This may be the most frequently asked question of any author, and I freely admit asking it more than a few times myself. Like many, I’d always labored under the impression that “Great Ideas” came from moments of perfect inspiration, or perhaps were the product of some talent that I had to be born with, and for the longest time I believed I’d never have a “Great Idea” to write about. I mean, how could I compare to Stephen King, George R. R. Martin or any other well known novelist if I couldn’t have any idea like theirs?
The truth is, great ideas are a dime-a-dozen, and they’re all around us. We all, every man, woman and child on the planet, have great ideas EVERY SINGLE DAY! And what lead me to this eureka moment about ideas? My children and Ice cream sundaes.
I have two children, ages seven and three. Every morning I drop them off at school and daycare before heading to the office myself. After work, I spend time with them doing things that must be done, like math homework with my daughter or number lessons with my son, before tucking them into bed with either a book or a song (my son likes me reading books because he can stay awake longer. My daughter likes me singing to her, though I don’t know why. I have a terrible voice). On the weekend, we do things as a family.
One particular Sunday, we’d been at the park on a rather hot day. The kids at the park got to run through sprinklers and splash in puddles while the adults watched them and tried to stay as cool as possible. After about an hour of watching my children run around (something any parent can tell you is exhausting all by itself), an ice cream truck pulled up next to the park and turned on it’s speakers. For those of you who don’t live in New York City or have never experienced this particular event, let me tell you, the sounds coming from those speakers attract children like moths to a flame. In a very short time the once full playground was empty, swings children fought over earlier were abandoned to sway idly in the breeze and the crowded sprinklers left empty as everyone, children and parents alike, made the mad dash to the truck. My children and I were no exception.
Waiting in line for an ice cream truck is an experience I don’t really recommend. Depending on how hot and late in the day it is, the truck may be running low on supplies.
I knew my daughter would want a rocket pop and my son would want a SpongeBob pop while I had dreams of a chocolate/vanilla swirl dancing in my head. My children are both picky and predictable. The line flowed quickly as parent surrendered their cash for the sweet treat of their choice. Arriving at the front of the line, my kids didn’t even wait for me to say anything before telling the driver what they wanted. You could almost hear their hearts break as the driver told us he was out of them. No SpongeBob for my son, no rocket pop for my daughter, and of course, no swirl for me (hey, I’m not evil enough to eat ice cream in front of them. Give me some credit).
Broken-hearted, we all stepped out of line, but there was still one ray of hope left. I told my kids that we could stop by the store and pick up anything we wanted to make sundaes at home. Besides, it would probably be less expensive anyway (it wasn’t). I have never seen my children get settled in a car faster.
Arriving at home, I set all our freshly purchased ingredients on the kitchen table and told my kids to wait a moment so I could go wake mommy (she’d taken a nap while we were at the park). This of course, was a mistake. Coming back down stairs, my wife and I were greeted with a sugar coated scene straight out of Apocalypse Now. The kitchen table, chair and even the floor were strewn with chocolate sauce, sprinkles and other toppings. It was on their faces, their hands, and oddly enough, down the back of his diaper (at least I maintain it was chocolate sauce). Cleanup was quick, my wife and I having become experts on childhood messes over the years, and an efficiently assembly line started. I scooped the ice cream, my wife poured the chocolate sauce, my daughter added the sprinkles and my son put the cherry on top. Fun and sugary goodness was had by all.
Telling the story to co-workers the next day and watching them laugh is when I was hit with my eureka moment.
My ice cream story is in no way unique. Every parent who’s ever lived or ever will live will experience it, or something similar. At it’s core, it was simply the story of a mess my children made. However, everyone who heard it laughed and called it a great story. There was no muse involved, no moment of perfect clarity, and certainly no talent involved (unless you count the children making the mess as talent). I simply took an event that happened and turned it into a story for others to enjoy by adding detail through scenes, suspense and structure.
The ideas for novels work the same way. Stephen King’s The Mangler was inspired by a machine accident from his childhood. George R. R. Martin was inspired by The War of the Roses, the English civil war for control of the throne. Ender’s Game was Orson Scott Card basically writing Hoosiers in space. All of these great stories and more, at their core, have one thing in common. They took something ordinary and, through their writing, turned it into something extraordinary.
Don’t get me wrong. Not all ideas are novel-worthy, nor should they be. But all novel-worthy stories have one core tenant. They take something plain and, through writing, turn it into something great. My children’s ice cream fiasco will probably never make it into a novel, but, like a sundae, I can take ordinary moments, mix them together, and create something truly delicious.