Who was that guy or Where do you get your ideas?


Evan Quinn, the protagonist of Perceval, began life as a nameless male voice in my mind, insistent on being heard, while I sat in the auditorium at Orchestra Hall in downtown Minneapolis, enjoying an evening concert.  At first I resented his intrusion.  His voice carried a Minnesota inflection as he spoke to me.  I suppose someone might mistake this leak from the imagination as “hearing voices” and suggest I needed help, but I’m accustomed to paying attention to thoughts or experiences that have what I call a “clarity,” like a bell ringing, that alert me to a story idea emerging.  Like this nameless male voice in my mind.

My stories usually begin with an idea, a situation or a character or some visual representation of it in my mind.  For example, a screenplay I wrote several years ago began with two persistent images in my mind.  One was of a young woman high up in a winter-denuded tree at night, clinging to its trunk, while an army of men fought viciously below, the woman illuminated as if by a spotlight from a hovering helicopter.  The other image was of the same young woman in a barn, bales of hay stacked nearby, a man aiming a shotgun at her, and two small children cowering behind him.  In this case, I had situations and a character.  Who was she?  Why was she up in that tree?  Why were the men fighting below her?  Who was the man aiming the shotgun at her and why?  Who were the two children?

The spark of ideas are everywhere in the world.  They come from newspaper articles, news magazines, television or radio news stories, overheard conversations, gossip, dreams, daydreaming and the observations of people and situations in the writer’s life.  One of the “games” I play with my imagination is to make up stories for the people I see on the street, on the bus, in restaurants, etc.  Give them jobs, lovers, secrets, a suspenseful situation.  Why is that guy watching the waitress so closely?  Does he know her?  Or is he her stalker?  I never accept idea suggestions from other people for my fiction.  Those ideas belong to the individuals who thought of them, not to me.  I usually encourage that individual to write the story himself.

I believe that story ideas capture the specific writer, not vice versa.  The imagination gravitates toward subjects and ideas that resonate with the writer’s heart and soul, so it is a personal experience.  I believe also that writers work through themes unique to them and their lives in the stories they write.  Sometimes a writer may not be aware of the unique theme(s), or sometimes it takes a long time for the realization to sink in, or sometimes readers point it out.  Years passed before I figured out my main theme (there could be others, too) which I have seen bubble up time and again in my stories.

As for Evan’s initial nameless male voice in my head, characters had not entered my life before in this way.  His voice continued to speak to me during the concert, until toward the end of the symphony on the second half, an image finally faded into my mind.  The voice belonged to a tall (over six feet) man, mid-thirties, Caucasian, with thick, straight black hair, a runner’s lean body, and he wore white tie and tails.  His back was to me because he was conducting — he was an orchestra conductor — the bare stage of the Grosser Saal of the Musikverein in Vienna.  From his voice, I knew he was a Minnesotan, an American.  What was he doing in Vienna?  Why was he conducting a bare stage without musicians or even music stands or chairs on it?  Who was that guy?  He’d captured my attention.

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