I was just about to finish a novel that I had worked on for over fifteen years when the idea for a new novel started gnawing away at my consciousness. I was in no mood to embark on another book journey, but the idea continued to nag at me, so I started sketching out the manuscript that I had already entitled, Lynchings, a story involving a black musician, a white girl, a black detective, and a bunch of racist thugs.
I tried to explain to a white-haired gentleman my complex justification of "southern theme" novels one evening, when, in the middle of my explanation, he blurted out, "Where do you get your ideas?"
"Gosh," I said, dripping sarcasm. "I get them from The Book of Ideas."
My gentleman was no fool. He knew sarcasm when he heard it, so he meandered through the crowd until he found a real estate agent willing to listen to him.
It was not the first time I had been asked that question.
I spent a long night in a smoky bar in Virginia once with a few fellow writers trying to come up with an appropriate response to such a question. The plan was this: we needed a source for ideas—this was well before the prominence of Google. Want to know where to find the definition of a word? Go to a dictionary. Want to know the function of the gasoline engine? Go to an encyclopedia. To know where writers get their ideas? Go to a book of ideas.
Steve wanted the book to look like a thesaurus—if you wanted to write a book on lynching, for example, you looked up lynching, and you would find several plot summaries relating to that topic. He argued that such a book would be familiar and easy to use.
John felt that a small book did not do justice to the grandeur and the majesty of a book of ideas. He pointed out that Biblical quotations carried much more weight when cited from large, thick Bibles.
"Did you ever see a television evangelist quote from one of those little green bibles the devoted hand out to students?" he asked the rest of us. We conceded his point, and toasted his astuteness.
We decided that The Book of Ideas should be big and imposing, somewhat along the lines of the Oxford English Dictionary. It was our collective opinion however, that The Oxford English Dictionary begged not to be read.
"It's boring looking," Anne pointed out.
"It's intimidating," Tracey added.
"It's scholarly," John said, and we all agreed that it was a turn off for anything to look scholarly.
Our book of ideas needed something eye-catching on the cover that invited scrutiny and accurately represented the magnitude of the material inside. Steve suggested a picture of God, dramatically appearing through ceiling tiles, slinging lightning bolts of ideas at a roomful of struggling writers seated in front of computer screens.
"Something along the lines of Blake’s The Ancient of Days, he suggested.
A hum of agreement ringed the table. We all agreed that could work.
After the third or fourth pitcher of beer, the book of ideas plan turned sloppy, and it was abandoned.
The issue continues to crop up however, at social functions, at readings, in classes, and in bars.
"Where do you get your ideas?" writers are asked, by students, white-haired men and women, by people who should know better, and by people who have no idea. Imagine my surprise when I asked the same question of myself. My ideas are a mixture of experience and ‘what if’ questions, but my answer is unsatisfying for the socially inquisitive who want specifics.
Of course, a book of ideas would be of little help to writers, since they must make connections beyond plot summaries, but imagine how nice it would be when the next time you're at a social function, and someone comes up to you and says, "You know, I could write like you if I could just come up with a few good ideas. Where do you get your ideas?" You answer, "From The Book of Ideas, of course. I think our host has a copy." You steer the person to the coffee table where s/he is immediately drawn to the cover. That would be much easier than pointing a finger to your head, and telling the person that a black musician, a white girl, a black detective, and a bunch of racist thugs somehow got mixed up in your head and came out in the form of a story. The crux of the matter is that ideas stem from connecting experiences, knowledge, and projections, and none of that can be abbreviated for the serious writer.
However, for the socially inquisitive, The Book of Ideas is a good idea.