The last time I got into one of these, it was because a friend asked me some engaging questions. And so I talked about the one thing I never liked to talk about. And wouldn’t you know it? I actually enjoyed it. And it turns out that some people actually read it and found it interesting. So I thought I’d suck it up yet again and get into something else that is process-related. Again, this is something I don’t normally like to talk about. But it’s something that writers are frequently asked, myself included:
“Where do your ideas come from?”
This has to be one of the most challenging questions to answer! The reason, in my case, is that the answer is so unsatisfying. I wish I could say that there is a special process or method that all writers use. But I’ve been doing this for eighteen years now, and I still haven’t found the magic formula or the proverbial secret door which leads to the magical realm of inspiration. If I’m being completely honest, the only answer I can give is “wherever I find them.”
It reminds me of something I read many years ago about how there are two types of reasoning and problem-solving (I believe it was Asimov who wrote it). He said there’s the conscious type, where we force our minds through previously-formed channels in our brains, looking for answers. Then there’s the unconscious, “latent” type of reasoning that happens without our being conscious of it. This is the kind of reasoning that manifests itself in an “AHA!” moment when the answer dawns on us.
The legend of Archimedes’ principle is a perfect example. According to the legend, the Greek polymath Archimedes was tasked with finding a way to determine the density of metal objects without melting them down. After many sleepless nights pondering the problem, his wife recommended that he take a bath. While lowering himself into the tub, Archimedes realized that the mass of his body displaced a certain amount of water-based on its weight.
Archimedes then jumped from the bath and ran through the streets naked, shouting “Eureka!” (Greek for, “I have found it!”) While this story is likely apocryphal, it demonstrates the difference between conscious and latent reasoning and how humans appreciated that difference long before modern psychology or neuroscience. Basically, if you’re stumped, don’t torture yourself by going over the problem again and again. Do something to distract yourself, give your conscious brain a rest, and a breakthrough will come.
It’s the exact same way with ideas. They start like seeds planted in the unconscious mind, and every so often, one will germinate and trigger an “AHA!” moment when you least expect it. That’s when you need to examine the idea and work on it with your conscious mind, which means structuring it, detailing it, and adding all the necessary ingredients (plot, characters, themes, twists, pacing, etc.). Once that is done, the idea is fully formed and ready to be realized.
The only way I could explain any further would be to give you some examples. As it happens, I can remember the exact moment when the idea for my first novel – The Cronian Incident – first came to me. It was 2015, and I had recently taken on the role as the Curator for the Guide to Space section at Universe Today and was working my way through a collection of articles about the Solar System. I had just finished doing the one on Mercury and was quite intrigued by some of the things I learned.
To break it down, Mercury takes 58.64 days to complete a rotation on its axis and 88 days to complete a single orbit around the Sun. This results in what is known as a 3:2 spin-orbit resonance, where the planet rotates on its axis three times for every two orbits it makes of the Sun. While some conclude that this means three days is equal to two years on Mercury, they would be wrong. Due to the nature of orbital mechanics, a day on Mercury – that is, the time it takes for the Sun to rise, set, and rise again (24 hours here on Earth) – lasts 176 days!
So really, a single day on Mercury lasts as long as two years! Another interesting thing is that because Mercury is airless (no atmosphere), the Sun-facing side becomes extremely hot while the side facing away becomes extremely cold. When I was younger, I remembered reading several science fiction novels where the planet Mercury had settlers on it, people who called themselves Hermians (from the root word “Hermes,” the Greek messenger god and the inspiration for the Roman god Mercury).
It occurred to me that if human settlers were to remain on the night side of the planet, taking care to stay mobile and remain ahead of the Terminator (the boundary between night and day), they could survive and take advantage of the mineral wealth and abundant energy Mercury has to offer. I began discussing this with a friend via Facebook (also a writer of SF), and we started bouncing ideas back and forth. Eventually, he hit me with a challenge that forced me to get creative.
Why would anyone need Mercury’s wealth when they could mine it from asteroids much closer to home? I ventured that perhaps demand would eventually become great enough to justify sending humans there, but that seemed a bit flaccid. That’s when it hit me: what if no one who was there went by choice? What if Mercury became a penal colony where people went to work off their debts or a prison sentence? By the time I bounced that idea off my friend, the lightbulb went on in my head!
Suddenly, I realized that stories of how human beings might someday colonize the Solar System was something I was finally informed enough to write about. My day job consisted of writing about astronomy, space exploration, and actual proposals to expand humanity’s presence beyond Earth. So why just write about Mercury? What about all the larger objects in the Solar System? How would human beings live on these bodies in the future, what kind of lives would they lead, and what stories would they tell?
I immediately began writing down notes and looking for a storyline that could touch on these questions while also dealing with some other themes I was hoping to include. Since 2012, I have wanted to do a story that would address the major forces for change in this century and beyond. The possibility that these might be driving forces for humanity becoming “interplanetary” felt like a natural fit. From that, The Cronian Incident was born and was followed by two sequels – The Jovian Manifesto and The Frost Line Fracture.
See what I mean? Describing where an idea came from is akin to telling an origin story. You have to acknowledge influences, establish the context, then show how it unfolded in your mind over time. In short, you have to tell the story of how you created the story. And at this point, I got a hundred of them, and I’m not speaking euphemistically! Someday, I hope more of them make it to publication so I can share the story of where the ideas came from too!