Ye Olde Idea Shoppe

Stephen King has said he’s frequently asked where he gets his ideas. He gives slightly varying answers, but one of *my favourites, he attributes to a friend of his: “I buy them at the supermarket.” Now it’s obvious he was being a bit facetious—on some level asking a writer where he/she gets ideas is like asking the moon why it hangs in the sky or where the ocean gets its water. There probably is a perfectly reasonable scientific explanation to the query, but I’ll be darned if I’d ever know how to articulate it. And even the best responses would be destroyed with one further question: why? Why do you get ideas for stories? Why indeed. But I digress. Back to ideas, where they come from, and the ones at grocery stores—oh yes, the grocery store. S.K. and his quoted buddy were speaking partially in jest, but they would agree that the statement is factual.

Story ideas abound in grocery stores. They arrive in the produce section (who hasn’t lifted a big yellow clump of bananas and thought about the huge, hairy spider that might have arrived with the shipment?). They lurk about the deli. Why does man keep standing there like that? Is he going to try to shoplift bulk olives? Does he have a thing for the girl at the counter? Is she his long lost child? They sit in well-ordered rows in the canned foods sections. Do you know what’s in that can of refried beans—the third one back in the middle of the row? Well, do you?

When short on cash, or just not in the mood for a big shop, have no fear. Ideas are everywhere:

In conversation, like when a friend recently expressed his suspicion that the reason there are so many more vaccinations now than when we were kids isn’t disease-prevention at all. It’s a safe guard for world governments worried about over-population. If at anytime they want to cull the population, they just have to press a button and release whatever it is that reacts with whatever injection. Story idea!

In overheard snippets of dialogue. “I can’t believe she’d do that. It’s sickening.” What can’t the speaker believe she’d do? And who’s she? And who, come to think of it, is the speaker? And what’s sickening? How sickening?

In dreams (See, that’s what I’d like to know—forget ideas—where do dreams come from? Come to think of it, a story about where dreams come from would be pretty fascinating!)

In physical work, especially it seems to me, in gardening and yard work.

In doing absolutely nothing (which is why, even when I’m really busy, I strive to have do-nothing time . . . It’s good for your brain).

Even in random personal moments. I bought a full-length formal gown (of all things) two weeks ago. Wearing a dress like that makes you (or makes me, anyway) just feel different. And that made me think of a story idea—what if you walked into a vintage store, tried on an outfit, and suddenly—poof—you were you no longer—or you were, but only in the flesh suit and life of the person who’d owned the apparel you now sported? (Hey, I didn’t say every idea was a good idea.)

Chances are if you’re a writer, you don’t need to find ideas. You need to somehow stop tripping on them as they lift the floorboards late at night. You need to carefully replace the stone you moved only to find another one scuttling beside a centipede. You need to do something, anything, to stifle them, so you don’t lose focus on the ones you’ve already collected and are trying to coax onto the bright white page. You understand full well how ideas just appear, well, everywhere, from nowhere.

My question for people who ask, “Where do you get your ideas?” is this: Don’t you get random weird ideas all the time?

I know that not everyone writes, but it never actually occurred to me that perhaps not everyone is inundated with the what-ifs, questions, and strange observations that spark story ideas. I think I thought that ideas came to everyone, just that some people are compelled to do something with them . . .

* If you happen to know where on earth I read this bit—I want to say it’s in On Writing—could you give me page number? I’d like to give the actual name of the person King attributes it to, and I’d like to confirm how it’s worded. Thanks!