Friday, March 9, 2012

The Idea Store

by Judy Merrill Larsen

A few years ago, I went to see the lovely Elizabeth Berg at one of her book signings/readings. She's delightful--kind, a little shy, funny, friendly. I love her. Someone asked her, "Where do you get your ideas?" She smiled and said, "Why, at the Idea Store!" Everyone laughed. I thought to myself, I'm betting she's been asked that same question a million times. And might be a little tired of it.

And I wondered if she'd mind if I stole her answer. Because it's perhaps the most common question authors get--along with wondering why we haven't called Oprah. (Answer: No one knows her number. And we'd probably all cut off an arm to get it.)

Because here's the thing--if I go looking for an idea, I'll never find it. And lots of really great, fabulous, amazing ideas never pan out. And, in general, I don't even know I have an idea that's going to work at first.

They sneak up on me and start nagging. I fumble around wondering what string to pull that will help the story. And I pull at a bunch of loose strings that turn into knots or are little scraps that pull out completely. But I never know until I pull.

Which makes for all kinds of fun.

With ALL THE NUMBERS, my first novel, the idea stemmed from a random conversation with my best friend as we sat on the dock at her lake house watching our kids playing in the water. One comment. And poof, an entire story.

Another manuscript started with a photograph from childhood and whispered stories about "that family next door."

Yet another came from a tiny, one paragraph news article about something found under a bed when a family was cleaning out their deceased grandma's home.

And of course, there are lots of other ideas that never survived the "string test". Or so I think now. But, down the road? Who knows what spark will bounce back to some of those strings. And that's thrilling because they are rarely what you think you'll be. Rarely where you think they'll lead. And, in many ways, the whole writing process for me is one of pulling and tugging at strings . . . a character sees something or makes a comment and before I know it, often without my consent, we're chasing down another road wondering what's around the next turn or over the hill.

Of course, all this wondering has made me wonder something else . . . just as I sometimes think I'd love to be able to pop in to an Idea Store after I've browsed the racks at J Jill, what would your fantasy store hold?

I live in St. Louis, MO with my husband, am the mom/stepmom to five kids (ages 19-27), and taught high school English for 15 years. I'm over on Facebook and Twitter . My first novel, ALL THE NUMBERS was published in 2006.


  1. Great post, Judy! My fantasy store? Well, it'd have endless story ideas, revision robots and countless Gerard Butler Stepfords ;)

    1. Love the revision robots, Jill. And as for the Stepfords, mine would likely have a version of Colin Firth.

  2. I think my fantasy store would contain all the characters I've already written, plus a wide array of clothing. That way I could ask them, "What should I have done differently? and "What did I miss?" Then I could dress them--Barbie euphoria for the author.

  3. I spend so much time in the idea store! gah. If only we had time to develop all the ideas we love! Let's see...I like the idea of the character store because I miss my characters and that way I could pop in and see what they are up to! I guess that's why for my next e-novella, The Last Resort I did invite all of my character to a women's mojo conference "Mojo in Maui." I've been ridiculously giddy getting caught up with them. Another store would be the Ryan Gosling store. That's it. Just him and all of his coolness.

  4. I want to shop at an idea store!!

    Great post, Judy!!

  5. I would love it if the Idea Store also carried great maternity clothes, ones that magically expanded for every month you're pregnant. Okay, and maybe chocolate-covered strawberries, too. ;-)

  6. Great answer! Once, I was at a book festival waiting my turn to speak when a woman ran up to me. "Oh!" she shouted. "I LOVE your books! Your writing speaks to me!" She went on and on, while I smiled modestly. After she left, I looked up and realized I was standing under the "Elizabeth Berg" sign.

  7. Judy, sorry I missed commenting yesterday. At a dance competition (my daughter's, not mine) in Jacksonville all weekend. I have to say, the idea question never bothers me but the Oprah one makes me so uncomfortable I tend to raise my eyebrows and act like, 'what a good idea!' because going further is too complicated. And they're just trying to be nice, even if the comment betrays how little they've had their toe in the publishing pond.