by Elena Santangelo

The most-asked question of successful writers is "Where do you get your ideas?"

Give a kid a large empty box, and it ceases to be a box. It's a cave, a clubhouse, maybe even a spaceship. Kids have no trouble taking something as ordinary as cardboard and creating whole universes.

We all did it when we were young. A towel pinned to the shoulders became a cape (Batman phase). An old tennis racket became a guitar (Beatles phase). My bike was once a bobsled (I marvel that I survived my Olympic phase). The alcove behind a neighbor's garage was, for eight of us one summer, a detective agency (and no, I never outgrew that one).

It's odd what adults think of as play. Our games are structured, with fixed rules. Our fantasies become private. Like lions, who as babies wrestled each other to learn how to kill, adults use their old play skills for gain--flirting, scamming, and playing mind control games with bosses and kids.

But in writing–actually, in any creative activity–you get to be that child again, playing "what-if" with whatever happens by. Like the child, the writer's imagination won't be sparked by every little stimulus. Surrounded by toys, a seven-year-old will whine "There's nothing to do!" I feel exactly like this when trying to come up with a story, but being a dignified adult, I try to keep the whining to a minimum. Agatha Christie described the feeling as "broody."

I can never predict what my imagination will grab hold of. I've tried to introduce subjects to it. Other people have tried, too–"Why don't you write a book about such-and-such?" This doesn't work for me. Conscious planning is a left-brain activity, creativity is right-brain. Stories aren't carefully blueprinted and built, like houses. They grow, like living things. And often they grow from tiny seeds, not real ideas at all. No more than glimmers, nudges.

For instance, a month before I began By Blood Possessed, I had a vague notion that I might write a mystery with a ghost, maybe set in Gettysburg, since I knew the place had plenty of ghost legends and one more wouldn't offend anyone. The whim had a "been done" feeling about it, though, and because of that I couldn't get started.

The seed was a dare from my brother Tom to write a book with two first-person protagonists. I thought it might work, if the two were never in the same scene together and the narrative voices were unique. I played "what-if": What if one voice was contemporary and one historical? What if I tie the modern and historical stories together using the ghost? What if I make the canvas bigger than just Gettysburg? Et cetera. The concept went from simple "been done" ghost mystery to a novel about families and war that I had to write.

I can't stress enough that this idea-growing shouldn't take place at a computer keyboard. The notions need to come together in your head first. Most successful writers admit that they create stories while doing something boring: driving or doing laundry. Walking seems to work for me. Christie said she wrote best while washing dishes. I personally find the computer distracting, the way it sits there and tries to hurry me along. Once an idea's typed up, there's something too official about it, making it psychologically more difficult to revise.

The whole creation process never ceases to amaze me. One day my mind is totally barren, a few weeks later, there's a finished short story in front of me. A miracle? Really, all I did was make a spaceship out of a cardboard box. Any child can do that. All you have to do is play.

Copyright 2006, Elena Santangelo

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