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  • Writer's pictureEsther Harder

How Do You Get a Book Idea?

In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert proposes that we are paid visits by ideas. They knock at our door, poke their head in, see if they're welcome. If we invite them in and offer them a drink or a place to put their feet up, they may stay awhile; if we talk to them around the safety bolt, they'll take the hint and move on to a more welcoming home.

I got the idea for Quarantine Kids around this time last year. You'll note that in my introductory post, Stay Home, Self Publish?, I describe the idea as alighting on our balcony, just as a bird would.

Because Quarantine Kids takes place on the balcony, and because a hat on our balcony became a birds nest for a few months around the same time I was drafting, the image of animate airborne ideas has stuck with me. A bird only visits for so long; one sudden move, and they are off again, back into beautiful flight.

One of the most-repeated questions a writer gets is where did that book idea come from? And it's a pretty fun question to answer because there's no wrong answer. There's also no clear answer.

Ideas, and how one "gets" an idea: these are mysteries. In my experience, ideas are more like curiosities. When I am more alert to myself and the world, there are any number of events, words, or memories that intersect with my day, and my curiosity grabs a hold of some of them. In grad school, we were told to keep a notebook handy and jot these down. In my "mom life," I have become less adept at finding the notebook amidst the the jumble of shoes, snacks, and toys, so I try to muse over the idea a bit right then in hopes that it will stick around long enough for me to remember in the quiet of the evening and give it better attention.

Once an idea has grabbed my curiosity, I do have more of a process for playing with it and deciding what the idea could become. I need plenty of mulling time, and I find that I mull best when I knot up my sneakers. I've been doing a morning jog on weekdays since college. These are not speed training workouts; they are a roll-out-of-bed meditation while moving...slowly.

These jogs are also not meant to impress anyone. Case in point: not so very long ago, I jogged by a 3 or 4-year-old girl who was walking with her mother, and the girl declared very loudly, "Why is that lady running so SLOWLY?" To which her mother responded something along the lines of "we all do what we can." Most of the time on these jogs, I am thinking less about the workout and more about my state of mind.

My strides tend to get my mind moving, and that fuzzy just-out-of-dreaming state is PERFECT for playing with ideas. In that state, anything is possible. My editor mind that likes to start pruning ideas before they have had a chance to grow is not yet awake; the editor mind waits at home near the desk and the yet-to-be-filled coffee mug. The playful, curious, writing mind is the one that hits the pavement.

When I take an idea and discover what it could be, I ask myself a lot of questions. Questions from a place of curiosity. There is a lot of wondering involved. What would this thing be like if...? From there, the idea and its possibilities start to branch. I follow the branches until they get too flimsy to hold me, and then I make my way back to the main trunk and pick another branch to follow.

In the case of Quarantine Kids, my initial idea was more of a curiosity of what all the babies and their parents were doing on the other balconies around our apartment complex. I could hear several families going about their day, and sometimes their rhythm overlapped with ours so that I could hear them on their balconies, too. Since I was reading plenty of board books at the time, my mind went immediately towards a board book framed around a baby's day. As I played with that idea a little more, I found that I would be limited in how much story I could tell through text; the illustrator of board books has a much larger responsibility at that level. So, I decided to age my idea up and think about balconies and balcony play from the frame of school-aged children. And from there, I took to the page and started drafting Quarantine Kids!

Ideas are not always fully-fledged book concepts. In fact, I find that they are rarely fully-fledged anything. Playing with ideas is more like playing on a rock pile with a toddler. The Little One hands you first one rock, then another. If they are verbal, they might tell you about the quality that has caught their attention: it's blue! bumpy! shaped like a fish! And you help them celebrate this discovery by turning the rock over in your hands and giving it attention.

These ideas or curiosities may be a snippet of dialogue you hear someone say in passing, or a setting detail. Just in the past few days, my son has been attempting to say refrigerator in Spanish, and it comes out refriventilador because ventiladores (fans) are his favorite things at the moment and they both end in -ador. My curiosity is piqued by this: what does it mean to merge a fridge and a fan? What other words could handle a similar merging? These ideas may never make their way to the page, but that's not what's important here. What's important, is the practice. To come back to Gilbert, what's important is that we pay attention and welcome the idea in. And who knows where things will go from there?


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