“I hear voices in my head,” I say at every short story panel when I am asked how I get my ideas. “I write down what they tell me.”
Some people call it inspiration, others call it muse. I call it voices. I’ve heard them since I was five years old. They used to whisper poems to me at night and tell me stories by day. I wrote them down diligently and they grew with me, becoming better as I got older. When I was eight, I attempted an epic adventure opus inspired by my favorite novel, The Jungle Book. After I turned ten, there came an era of science fiction, eventually replaced by the young adult genre and romantic poetry. As to the actual ideas, I think they stumble upon me. Or plop down from some kind of an inspiration-bearing plantlet, like the apple that fell off a tree and hit Newton in the head, enlightening him to the laws of gravity.
The second standard panel question is usually “How do you come up with your characters?” I don’t think I have a clear answer to that either. My characters sort of come to me. Sometimes they take the shape of friends and acquaintances, sometimes ex-bosses and ex-boyfriends. Often they inherit the looks of the former and the traits of the latter. And periodically they materialize out of nowhere, like a fresh blueprint of a person I’ve never known, ready to take on an important mission in my story, be it a three thousand word flash fiction or a full-length manuscript. It’s a mystery to me how it happens, but once they settle inside my brain, I know them inside out, similar to how an insightful mother sees through her children. I know their aspirations and pitfalls, their taste in clothes and movies, and the flavor of their favorite ice cream. I also know what pushes their buttons and sets them off on a tangent. Or what can compel them to engage in a dangerous pursuit in the culminating scene of my story.
Sometimes I see my future stories like little subliminal movies flashing through my brain. I must write them down quickly, before they disappear back into that inspirational void. Sometimes they fly by too fast for my fingers to capture the legend they carry, so instead they burn like little meteorites that strike the Earth’s atmosphere and melt in a blaze. The falling stars may be a romantic concept, but nothing’s worse than having a great story vanish from your imagination before you put to paper. Or into a file.
When I have to think through a new plot, write a large chunk of a novel, or the next big story, I go away. Life interferes too much. Phones ring, radios blare, and children cry. I don’t have to travel far, but I must leave behind the humdrum of the everyday routine and the interruptions of mini-emergencies. I’ve learned that when I’m creating a new reality, I must step out of the existing one. Often, I have to forget about it altogether. I mustn’t worry about the bills that need to be paid, appointments that must be kept, and all the other nuisance life doesn’t happen without. I clear my decks, hop on the bus, and disappear for a few days, usually locking myself in a cheap hotel or somebody’s temporarily empty apartment, where I can ideally see the trees and the sky out the window. It is my way of going to a writer’s retreat, the only inhabitants of which are me and my voices. My family is used to it. They understand. They kiss me goodbye and tell me to come back with a great story.
I always do. I just stare out the window at the trees and the sky, and I listen. If I wait long enough, I will hear the voices. And I hope they will never stop talking.