This is, it would seem, the most common question asked of all writers. It certainly has been asked many times of me. I used to think people were truly asking me that question. Then it dawned on me the question really was, “Why don’t I get ideas?”
I think the way it works (at least for me) is this: From an early age I was read to a great deal, and rather quickly learned how to read—and did read—voraciously. As a boy I also listened to the radio, which in those days was mostly storytelling. (One of my favorite radio shows was Edward R. Morrow’s You are There. It recounted famous historical events—say, The Battle of Gettysburg, as if it was actually happening.) Even the movies I saw were rather heavy-handed narratives. There was also a story-telling tradition in my family.
My point is, I was so surrounded by storytelling I began to experience the world as a story. I still do. My sense of people, the world, things I see and experience, are stories. Which is to say, I don’t get ideas for stories, I see them.
A few years ago my wife and I were visiting San Francisco. We were walking along the Embarcadero, that part of the city which edges the great Bay. Along the walk were multiple flag poles, from which flags were fluttering. Curiously enough, the flags showed a photo of the Bay that once was, crowded with what were obviously abandoned sailing ships.
What, I wonder, was the story behind that?
It didn’t take long to discover what those ships were. When the 1849 Gold Rush happened, thousands of people flocked to San Francisco. A good many came in ships. When those ships reached the town (it was quickly becoming a city), passengers and crew rushed off to the gold fields, leaving the ships to rot. At one point there were seven-hundred of these forsaken vessels. They even gained a name: Rotten Row.
As I learned about these ships, and what San Francisco was in those early days, I saw a story waiting to be told. I set to work, and that book, Gold Rush Girl, will be published in spring 2020.
The Player King had its origins in a footnote in a book about English History. The Button War is based on a story my late father-in-law told me about his youth in Europe. Crispin: The Cross of Lead, owes its inception to something I heard in a lecture about the middle ages. Nothing but the Truth came about because of an account I read in a newspaper. And so forth.
In short, it was reading that shaped the way I see the world. The shape of my thoughts become my novels.
Again, I don’t get ideas for stories. I see them everywhere.
Want ideas for stories? Read. A lot.