So, one of the questions that writers get all the time is, "Where do you get your ideas?" Now... there are any number of snarky answers to this (including the title of this post), but the real truth is that ideas are everywhere. Ideas are like white girls at Starbucks during Pumpkin Spice season. You can't swing a tire iron without hitting one of them, they are often clingier than you'd prefer for a given interaction, and once you have one on hand you rarely know what to do with it.
That's the answer.
On the authorly side of thing, one of the oldest chestnuts on the tree of writing advice is, "Write what you know." I've talked before about how this bit of wisdom is, in and of itself, complex and often only looked at as if saying, "If you're a waitress, write about waitressing." But let's get serious here. George R R Martin is not an incestuous, drunk serial killer. You can go beyond yourself. I was on a panel recently where I asked my fellow authors if they'd written the kinds of characters they did because they lived that life. One woman writes military sci-fi because she was in the military. Another guy writes cybersecurity thrillers because he's a cybersecurity expert. When I asked if they ever wrote something because they wanted to learn about that thing, I got a few dumbstruck looks. They are rooted in "writing what they know" (and it's not a bad thing, it's their style, their art, I'm not criticizing but observing.)
And now I come to the point of this whole thing... I want to shift the question and answer by showing you an example of a scene I wrote ages ago where I was writing way outside myself while also writing what I know, and how those things came up.
So, I wrote this novel about zombies. Second novel I finished, got an agent with it (that's another story) but never published it. It's been in the drawer for 8 years. Not long after, I wrote a novella that was the backstory of one of the side characters in that novel.
Now... I'm not a zombie, don't know if you know that about me. I know that first thing in the morning I tend to groan and shamble, but I am not an undead woman that has woken up during her own autopsy. Also, the character was a gearhead who worked in her dad's auto shop. However, the story was set in the Chicago suburbs and, having grown up in the midwest, I am confident that I nailed voice and setting in that story.
But there's this one scene. It popped into my head today for no apparent reason and got me thinking about craft etc, so that's why you have this post. Anyway, here's some setup to the scene... our main character, Nora, lives with her widowed father. He keeps three things in his wallet other than the usual cash and cards: a picture of his late wife, a picture of his daughter, and his fifteen year sobriety chip. In the story, Nora was killed by her would-be gangsta boyfriend and he made it look like she slashed her wrists in the bathtub.
Flash to our scene. Nora has gone home to take some of her things from her old room and go on the run because holy shit she's undead. She finds her dad in the bathroom with a bottle of Jack that is woefully half-empty. He sees her and assumes she's the ghost of his wife come to yell at him for not taking care of their girl. She's speaking to her father for, what she thinks, will be the last time. He doesn't realize it's her. It's a heartbreaking scene that I'm very proud of.
Back to the point. When I was writing that scene, and when I think of that scene, the bathroom becomes my dad's from circa 1993. The layout and fixtures. The medicine cabinet with the horizontal sliding door. The piled up copies of National Dragster magazine sitting on the mostly-unused hamper. The smell of stale cigarettes blending with aftershave and drying toothpaste.
That scene conjures an immediate immersive memory of that particular place in spacetime. I can't claim to know where other writers get their ideas, but when putting flesh on the skeletons of those ideas, my own experiences populate the page. That's necessary, for me at least, to write from a place of truth. Connecting that scene to my own father allowed me to go deeper with the words, to really ramp up the feels. I think it makes the scene LIVE.
And that's what I do with lots of hard scenes. I have to dig into the places in myself that know what those emotions are like, what those experiences are. Kinda like a method actor who has to be their character, I have to slip into that world and inhabit it, let myself experience the feelings with the characters I'm writing.
And it's hard. It can hurt like a bitch. Frankly, it's one of the reasons I haven't written much recently. As some of you know, I deal with C-PTSD, and deep writing like that can be triggering, even if the scene has nothing to do with those events. But, I've found that for me, I get better material when it comes from a place of truth with my own psychological viscera on it.
Anyway, that was it. Just a small peek into the process.