Where Do Ideas Come From?

Sometimes that question seems almost as hard to answer as the dreaded “where do babies come from?” This is especially true when you’re searching for inspiration and it just isn’t appearing.

Those of us who are participating in Picture Book Idea Month right now may sometimes ask the question in despair, wondering if we’ll be able to come up with our 30 ideas for the month. To all who may be tearing their hair out as we near the half-way point, I want to say relax. This isn’t a competition, and we don’t have to compare ourselves to anyone else. Knowing that can ease some of the pressure. Ideas are sneaky things. They prefer to jump out at you when you least expect them, rather than you forcing them to show themselves.

How then do we entice them to appear?

They can come at the most unexpected times. Witness the way Julie Andrews got the idea for The Great American Mousical. This quote is from my interview with Julie and Emma in October: “The ideas for the story originally occurred to me when I was performing in VICTOR/VICTORIA on Broadway. A mouse was discovered in our wardrobe department, and I asked if someone kind might put out a humane trap and release the creature in the suburbs or the countryside.  Something was said about there being a number of mice beneath Broadway theaters, and suddenly a light-bulb went off in my head.

Nine people out of ten would simply have thought, “Ewwww, mice!” The tenth thought, “What if those mice have a theatre and put on their own productions?”

Aha. “What if?” That is a wonderful idea-generating question. What if a girl fell down a rabbit hole? What if a little boy was so wild that he was sent to bed without supper? What if Prince Edward Island farmers decided to adopt a boy but got a girl instead? Well, those are taken, but you get the idea. Much can happen if you look around and ask yourself “what if?”

Using writing prompts can help coax those ideas out of hiding. Here’s an extensive article about their use, from a site called Daily Writing Tips. Susanna Leonard Hill, of Perfect Picture Book Friday fame, has begun a regular blog feature called “Short and Sweets” which can also get the creative juices flowing.

You can also mine your own life, past or present, for ideas. This does not mean that you have to be strictly biographical, but there are ideas ripe for the picking in remembering incidents such as jumping on the couch, falling, and getting a black eye (who could have done that?); or coming out of the house to find a grey kitten who was convinced he’d found his new owner. From those beginnings, you can craft a story that bears little or no resemblance to the original experience, but that’s where the idea came from.

There are commercial “idea generators” as well. Last year, during PiBoIdMo, a dear friend sent me an early birthday present — Rory’s Story Cubes. These are dice-like cubes with pictures on all sides. You roll them and sees what stories can grow out of the combination of pictures. One of my favorite 12×12 picture book manuscripts this year grew out of an idea generated by these Story Cubes!

Ideas are everywhere, just waiting to pop into your mind. Better have a notebook handy!


Note: I will have limited internet access this week. I look forward to reading and responding to your comments next week.



4 thoughts on “Where Do Ideas Come From?”

  1. Sometimes an idea will spring up like resting animal – resting until my presence becomes known, and then jumping up in a flurry of flustered thought. Sometimes it isn’t an idea, but a combination of ideas or words: a pretty metaphor that needs to be expanded upon.

  2. You have perfectly described where ideas come from Beth. Now, will you please send some over to my house? 🙂 The what if examples you mentioned are all among my favorite books, especially Anne of Green Gables – for years I wanted to BE her 🙂 I have those story cubes, but I am not good at telling what’s supposed to be on them so they are not as helpful to me as they might be 🙂

  3. You have perfectly summed me up. I just wrote a blog post about it called http://clarbojahn.wordpress.com/2012/11/27/are-you-doing-picture-book-idea-month/, I gave the link because it was so easy. Hope you don’t mind. I am bereft of ideas. My writing life is suffering from Publication woes. Just came across a beautiful post from Elana Johnson. Tried to put that link up but I lost it. anyway it was good to know I’m not the only one. Or the only one without ideas.

    Thanks for this post. 🙂

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