Mommy, Where Do Novels Come From?

Novels come from ideas… But where do ideas come from?

I’m the proud mother of two young novels. One came about after a dream involving two thieves and a man by the name of Joe Christian. I changed his last name, gave his first name to one of the thieves, and the scene I saw while sleeping became a turning point in The Radiometry Conspiracy. The other novel was born after an afternoon playing a creative writing tarot game with my fiance. I drew the Nine of Cups for a main character, and that in combination with the other cards led to a mystery novel about a privileged cop addicted to alcohol.

I’m now about to start a short (please let it be short) story about… well… I’ll tell you some other time. But I got the idea from the combination of a scene in Terry Pratchett’s Wyrd Sisters, some women I know, and election signs around the town I live in.

That’s three different genesis stories for three very different ideas, so I still don’t know how to answer the question. Stories come from everywhere.

Maybe the more important question is, “How do I know an idea is good?”

There’s no good answer to that one, either. In the fall of 2008, I was still thinking about that dream I’d had the spring before I graduated from my Master’s program. I would commute from Hayward to Berkeley, looking at Lake Merritt in Oakland and the surrounding weird mix of pine trees and palm trees, listening to the Foo Fighters and imagining characters who had become real to me over months of daydreaming.

I finally told Drew I’d like to leave the newspaper and concentrate on really writing.

“Yes, but what would you write?” he asked.

“Fiction!” I said.

“Oh!” He thought this was a great idea.

But I was only brave enough to take that step because I had an idea I knew was good.

So how did I know?

I can’t articulate it. Not really. I just knew. I had characters who were real, a plot that compelled and consumed me, a world no one had written before. I cared.

I guess I’m trying to say that sometimes, when you really love an idea, and you commit to it with your whole heart, a novel is born.