I used to wonder where writers got their ideas. I read Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine and tried to imagine where he came up with the story of Bill Forrester and Helen Loomis and the dish of lime-vanilla ice. I read To Kill a Mockingbird and speculated about the character of Boo Radley. Where in Harper Lee’s mind did he live before he arrived on the paper? Then I started writing, and I never again asked an author where the ideas came from, because I knew.
They come from nowhere and everywhere.
Some stories sneak up on us from our own lives, and we don’t even notice until someone points it out to us. You. There you are. I see you. Others spring from the news or photographs or prompts created to push us into new territories. But most of my stories don’t come from such concrete places.
One of the first short stories I ever wrote was about a disturbed man who blew up a hot air balloon full of his enemies and also, due to a last minute glitch in his plans, the only person in his life who he truly cared about. I never intended to write such a dark story. In fact, the day it came to me I didn’t intend to write anything at all. It was Christmas Day. I was on an airplane with my husband, flying from my family’s home to his. One minute, I was holding a piece of stationery with a hot air balloon on it and looking out the airplane window. The next minute I was furiously scribbling the first draft of “A Fair Day” on a notepad. I had no idea where it came from. I still don’t. The story went through a few rejections and many rounds of revisions, but the basic idea stayed the same, and eventually it found a home in Darker Times Anthology, Volume 5, as runner up in one of their monthly contests.
My first published short story was “The Jack-in-the-Box,” which came out in Issue 12 of Dark Moon Digest. That story was born from a combination of experience, memory, and “what if.” I was sitting on the floor of my cousin’s house, playing with her three-year-old daughter. She had a jack-in-the-box with a dragon inside and she begged me to turn the knob over and over and over, delighting each time the lid popped open. As I turned the crank again and again, I thought back to my own childhood jack-in-the-box. It had a clown inside, and the surprise of the POP, though predictable, terrified me so much that I refused to play with it. As I watched the dragon emerge time and time again, I thought, What if one time something was different? I held on to that idea, and when I got home, the first draft of “The Jack-in-the-Box” flowed from my fingers.
Sometimes though, letting go of an idea is as important as holding on. The story I wrote for Growing Pains, the YA horror anthology from Horrified Press, was inspired by a Facebook post. A friend wrote: Omg. Something in my attic is *knocking*. Like, “Hello? Is anyone home?” knocking. If I don’t come back, don’t send anyone after me. While my friend was dealing with her attic guest, I was typing the first draft of “The Girl in the Attic,” a tale about a twelve-year-old girl who hears a knock coming from the inside of an attic door that has been nailed shut for sixty years. She decides to pry the door open. But the more I wrote, the more I realized there was a problem. It was the knock. It didn’t fit with the rest of the story, and the more I tried to make it work, the more the story fell apart. Finally, I realized I had to let that part go. While the eerie knocking sound had been the instrument of horror in my friend’s real life, in the story I’d created, it was superfluous. It was hard to hit the delete key, but the piece was made better by the cut. (By the way, my friend DID investigate the sound in her attic, and she made it back just fine.)
Our ideas come from everywhere and nowhere. They slip in through cracks. They whisper in our ears while we’re sleeping. They pounce on us from shadows. Some of them even knock. Our job is to let them lead us, and then know when to let them go.