on a very primal level, to feel like she was helping someone. After all, it sounds like her life has perhaps taken a dramatic downturn, and I know many people whose sense of self-worth is wrapped up in acts of selflessness. Maybe, in her mind, as long as the dead woman continued to "live" in her car, she could feel like she was still helping her somehow.

    I read somewhere once that a criminal's behavior will always make sense to the criminal, even if it's totally irrational to the rest of us.

    As for where ideas come from, I'd have to say that a better question (at least for me) is where they DON'T come from. News stories are fertile ground, of course, but a fragment of overheard conversation, the look of the person in line behind me in Starbucks, even a billboard can all provide glimmers of ideas.

    The stuff I hear in my work is an obvious source of ideas, too, though I have to admit that some of the things I see are too soul-wrenching for me to want to write about them so far. (I'm a paralegal, and a good deal of the work I do is on behalf of children in the foster care system — great story fodder, but I've seen a level of brutality on the part of some people towards their kids that shocks even me.)

    The hard part for me isn't coming up with ideas. It's recognizing which ones are substantial enough to support whatever kind of writing I want to do. Not so much which ones are a "good fit", like Dana mentioned, but which ones have enough substance to them to carry a short story plot, or a novel plot, or whatever. I'm getting better at this, but sometimes (especially with short stories) I won't find out an idea's fallen flat until I've already tried to write the darned thing and failed at it.

  10. Lisa M

    This story is so bizarre because I dont know how a woman could keep drving around with a dead body in the passenger seat! Not even move her to the trunk? was she hoping the body would just disintergrate over time? And if she couldn't/didn't want to go to the police, she had other oprions. She could have "dumped" the body in the park late at night.Who would think anything odd about a homeless woman who died in the park? I know that sounds cruel, but is keeping her in the car better? And the baking soda? Well, that shows the odor did bither her at first, or she was expecting it would. Kind of reminds me of the scene in the movie Se7en, when they find the apartment of one of John Doe's victims ,body on the bed surrounded my hundreds of those little car-tree air fresheners.
    and as to why she even offered the woman her car- maybe the woman saw her commit a crime? Maybe she did "know" her personally and felt bad seeing her on the streets. or maybe she was just being kind. I would love to see them explore this story on one of those shows on CrimeTV or Court TV

  11. JT Ellison

    You're thinking like me on this creepy story – what remotely normal person drives around for months with a dead body next to them? All sorts of nefarious deeds afoot, me thinks.

    Ideas – they spawn from the clouds, dreams, articles, anywhere and everywhere. Plot is life.

  12. Dao

    This summer, I watched the first episode of "The Bachelor House" and there was one girl with ?? in the bracket for her age. My mind went overdrive: "uh, what does this mean?" And then the idea of a vampire scientist popped out of my head. I still need to work on the plot, though.

    To me, an idea is worth pursuing if it sticks around in my head for more than a month. That way, I know the story demands to be written and I have to get some industrial strength bum glue to write it. Sometimes, the story started from one main idea and I stitched it to a couple of other ideas that would not work to a full-length novel.

  13. Allison Brennan

    In 2007, I had a book where the killer raped and murdered his victims online while people watched. I got the idea because earlier, I had been researching for another book, and stumbled on a website that was "fantasy rape role-playing." In mine, the killer posted that disclaimer on his website, but of course it wasn't consensual. Nine or ten months later, the movie UNTRACEABLE came out and I got tons of reader mail that they had stole my idea because they hadn't given me credit. Um, no. I read the synopsis and while the premise was the same, the stories were vastly different. And knowing how Hollywood works and my lead time on the book, I'd be at some point, both the screenwriter and I read something online that sparked the idea of an online murder, but we went in different and completely separate directions.

    I've always found it fascinating that writers come up with similar ideas at the same time, even when they don't know each other or haven't talked about plots.

    For example, I think Alafair and I are tapped into the same creative universe. I sold the first two books of my Lucy Kincaid series in 2009, and book two I had a paragraph blurb about college girls leading a double life–students by day, hookers over the weekend. Set in NY. A year later, Alafair's book 212 comes out! (My story focuses on the underground sex parties in NYC abandoned warehouses.) I wrote my first Kincaid book in early 2006, and Alafair has a character named Kincaid. And she also has a character named Rogan–hmm, so do I, introduced in 2008! (Named after a guy I used to work for in the 90s.)

    I've had to change titles because another book was coming out from another publisher in the same span with the same title. (Twice!)

    As far as the dead homeless woman–I have no ideas. I am so grossed out by the thought of driving around with a dead anything–the smell, the flies, the maggots, breathing in small particles of the dead person for months? This is for a horror story. Hmm, maybe I have my idea for BLOOD LITE III, if I can tap into the humor of the situation.

  14. Leigh K HUnt

    I must admit – I can't STAND the questions 'where do you get your ideas from?'
    I mean… look around, honey! Seriously. Actually I have stated to say "You. You truly inspire me." I say this regardless of if I know them or not. It's a frustrating question… and they get a frustrating answer. Although, I'm always secretly pleased that they are interested in what I do.

    As for this woman with a dead woman in her car… that really is 'yuck' as you so eloquently put it. I live in New Zealand, and when we heard about it over here, we sat here and thought 'only in america'. (Becuase that's how us little kiwi's think!) But on a more serious side it is very disturbing. I'm not surprised that you have found some sort of inspiration from this!

    In terms of inspiration, I find it where I can. It may be reading the newspaper, (yes I keep the clip the articles out), or it could be from listening to music and lyrics. I might be walking down the street one day and see a random person, and start making up stories about them. My husband and I play this game about peoples lives together (which is actually quite inspiring!)
    I was on holiday in Australia a few years ago, and they had this bizarre story on the news of a boat that was found floating in the water with no one onboard – but with everything still set up. I found a newspaper, clipped the article, and voila – that was another novel under by belt. Of course I didn't write just solely about the boat – there were many other twists and turns too!

  15. Kagey

    Does this go back to the "voices in my head narrating the options of everything in front of me" post?
    Because, really, if you are truly a "writer" it's just matter of choosing which ones to chase down. Or succumbing to the ones that won't let us go….

    Sometimes we get stuck once inside a story, but that's different than having trouble starting in the first place. I have a whole file of "promising starts" where I've gotten stuck so early on that I put them aside. Gene Roddenberry had a filing cabinet of such things and his widow, Majel, mined that for new shows. That's how he can be "executive producer" on shows that weren't created until after his death.

    This reminds me of two things: the TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert on the pressures to create (sooooo good, if you haven't seen it, go look it up), and my husband talking about how he sees the world. He's an engineer, and he constantly see optimization problems. As in, traffic would flow better if the lights were timed *this* way, the grocery clerk would be faster if she picked up items *this* way for scanning, etc, etc, etc. And he can't really understand why people don't try to do this, too, at least in their professions. His spreadsheet to help us figure out stuff while buying our house was better than the tool our mortgage broker was using. No joke.
    And, by the way, he sees engineering as a very creative work, too. He has to invent new solutions to stuff all the time. Where does he get his ideas? We don't really ask that of engineers or scientists, but they have to make leaps of intuition and fill in the concrete idea that make it work.

  16. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Alafair

    I have a theory that authors lack the essential filtering system that 'normal' people have in their brains, that allows them to ignore the constant stream of ideas for plots, characters and scenes that arise all the time, out of every conversation and every event or snippet in the news. We just can't turn it off, to the point where we're beating the ideas off with a stick.

    As for the woman driving around with a body next to her for months, I've come across stranger stories. At least the body mummified rather than liquifying.

    Reminds me of another favourite T-shirt slogan:

    'Everything I Know, I Learned From The People I Keep In My Basement…'

  17. Alafair Burke

    Allison, My middle initial is an S. Think about how the S and L are placed on the keyboard. Spooooky!

    Kagey and Zoe, You're both on to something with the voice in head and filtering theories. It's translating all of these voices and floating ideas and concepts into a linear(ish) story that takes real craft skills.

  18. KDJames

    So. Alafair. You, um, seem to be saying there's something *wrong* with driving around with a dead body in your car. :looks around nervously:

    The things you learn over here.

  19. Reine

    My ideas come from my crazy life with tons of weird shit happening all the time. Unbelievable crap no one would believe… so I have to write it down, y'know? Oh and I think that was my sister-in-law with the baking soda.

  20. Reine

    Alafair, ah no she can't get past reading the spam on her email, "Oh no I didn't call when Mother died, because I hadn't finished filing the ads on my Juno account when they trashed your email. Tell Joe I'll email him next time." But she played a homeless woman on TV.

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