Where do you get your ideas?

As I wrestled a bit to get back in the saddle of writing this blog after moving, I thought “I need some more ideas for blog topics,” and this idea almost immediately popped up as an obvious topic. So let me talk about fiction writers a bit and then I’ll get to nonfiction writers. Trust me, it’ll be a pleasant journey.

Fiction writers get asked “Where do you get your ideas?” all the time. Many of them have written about this, somewhat in self-defense. My favorite classic answer is that of Harlan Ellison, who, when asked this question for the thousandth time, replied “Schenectady.” This rapidly evolved to a whole shtick about a post office box in Schenectady that was home to a circular of ideas that you could subscribe to and use. Locus Magazine, the zine for SF & fantasy writers, used to run this one into the ground on a regular basis for decades. It was fun.

Neil Gaiman wrote a wonderful essay about coming up with ideas. He recounts many of the schnarky answers he’s given to people over the years, but he’s finally just started telling them the truth of where they come from: “I make them up. Out of my head.” He talks about making an appearance for his 7yo-daughter’s class and telling them “When I was your age, people told me not to make things up. These days, they give me money for it.” Gaiman also said “You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it. You get ideas when you ask yourself simple questions. The most important of the questions is just What if…? Another important question is, If only…?”

(Go read it. It’s a very good essay.)

Sidenote: At Worldcon last month, Dean Wesley Smith was on a panel and said “I get paid to sit in a room and make stuff up.” Chris York, who was on the same panel, replied “I write mysteries. I get paid to kill people.” We get to make stuff up and get paid for it.

Orson Scott Card once gave a workshop at an SF con in Seattle entitled “1000 Ideas in an Hour.” The focus of this was not that ideas are the hard part; most writers have far, far more ideas than they can ever use. To prove it, he spent an hour working with a fairly large audience riffing on all sorts of things, all of which could make for interesting stories or novels. I remember that there was a whole extended set on an alien race that was intelligent 4’ long alligatory things. He suggested overpopulation, climate change brought about by indiscriminate use of natural resources, taboos related to reproductive urges, and probably another half-dozen ideas about how one could take this concept of alien gators and do interesting things in a story with them. (20-some years ago and this one session sticks in my mind.)

But all of this is about fiction writing, where people have a certain amount of free range in the things they can come up with for ideas. Where do NONFICTION writers get their ideas?

Well, for me, it’s just like Neil Gaiman says: I make them up. Out of my head.

There are a few differences in the process. For one thing, I’m generally not allowed to write about intelligent saurians unless there’s some way I can tie this into something real. (That pesky nonfiction dictum gets in the way again!) But I also get to write things that fiction writers don’t get to write, such as a coffee-table book of the history of men’s ties. Or the development of indoor plumbing (which is a fascinating story.) Or a million possible things on cooking (whether using saurians as an ingredient or not). All of these things are possible book ideas, worthy of consideration for at least a moment.

Neil Gaiman’s suggestions for saying “what if?” and “if only….” are both very relevant. For example, I got into writing books by saying “If only there were a book that showed people how to use about bulletin board systems.” At the time, there’d been a few books that hinted at the edge of what I was wanting, but there was nothing that really sat you down and said “Here’s how you do it!” Similarly, my fifth book, “Winning! The Awesome & Amazing Book of Windows Games Tips, Traps, & Sneaky Tricks,” started by me saying “What if there were a book about the Microsoft Games (which were currently shipping without documentation of any kind) that told people how to play them, how to cheat at them, and interesting things they might want to know?” (FWIW, if you ever saw anything about how to cheat at Windows Solitaire or Minesweeper, you learned it from this book, even if indirectly. NOBODY knew how to do it until I looked up the developers and talked to them.)

Some of this can be mundane: “There’s a new version of Word out; I’ll write a book on it.” But fiction can be a bit mundane in that regard, too, with follow-on volumes to a preceding book or series. Much of the heavy lifting is done with character and world development and you can rely as much as you like on elements you’ve already established.

The what-ifs and if-onlys can be simple: What if there was a book on using Firefox? What if I could just give my youngest a book of lifeskills when she went off to college? What if there was a basic guide on socializing birds so they make the best pets? If only I knew how to set up sound systems and connect them to my computer, I could get music and digital video throughout my house. If only I could figure out how to decorate the house on my own, I could save a ton of time and money and be sure that I’d get something I really liked. If only I could brew my own beer, I’d have good beer in the house whenever I wanted.

Because nonfiction is also about teaching people things, you should add another standard question to the list: “How can I…?” How can I get an executive-level job without a college degree? How can I bake sourdough bread? How can I tune and maintain my car by myself? How can I learn to paint watercolor landscapes? (“I want to know….” is closely related to this, but it includes histories, biographies, books about films, and many other kinds of passive knowledge.)

Possibly the biggest difference is that the books that I (and most nonfiction authors) write are oriented somehow towards the idea of “Will this book make money?” Sure, there are nonfiction books that one could write for the satisfaction of doing so, but it’s my casual belief that nonfiction authors may be geared more towards making money with their writing than fiction authors. I’m not saying that we do make more money, but we may think about it more. I could be completely wrong on this: most fiction authors I know are keen on the idea of selling what they write, but unlike me, they may not know to whom they’re going to sell it before the fact. Since nonfiction writing is usually aimed at a specific audience or publisher or magazine before the fact, the question of sales has frequently already been dealt with before characters show up on the screen. (Again, I may be pulling this completely out of my hat. Feel free to disagree vehemently.)

But the point is that, just as with fiction, ideas for nonfiction books are cheap. Ideas are lying on the street like stray pennies. You can find them everywhere about literally anything. (If only I could get a job as an international courier, I could see the world for nothing.) There’s no telling what might trigger you to think of something, or when. (How can I reduce the number of drugs I take for my diabetes?) It’s the implementation of the idea that makes most of the difference. There might not be a market for a particular book, but that’s a second process. A new book on understanding the internals of the Commodore 64 is not going to ever see the light of day but a book on how to buy junked Commodore 64s and build a quick-and-dirty network to run the entire operation of your family farm or business for a total cost of a dollar-three-ninety-eight might actually be interesting. Determining the value of an idea is different from coming up with it in the first place. And FWIW, as you get more practice with generating ideas, you can start to generate better ones just through experience.

If you don’t think of yourself as generating a lot of book ideas, try this: carry a notebook and write down every idea you find yourself thinking of that would make a nonfiction book. Don’t edit this for things you think would be good nonfiction books; just go for ideas. Chances are you won’t make it an hour or two before you realize just how many ideas you’re generating. Most of them won’t be worth more than the amount of time you gave them when you wrote them down, but you don’t need even one good idea a day to have all the ideas you could need to keep your plate full.

Your ideas aren’t coming from a PO box in Schenectady. They’re always there in never-ending abundance, right in your head.

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