by John Wiswell
Writers get asked about imagination a lot. Where do you get your ideas? Most recently a writer on the forum asked the Fantasy and Science Fiction folk who participate in #FridayFlash on Twitter where they get their ideas. Is it drugs? Videogames?
I believe that most good fiction comes from the same place, be it humor or horror, scientifically plausible or downright impossible. You have to experience, read and study enough to get the raw material that can make up an original story. But I think the genesis of good fiction is simple: taking an idea in a new direction.
I write fiction every day for my blog, The Bathroom Monologues, and about a third of it is Fantasy. When I look at my childhood, there was always some Fantasy: Smurfs on TV, Land Before Time in movie theatres, Hercules in books and Robin Hood games in the backyard. These deviated from my life in fantastic ways. The fantasy deviation was attractive.
But I recognized more kinds of attractive deviation in my teens. In M*A*S*H you had lighthearted banter while stitching up dying soldiers. The novels of Douglas Adams were wildly imaginative, on one page disproving God by demonstrating His existence, then disproving the usefulness of logic in the next. All these cases went against the norm in amusing ways. These deviations weren’t that different from Stephen King making a wind-up monkey scary, though turning the positive into the negative like he did was overwhelmingly more popular than the reverse.
There was this whole other realm of reactions that everyday people simply didn’t exercise, particularly the option of amusement. I realized I could react differently than everyone else if I just stopped giving in to cultural peer pressure. I needed to do that in my everyday life and also in my fiction.
I remember watching The Matrix and thinking that sea of black leather jackets desperately needed somebody to show up in a Hawaiian shirt. And I actually wore one to the midnight premiere of the second movie. But that wasn’t my moment of emergence. Neither was rewriting Macbeth as a short story starring a magic detective.
Those were petty rebellions. I needed to write original stuff that was about what I wanted out of fiction, not what I hated in it. Instead of looking at a story and thinking how I’d change it, I could get the idea for my own story from just one scene or detail of someone else’s. A favorite hobby at college movie screenings was to anticipate how I wanted the plot to go, and if it didn’t go that way, to write an outline based on my guess that night. That imaginary plot was mine.
Soon it wasn’t that difficult to look at life and think that I hadn’t read a story about X lately. And by X, I don’t mean a fight with the driving instructor. I mean the driving instructor giving you wrong directions and kidnapping you.
What Do You Want To Read?
Instead of thinking about plausibility or good stories, ask yourself what you want to read. What would make the best escapism for you? What’s funniest to you? What would you most want readers to experience? Sometimes you want to share a personal tragedy about racism, but sometimes what you really want is a dragon running for mayor so she can order the knights to stop coming after her.
Some people are inhibited from writing Fantasy and its related genres because these aren’t realistic. Never mind that they don’t watch realistic stuff on TV (CSI and Dexter are about as plausible as The Chronicles of Narnia). But the real question is what you want out of your compositions. If you want something way out of your experience, you can write that. Research it if it’s real or think it through if it’s not. J.R.R. Tolkien put decades into Middle Earth. If you don’t want something so exhaustive, there are simpler, far shorter ideas.
“Much like the barriers of realism and keeping your prose cynical or morose, grounding everything in your personal experience
can prevent take-off.”
I recently wrote a first person monologue defending snake oil salesmen because, in their opinion, snakes need oiling. Taking things too literally, or not literally enough, or connecting things that aren’t normally connected gets easier the more you do it and the less you follow the convention of writing everything based on personal experience.
Much like the barriers of realism and keeping your prose cynical or morose, grounding everything in your personal experience can prevent take-off. Everything you write will be the result of your life anyway–your nature, nurture and decisions make up what you want. But what you write doesn’t have to conform to what you’ve seen and done. Ben Hur was written by a guy in Indiana in 1880. Shakespeare wrote about fairies and nobles of previous centuries in countries he never visited. Douglas Adams was never on a spaceship powered by improbability.
Let me close with a recent example to show you exactly where some of my ideas come from. I sat in a waiting room of Westchester Medical Center waiting for my mother’s cancer screening to end. It took more than an hour and eventually I got the urge to write. I looked at the door and asked myself, “What is the creepiest thing that could walk through the door right now?” There’s your deviation.
I wrote for a few lines about something morbid and disgusting. It didn’t take and the inspiration was gone in a few lines. So I closed my eyes and sat back. I was on a row of chairs, though the waiting room was almost empty. OK, if this seat could be anywhere, not just in a hospital, who would be funny if they sat down next to me?
That one worked, and I wound up with micro-fiction about an Islamic gorgon (she likes the veil) on an Amtrak train. In the course of writing, I was replaced by a dryad boy. I let it turn third person, changed settings and swapped myself out without questioning–it was what I felt like experiencing. All I had to do was cross things out and make notes of what to rewrite later so it would make sense.
You may say, “OK, you can imagine things anywhere. But how do I get an Islamic gorgon? I don’t imagine that kind of stuff.” But the point isn’t to get an Islamic gorgon in a hospital or Ben Hur in Indiana. Imagine whatever interests you no matter how far removed from your life it is. It doesn’t matter if it seems absurd. If it amuses you entertain the thought. If it goes away in a few sentences? There are other things to write about. If it’s too embarrassing for you to share? You can keep it in your desk and never show it to another soul. Don’t be intimidated to write about what entertains you, or too scared to admit what you enjoy.
John Wiswell has published micro-fiction at Burst, Every Day Fiction, Alienskin, Microhorror and in the Editors Unleashed Flash 40 Anthology. He writes something new every day for The Bathroom Monologues. Catch him on Twitter at @Wiswell.