One of the most common questions I hear from readers and non-writers is Where do you get your ideas? A lot of writers I know have a glib answer like: my cat, my muse (often the same critter), my subconscious (but in other words, we don’t know), or my favorite: a P.O. Box in Spokane.
But sometimes, authors — and I think especially SFF authors — will say a book idea came from two or three separate things considered at once. When they’re brought together, sparks fly and an idea flames up. This happened to me with my latest novel.
It began with serendipity: the discovery of two endlessly fascinating nonfiction books I found on my husband’s book shelf. One was about the British Natural History Museum and the other was a history of the British Raj in India.
I started one, which was a little slow, and while I tried to decide whether to plod on, I began the other book. Then the first book picked up speed and sank its hooks.
I jumped from one to the other so I could keep reading them both. In one, I was reading about the part of natural history museums you don’t realize are there (the research offices and store rooms). There were these eccentric scientists with nicknames like “trilobite man” and “beetle man.” If women had been more welcome in those rarified offices, I might have read about bird woman, or more likely, gopher girl.
In the other book, I found out how the British established an empire in that unlikely place, India, and the stunning arrogance of the Raj. Although colonialism’s stain spread widely on the continent, I was surprised to learn that even as late as the early 20th century, there were people in villages in India who had never heard of the Raj or Queen Victoria. India is a big place.
When I finished these books, their respective themes began interacting in my head. They danced, leaning into each other. They collided. This convergence produced strands of subject matter like particles flying out of nuclei, that my brain churned into fiction. OK, without the purple prose, it was thus: The convergence produced the kernel of an idea: A Victorian woman in 19th century India.
But what was she doing there? I found out as I lived with and wrote this story over the next year. It became my latest novel, a fantasy called A Thousand Perfect Things. It has to do with magical terrorism, ancient ghosts, love, mutiny, Victorian repression, silver tigers, kraken, a god with the head of an elephant, a bridge across the ocean, and the impossible quest for perfection. A mash up? Yes, but more interestingly, a convergence.
Another take on convergence is when you braid together strands from your unique, possibly life-long influences. For example, take Dark Sleeper by Jeffrey E. Barlough. In a Jackson Kuhl’s interview, the author of the Western Lights series said that his rich alternate history world came from the intersection of
- His interest in paleontology;
- A love of Victorian fiction; and
- His time as a volunteer excavator at the La Brea Tar Pits.
Read this book and you’ll see the fabulous result.
I’ve heard other authors say they bring together dissimilar ideas to generate short stories. You make two lists of concrete things, choose one from column A and one from column B and compress. But how much more remarkable when it kicks off a journey of 400 pages!
There are two key elements here. One is that the converging ideas are not simply present in the story, but that they infuse each other, becoming something richer than just a mechanical mash up. Much like when a painter puts blue and yellow together, making green.
The second is that the subject areas should persistently nag at the author. The ideas, images, and people enter your waking dreams. They leave tracks that you follow into thickets. Falling asleep at night, one enters, say, the back halls of the Museum of Natural History in New York City.
(On my next visit there, I peeked in when someone went into one of those doors you never notice unless looking for them. They swipe key cards. The door opens for a second. Behind the door is… well, you have to imagine.)
When I told my story concept to a nationally known writing blogger, he said, “Boy, I’ll bet that idea didn’t just fall from the sky.” Nope, it did not. I’m almost afraid to have such disparate ideas converge on me again. I mean, the next stage of such an obsession could be madness.
On the other hand, Oh Muse, I’d be delighted.
After ten science fiction novels, Kay Kenyon’s first fantasy novel, A Thousand Perfect Things, has just come out in trade paper from Premier Digital Publishing. The story is about a re-imagined England and India, when a Victorian woman takes on the scientific establishment and the British Raj to find her destiny in a magical subcontinent rife with palace intrigues, ghosts and an immanent revolution. The eBook launch is on August 27. More about Kay at www.kaykenyon.com.