One of the most common questions writers get about our work is, “where do you come up with your ideas?” I understand, because until I wrote my first book I couldn’t imagine how writers came up with those ideas either. And it’s a strange mixture of things we can’t control and things we can. But at the very essence of it all is observation.
Preparing to be a writer is something that happens in ways that aren’t conscious or planned. We absorb the world around us–its people, its landscape, its events–and all of that percolates in our brains eventually coming out in creative bursts of storytelling. Sometimes we’re having those bursts almost from the moment we’re conscious, other times it doesn’t happen until much later in our lives. But we are always born observers.
If the average person is walking along the sidewalk of life, preoccupied by where they’re going, how hot it is that day, or why they have a blister on their heel, writers are sitting on the porch adjacent, watching. We watch how you limp when that blister hurts, we overhear bits and pieces of your conversations, we notice if you’re wearing a lavender dress with your favorite black sandals and the sound those shoes make on the concrete as you walk. Writers are on the proverbial porch observing every moment throughout our lives.
Luckily, most of this observation is subconscious, we aren’t focused on it, it just happens. Then we withdraw it like from you do cash from a bank. The expression of someone we saw here, a conflict we watched unfold in a movie there. For whatever reason, our writer brains store these observations from the front porch like little nuggets of gold that we can then use to mold a beautiful piece of jewelry that brings joy to readers.
But just because this capacity to observe is something that happens naturally to writers, doesn’t mean others can’t cultivate the skill. If you’re interested in how we get story ideas, just sit on your porch in silence and watch for a while. Let your mind clear, and look at everything you see, hear, and feel. Imagine what your favorite movie star might be saying or doing as he walks down the street with your neighbor. Notice the way that grandfather leans down to speak to his grandchild, and guess at what they’re saying to one another. Look at that old car parked across the street and try to figure out how it got that dent in the front fender, or who might be driving it and where.
This is how the mind of a writer works without even trying. But you can train yours to do the same, and before you know it, you might have a story of your own brewing. It’s where stories come from, it’s how we formulate our ideas. And you never know, you may have a story inside too!