E. C. Ambrose
Most of my work is inspired by research. I’ll start reading up on a certain setting–the vital intersection of a particular place, with the historical period or current event I want to focus on. I’ll read anything I can to build up that background material, taking notes on details I think might be useful, and considering what kinds of people in that setting would be interesting to tell a story about. The character usually appears from this research and brainstorming. So–person, place–next, I just need the problem! Conflict is the engine of plot. This initial problem could be large, clearly a major conflict, or it could be a smaller one that gets the character moving (willingly, or not). In the case of Elisha Barber, my reading on medieval surgery led me to a barber surgeon in London, his hands dripping with blood, framed in a sunlit door and saying, “My God, I’ve killed them all.” Who had he killed? And why? I had to write the book to find out. . .
See, the story/poem/novel begins with the base concept, whether that’s a scene, an opening line, or a problem. But then the conundrum is figuring out how everything fits together–and this makes me very anxious. When my grandma taught me how to do jigsaw puzzles, her primary tip was, “Look for the edge pieces first.” When I start something new, I don’t know if I hold an edge piece or one from the middle, so I begin to create my own edges. I jot down notes, stream-of-consciousness. For a story, I usually type them straight into Word like a little list of plot points. This is the exciting part–it’s when my brain sees everywhere out there and I can judge if it actually makes sense, if it’s worth writing.
Novels are bigger and scarier. I get excited by the concept, but I’m afraid to get too enthusiastic. I feel a lot better about things when I have an outline and when I can see the spectral tendrils of how everything will click together. When I do my stream-of-consciousness notes for novels, I called it “plot vomit.” I hack up everything that might happen in the course of the story. It’s messy. It’s ripe. But from there, I can break things into scenes and chapters, flesh it out more, shuffle everything into Scrivener, and actually start writing.
After I finish a draft and accept that it might not completely suck? That’s when I get really excited.
Like Beth, I’m an outliner, and like E.C., I need some kernel to work with before I can move forward. For me that kernel pops into being when two ideas coalesce.
Here’s an example: I heard an interview with Steven Tyler, who once forgot all the lyrics to the new Aerosmith album in the back seat of a cab. He said it was the most important thing in the world. I thought, Hell, the whole world should burn to a crisp if the most important thing in it is Aerosmith lyrics. That got me wondering what the most important thing in the world really is, and how someone could forget it in the back seat of a cab.
This was just my bag. I’m a philosopher, so I spend a lot of time thinking about the most important things in the world. Truth, justice, beauty, love, wisdom, the kind of stuff Plato wrote about. Stuff it’s not so easy to leave in a cab.
So the cab idea floated idly for years, and somewhere along the way I started thinking about time travel, precognition, and poker. (You know, as one does.) If moments are like cards in a deck, it would be really nice to know in advance which cards are coming up—or better yet, to borrow the best ones from deeper in the deck to play right now. This wouldn’t be time travel per se. More like time borrowing.
And bang, there it was: the coalescence. What’s the most important thing in the world? Time. How do you leave time in the back seat of a cab? You keep it in a time lender.
The result was “The Most Important Thing in the World,” which might be the best short story I ever wrote. It published in Asimov’s, and reappeared just this year in The Time Traveler’s Almanac. (Check out that table of contents. Star-studded to say the least!)
I get excited when the right voice finally comes to me. (Which, often, might be the same as knowing who the main character really is.) I’m in the noodling-around stage of a new project right now. The last couple months I’ve had it ticking along in the back of my brain, gathering bits of ideas and mashing them together. I can hear a voice starting to emerge out of it. I have a hard time working on more than one project at once, so I’m letting it build up until I have a chance to
put some words down. The whole early process of grabbing fun ideas, playing with them, and then finally, putting fingers to keyboard and finding out if there’s something there . . . that’s definitely my first exciting bit!
Michael R. Underwood
I almost always start with the Big Idea for a story. Things like “What would happen if you combined the New Weird with Superheroes?” (Shield and Crocus) or “What would geek magic look like?” (Geekomancy).
Those big ideas come knocking, and I take some notes, brainstorm a bit. But a project goes from ‘this would be a cool idea’ to ‘I Must Write This’ when I get a character, a starting situation, and an overall conflict.
When I’m developing a story, I plan, I think, and more recently, I outline. There’s an accretion effect, where my ideas and excitement for a project build, and build, and build, until there’s a point where I am nearly jumping out of my own skin to get started, and then that pile of excitement I’ve been building breaks like a wave,, and I dive into the project, riding that excitement into the beginning of the draft.
M. K. Hutchins
Ideas get me excited. Big, tasty, chewy, worldbuilding ideas. But a single idea does not a story make. Usually I need to slam several idea together to carry a story…but not all ideas go together. So I keep an idea folder, brimming with notes of things that would be cool to write about. Sometimes the ideas linger for years, just waiting for the right pairing. It’s like goat cheese brownies. Goat cheese is tangy and delicious. Dark chocolate brownies are decadent. Bake them together, and you’ve got a mind-blowing, tasty treat. When I try to write before I have the right mix of ideas, the results are underbaked (bad pun entirely intended).
With Drift there were a lot of different things whirling together in my brain. Floating turtle-islands inspired by Maya cosmology. Family structure on an agrarian and population-restricted floating island. A watery hell populated by dangerous monsters. A main character with a family history of treason who is still trying to figure out what that treason was. Eventually, I knew I had enough to fill a world, to fill up a novel, and I was ready — and eager — to start.
J. Kathleen Cheney
My process is very similar to M.K.’s. I put together lots of ideas, gathered from myriad sources. Some things I can’t even tell you where they came from. (I was asked recently about my underwater artwork idea the other day, and could only reply that it sprang fully-formed from the dark corners of my mind.)
I usually mentally string those ideas together with characters, then come up with a plot. Then I flesh out that plot with all the circumstances that make it logical. This photograph, for instance, cut from a magazine ad, ended up being tied with several other images, two concepts, and some time-period studies into an entire series of short stories (including “The Dragon’s Child” and “Early Winter, Near Jenli Village.”)
But at some point, the possibility of a Romance comes along for one of my characters, and that’s when I truly start to enjoy it. Yep, somewhere deep down inside, I have a Romance Writer struggling to get out (I probably subsumed my romance-writing twin in the womb or something.)
(I do write stories without any Romance, BTW, Fleurs du Mal being an example of that.)