“Where do you get your ideas?”
This is the question everyone asks when they find out that I write. Truthfully? I have no idea. Snippets of conversation pop up in my head, and eventually the characters saying them step out of the shadows and introduce themselves. Where the snippets or the characters come from, I don’t know. I also can’t tell you why I can’t make a bat hit a baseball, or why I can hear a tune and make my vocal cords reproduce it accurately. That’s just the way it is.
I don’t know about the people asking the question, but I find this frustrating. Order and reason make me happy.
“No wonder you love writing,” people say, grinning in triumph. “You can make things happen the way you want.”
It should work that way, yes. But it doesn’t.
I’ve been writing since I was young. I remember doing a series in Mrs. Walden’s class, using the other fifth graders in the class as character models. Every time we had a creative writing exercise, Mrs. Walden got another chapter in the adventures of Cindy and her friends. Every story got a title—“Cindy and the Big Adventure,” “Cindy Stays Home Alone,” and so forth. I even had a signature way of writing Cindy’s name in the title, so that it took up about a third of the page. There was indeed an element of wish fulfillment in these. Everything always turned out right for Cindy. Her friends adored her, and I don’t think she ever got punished. Likewise, the people who made trouble for her always got their comeuppance by the time the two-page story wrapped up.
I gave Cindy up at the end of the fifth grade. The stories in sixth grade featured her daughter – Sandra, I think was her name. Fortunately for us all, I let the family end with Sandra, or we’d be up to her remote descendant by now, dozens of generations later, who grew up hearing fairy tales about an ancient witch ancestor Cindy who turned children into toads.
Eventually, I gave up the pretense and started writing stories with myself as the main character, surrounding myself with the perfect mate and a fifteen-bedroom mansion outside of London. If you’re going to do it, you may as well do it right.
Interesting thing about those stories, though—things didn’t always go right. I wrote one about myself getting cast as the lead in a professional musical, and had myself fainting in front of the theater and being discovered there, lying unconscious, by the director. This is not the sort of thing I fantasize about. I fainted once when I was fifteen, and it was really, really unpleasant. I lost all illusions about romantic swooning. But I put it in the story because, well, it worked in the scene.
Yeah. I made something lousy happen to myself in a story, and my fictional self wasn’t thrilled.
In my thirties, I wrote my first actual book about characters I made up, Ben and Kelsey. (This book is in a drawer, and will stay in there until I have time to give it a lot of work.) Something bizarre happened. I didn’t want Ben and Kelsey to have a perfect happy ending. They got together, the loved each other, but their careers hit snags and Ben’s extended family would remain pretty messed up. I couldn’t make everything okay for them. Stranger still, I didn’t want to. I couldn’t relate to idyllic endings. My life didn’t work that way.
It didn’t occur to me till later that maybe other people felt the same way.
Even stranger, suddenly I couldn’t bring my villains to a completely sticky end, either. Backstories for them kept popping up in my head. This one experienced verbal abuse from her father. That one spent his entire life competing with his Olympic athlete older brother. They whispered reasons why they turned into the people that they did. Once you start listening to the explanations of people in your head, it becomes a lot harder not to look for reasons why the three-dimensional people in your life do the things they do.
Now, in my forties, I am incapable of forcing characters to do anything. Once they materialize in my head, they become as real as fictional characters can be. They don’t act in a vacuum. They do things for reasons, and have to deal with their own demons. (Don’t worry. I listen to them, but I stop short of knitting them scarves.)
I think the real magic of writing isn’t that you can create a world. It’s that writing helps you better understand the creation that is the world around you.
Kimberly Emerson is the author of three novels besides the one in the drawer, and is currently seeking representation for her latest mystery No Accounting for Destiny. You can find her most recent musings at www.kimberlyemerson.com, on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/fbbykimberlyemerson/, and on Twitter @KimberlyEWriter. You might also run into her at random literary conferences, sipping chai lattes and discussing deep thoughts with her buddy M Pepper Langlinais.