Many years ago, in 2008, I decided to try my hand at Nanowrimo. If you’ve never heard of that delightful mouthful, it stands for National Novel Writing Month, and it’s an event that takes place throughout the month of November. Crazy people who love to write (like me) decide to write 50,000 words in one month, which amounts to a shorter novel. I have done it twice, but 2008 was my first year. The big question: what do I write about?
Number One: Pay attention to the news.
I read somewhere that if you hear a story in the news that makes you want to know more, that’s a good idea to write about. Around this time, a famous Christian singer–who wrote a song about healing while struggling with cancer–came forward and admitted that the cancer was a lie. He was perfectly healthy. It was a very sad story, but I was also intrigued. What would make someone tell that kind of lie? And once it was told, would they regret it, but feel trapped? And what would make them one day confess?
A novel idea was born. My first novel (one that will probably remain unpublished forever) was about a woman who ended up spinning a lie and being so caught up in it that she didn’t know how to undo it. Finally, her hand was forced, and she admitted what had happened, but not before it got completely out of hand. And then she had some repair work to do on her marriage, her walk with the Lord, her friendships. It wasn’t the greatest novel of all time, but it was a decent plot.
Number Two: Look at other forms of art
My *real* novel, the one I’m currently working to get published, is called The Bluebird. And the seed of it came from a piece of art by Loui Jover called Blue Note. At the time I happened across that lovely art, I was actively seeking an idea for a novel (much like I am right now!). When I saw this painting, it struck me as so beautiful and so sad. I don’t know if it’s supposed to be sad, but it seemed so to me. A woman in profile, hair in a messy bun, is looking down at a bluebird that sits perched on her finger.
When I saw it, I thought that perhaps she was coming from a funeral and marveling that there was still life and hope in the sad new world she lived in. As I followed those ideas in my mind, she eventually split into two characters with two different life stories. One of them became my main character, Paige, who owns a bed and breakfast called The Bluebird. She wrestles with loss in her life, and the feeling that she is unseen by God. The second is a supporting character, Anna, who recently lost her husband and is drowning in grief and guilt. Their story is told in the pages of The Bluebird, and it all started with the art of someone else.
Art begets art, and I love that.
Number Three: ask these two thoughtful questions
This idea is from my dear friend and fellow writer Alison McLennan. (If you haven’t checked out her blog, you should. It’s beautiful, lovely, thought-provoking, and deep.) Alison has so many good ideas. I feel like I’m scrambling for one or two, and she is swimming in them. So I asked her how she comes up with them, and her answer was truly genius. When you hear about an interesting situation, she said, ask two questions:
- What would I do in that situation?
- What would lead me to make that decision?
The second one, especially, is interesting to me (and not too far off the way I came to the topic for my Nanowrimo novel). If I see someone making a really bad or dramatic or unthinkable choice–what led them there? This is actually the question I’ve been thinking of for novel number two. But I’m not there yet.
Ann Patchett, author of The Dutch House, Bel Canto, State of Wonder, The Getaway Car, etc, etc, etc, says that good ideas aren’t hard to come by. I wish that were true for me. I think the idea stage–the one I’m in–is the hardest one, and the one I like the least. But I have to wade through it to get to the fun: the part where I write it all down.
So help me out: whether you write, paint, decorate, bake, run a business, or manage a home, you’re being creative in some way in your life. How do you come up with good ideas?