Friday, September 16, 2011

Most Frequently Asked Question: Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

It is, arguably, the single most frequently asked question to any writer, and one to which we all sit around and try to come up with canned answers so we won't just stare at the asker with a blank expression:  "Where do you get your ideas?" And, to be honest, it's a fair question.  Have you ever read the work of someone your really respect and wondered if there was some kind of alchemy at work for their genius?  We all have.  And the natural thing to do is ask.  Most writers, however, don't really have an answer.  We draw inspiration from so many sources that stating a definitive place is impossible.  Or, as is the case for some of us, we really do need psychological help.  But that's for another blog.   Here, then, is a partial list of things that give me demented ideas, people who inspire me, and the ways I see the world in general.

  • The News - Yeah, it's a tried-and-true method.  You want horror beyond anything that most people would imagine?  Read a newspaper or watch the evening reports.  On any given day, you've got it all:  Murder, rape, atrocity, mutations, experiments.  And every drop of it is fodder for your creative writing.  Some of the most effective horror mirrors the world situation, and serves as a metaphor for the twisted crap that's going on in the world.  In some cases, it's a thinly-veiled attack on the things the author finds wrong.  In others, the veil is thicker. 
  • Real Places - What do The Stanley Hotel, Wykehurst Place, the Winchester Mansion, Poveglia Island, and the LaLaurie House all have in common?  They're all real places with interesting histories (or at least interesting appearances) that inspired horror novels.  In the case of the last two, the real history of the places are more horrifying than anything Hollywood could come up with.  My first book, An American Haunting, was based on a real house in which I used to live.  Cane River:  A Ghost Story was actually inspired by my home town.  
  • Family and Friends - I've said it before: If you've ever met me or come into contact with me in any way, chances are you're going to end up in one of my books.  And if I like you, I'll kill you in the most brutal way I can imagine.  You wouldn't believe how many times my brother's died in my books.  Or my friends.  Or my daughters' friends.  I draw on the interesting people in my life to help me build interesting characters.  In fact, I can honestly say that I'm lucky in that there are no boring people in my life.  And most of them get a kick over being killed off in a book.  
  • My Twisted Perception - It's no secret that most of us writers look at the world in a different way than normal people.  It's why we're story-tellers.  In an introduction to my book City of Demons, award-winning author (and dear friend) Gary Braunbeck said about me: "This is a man who does not see the same world the rest of us do. I do not mean he sees the world differently than us – he sees a completely different world, and that mad sparkle in his eyes tells you that Scott Johnson is warped in the best of all possible ways – the embodiment of what Oscar Wilde called, “… the divine madness of absolute clarity." I take statements like that as a compliment, and it's true.  Take for example, when you see a little girl walking a huge dog down the street, most people think "that's cute... little girl walking a big dog."  My first thought is "Where's that dog taking that little girl?"  I constantly look for little things in the periphery that make me say "what if," and bring the world into a stranger state for me. 
  • Inside Myself - One of the tricks to writing is putting yourself in your characters' places to see how they should react.  Which is fine and dandy if you're writing a normal person.  But that's boring, isn't it?  We (and I mean horror writers in particular, but others do as well) write about psychos, monsters, and madmen.  Do we put ourselves in their places?  I do.  I visit some very dark places in my own psyche when I write dark things, and sometimes it is disturbing to think that such thoughts came out of my head.  But then I pull myself back out and be myself again.  Call it "method writing," call it psychosis, it doesn't matter.  Actors do it all the time.  Why can't I?
There are so many other places and things that provide me with the creative ideas to keep writing horror. This list barely scratches the surface.  If I were to take the cop-out approach, then, yeah, I could say I get inspiration from everywhere.  But is it really a cop-out?  What do you think?  From where do you draw inspiration?  From where do you get ideas?

Enquiring minds want to know.
Write on!


  1. Scott,

    Fun posting! Like your earlier description, I get some of my best ideas from visiting places. Dr Stench was created from my knowledge of public health, and walking the DC streets while staring at sewer caps and donig the "what if" game. What if body parts came alive in the DC sewers?

    The other place, most prominently, is my dreams. I have crazy dreams that I can remember very clearly and they are so original, so unique, I wish I had time to write all of the stories that have evolved from there.

    One last place that gives me scores of ideas is through music. I listen to a variety of genre music and study the lyrics. The lyrics will often spark an idea for a great story. Now if I could only put all of those ideas into something fun, readable and sellable. :)
    And your final line, always my mantra.
    Write on! ;)


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