This is a common “pet peeve” question that writers often get a lot from non-writers. The answers it inspires range from overly simplistic one sentence summaries to mocking joke answers (“Schenectedy” being the most famous). But you know what? Here is a full, serious, honest, in-depth answer to that question. Here is the story of how I came up with the idea for my current novel-in-progress (and the elements that form it).
After much, much, much brainstorming I’ve finally (FINALLY!) come up with a basic general concept for my book that avoids major contradictions and has fine narrative potential.
Not an outline. Not even a full summary. But a good idea of my main characters, where and when it’s set, what everybody’s motivations are, and – roughly – how I want it all to end. Next step: Get a map out and start charting out all of the locations I need to learn for this trip.
This was a process several months in the making.
Not days. Not weeks. Months.
So here is the thought process of a writer in the first stages of planning his novel…or at least this particular writer, though I’d imagine more people are similar to me than would care to admit it.
So at the start of all of this, I had several ideas on the back burner:
- One is about how the modern world has forgotten its roots in Faerie, and the descendant of Lancelot and Guinevere is tasked to begin the process of reuniting them. The original idea was titled “The Last Blood of Camelot”.
- Idea number two was a girl who takes a trip to Venus to find her missing father – envisioned as “A Wrinkle in Time”, but hard science rather than squishy soft.
- Idea number three is a boy who sees a vision of a girl committing suicide, and resolves to find the girl and prevent her. Inspired VERY loosely by the video game “To the Moon”.
- And finally, idea number four is of a man who sees a woman, has absolutely no memory of her but suddenly realizes that they are undoubtedly soulmates and he is madly in love with her. This one was inspired, once again loosely, by the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, a personal favorite.
Frustratingly, I was having a very hard time taking these anywhere at all. So one day it occurred to me that there was a recurring theme here: The “hopeless hope” of the protagonists…the idea that despite the fact that none of them had clear, hard evidence that it was even possible to find who they were searching for, they were going to search anyway. I love that theme, and so I made an attempt to gather all of these together into one work.
The characters, who I called (in lieu of “official” names) Thomas, Abby, and Orpheus. Thomas and Abby I found spots for immediately. Initially Abby was going to end up being what I called the “suicide girl”, and Thomas was going to go with her because his vision ended up at the same location she was heading to. Orpheus remained hard to place, and yet I sensed that he belonged somehow. This bugged me for a long time.
It was while I was in the middle of, I believe, “The Once and Future King” that it occurred to me to have one of my characters – it ended up being Thomas in my head – dream of being a knight of King Arthur. The dramatic potential of such a character, and the fun directions you could go with him, really tickled me, and brought back to mind my idea for “The Last Blood of Camelot”, which I was considering throwing into the cooking pot as well.
This process, by the way, while almost certainly much more meandering and disorganized, is actually not that far off from Tolkien’s initial plans regarding “The Fellowship of the Ring”. The reason Tom Bombadil is in the book but was, in my view correctly, cut out of the movie is that Tom Bombadil never belonged in middle earth in the first place: Tolkien had written a series of poems about him several years ago, and it occurred to him that he could find a place for him in his legendarium. Originally unsure of what this new hobbit book would be about, he threw it into the stone soup until he finally found the One Ring to be his unifying force, and the narrative gained much needed momentum…but I digress.
So once again, I’m stalling, but I’ve stalled further along (I at least have significant plans in place for SOME of my characters). This is progress! But…I am still stalling.
Let’s fast forward again. I am reading Stephen Lawhead’s Pendragon Cycle, where I learn that he actually has one more book written that takes place AFTER the fall of Arthur, known as “Avalon”. “Avalon” is the story of how and why King Arthur returns in the modern world. Intrigued, I looked it up.
I haven’t yet read it, but the plot summary disappointed. Arthur is to return in Britain’s hour of greatest need, so he returns…when the figurehead monarchy of Britain is going to be voted out of office. Instead of fighting hostile invaders or corrupt tyrants, he engages in street fights with white supremacists with pit bulls. And instead of following through on the consequences of Arthur’s new reign, the book ends after his coronation.
“How lame is that?” I thought. “Now, if it were me, I’d make sure Britain really NEEDED King Arthur…”
Britain would need to be all but destroyed. An EMP has wiped out all of the technology. Various government coups lead to revolutions, the destruction of major infrastructure, and the eventual fracturing of the island into separate, warring city states. Drought ravages the land. And then, when it seems things can’t get any worse, the invaders arrive…
Now THAT’S an environment you can see Arthur returning in! And as an added bonus I can turn Britain into a sort of Wild West landscape, letting me play with western tropes as well. And that’s just Way Cool.
Well, what about the characters? Thomas is an easy transplant over. Abby was more interesting. I decided to keep her original plotline, but in the new setting she took an interesting turn away from Meg instead “A Wrinkle in Time” and instead turned into something closer to Mattie Ross from “True Grit”, so for her name I split the difference and decided to name her Maddie Calvin.
I wanted something more western and less British for Thomas, so I looked up pioneer names. I liked how Bennett sound on him, and so the character is Bennett Warwick (a reference to his old name, which was based on Sir Thomas Malory, AKA, Thomas of Warwick).
Maddie and Bennett, by the way, come from the town on New Washington, populated by the descendants of American tourists who happened to be in Britain when the disaster hit – hence my excuse to use western names.
For the British characters I went back to my “Last Blood of Camelot” well and came out with Lance Shaw, a version of my original main character from that story. Like Maddie, this version of the character became much tougher. I decided to give Lance the “role” of Lancelot in the original stories, a theme I plan to continue. With Lance came Gavin, a sort of sidekick who is supposed to evoke the trope of western sidekicks like Tonto as well as be a homage to the character of Pelleas in the Pendragon series (Pelleas is Merlin’s steward).
So there are four characters I like very much. Two of the four, throughout all of this, maintain their original visions: Maddie needs to rescue her father and Bennett needs to rescue a girl who might kill herself. The character of Orpheus is replaced with Lance, who sees a vision of Excalibur and gets a quest directly from God, as opposed to a vision of his true love. Or the quest is given by Arthur. Either/or. Look, I’m not done yet.
So there’s the process of a beginner, novice SF writer trying to plan out his first book. There’s more to this story, and later I may write about how every time I managed to come up with a solution to one major, game-breaking plot hole it would just raise another one…But I think for now this is long enough. You can hopefully get some sense of how many, many disparate ideas it took for me to come up with one semi-cohesive whole that I feel is strong enough to carry a full length novel.
Also, for writers: Whenever somebody asks you where you get your ideas, show them this. Trust me, they’ll never ask you again.