Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Idea Jar

by Jennifer Archer

The men in my husband's family joke that their wives all have "job jars" for them. In these jars, we supposedly keep scraps of paper with household chores written on them. When the men have time to spare, they're required to pull out a scrap and complete the task. (Now there's an idea, huh?)

One of the questions I'm asked most when people learn I'm a writer is "where do you get your ideas?" I'm always a little baffled that they don't see ideas everywhere, like I do. Life is like that job jar except, in addition to tasks, it's also filled with ideas. Usually I'll see something or read something or hear something that sprouts the question-- what if....? An idea blooms then grows, often in a story direction I never expected.

The idea for my first published novel for adults BODY AND SOUL sprouted while I was sitting in line at a bank drive-up window. My children were small then and they were in the back seat irritating one another. I'd had a long day and their argument was wearing my nerves thin. I looked at the car beside me in the next lane -- a red Volkswagon with a young, pretty 20-something girl inside. Her window was down, music blared from her radio, and she be-bopped to the beat. She looked carefree, relaxed, everything I wasn't at the moment. I thought, Right now, I wish I had your life. Then: What if two women like us switched places, right here, right now? Voila! The idea for BODY AND SOUL bloomed.

The idea for another one of my books for adults, SANDWICHED, grew out of a lunch date with two girlfriends. Over salads and tea, we talked about the fact that our parents were getting older and might soon need more of our time, while our teenagers were getting older and wanting less of our time. We were, in a sense, sandwiched between the needs of these important people in our lives.

I wrote THE ME I USED TO BE after reading a magazine article about a woman who got pregnant at the age of sixteen while at Woodstock. She gave her baby son up for adoption and he found her more than 30 years later. What if that child had been a daughter? I wondered. And what if the daughter died before they ever had the chance to reconnect? What if a grandchild found the birth mother instead?

MY PERFECTLY IMPERFECT LIFE began at a writing workshop. The teacher had us take out pens and paper. "A character finds something unexpected in his or her significant other's closet," she said. "Write about it. You have one minute." I put the pen to paper, started writing, and here's what emerged...It was black, lacy, a size 42 DD. She wore a B cup...barely. As the woman stared at the big black bra hidden in the corner of her husband's closet, she couldn't help wondering -- did it belong to another woman...or to him? The paragraph was rough, but when I read it aloud to the group, everyone laughed. I thought I might be on to something.

And then there are the book ideas that sneak up out of nowhere and surprise you. These can't be easily explained. My debut novel for teens, THROUGH HER EYES, is one such story. I'm not really sure where the idea came from. I went to sleep one night thinking that I'd like to write a novel for a teen audience, and the next morning I awoke with the bare bones idea. I see fragments of my own life in the story -- like the protagonist, Tansy Piper, I moved around a lot when I was growing up. (something like 24 times, actually!) And the creepy house Tansy lives in after she moves to Texas resembles one we pass by when my husband and I drive to our cabin in Colorado. Old photographs play a big part in the plot, and I've always loved old pictures and find myself wishing I could step into one and experience life back then. I incorporated that wish into the book, as well. But overall, I have no idea what inspired the rest of the story; it simply emerged as I wrote.

If you're a writer searching for a story, pay attention to the life you're living, the world around you, the common things you might take for granted. Let your imagination wander. Though it's true that sometimes I really don't know where a story came from, more often than not the idea arises from an every day occurrence, a minor incident that seems so mundane it's easy to let it slip by unnoticed.

 Writers, what has inspired your story ideas for the books you've written?


Anita Grace Howard said...

I love this post, Jenny! One of my favorite things is finding out what birthed a book idea for an author, and here you lavish us with five! As you know, I'm very visual, so more often than not I SEE something that inspires a book idea. Though I have had one or two that just blossom from out of nowhere, like Tansy's story. Thanks so much for sharing this!

Jordan Dane said...

I LOVE this post, Jenny. It's inspirational and a good reminder that ideas are EVERYWHERE. The writer's mind is definitely fertile ground.

Scary actually.

Dan Haring said...

Great post Jenny! I studied animation in school, and one of the things we were always taught to do was observe, and I think writing is the same thing. Just look around and you'll find some little thing that can either turn into a whole story, or can inform a tiny bit of your story.

I think everyone has it in them to create stories, but I think a lot of people are just too busy to take a look around and be inspired by what they see in everyday life. My current WIP was inspired by seeing the stars at night. It can be as simple as that. People just need to look.