One of the most common questions for authors is "Where do you get your ideas?" We often turn to standard quips ("K-Mart!", "Off the rack!") to answer this question, because there is no one answer. Ideas come from everywhere. Comments made by family and friends. People we observe at the mall, on the street, passing us on the highway. They strike, like lightning, and are just as mysterious.
It shouldn't come as a surprise that writers have come up with an entire mythology to describe where the ideas come from. I think the first time I heard the term was in Stephen King's On Writing, where he referenced "The Boys in the Basement" as a bunch of beer-swilling, card-playing, cigar-smoking guys who shout up little bits and pieces at their writer and then laugh as the writer struggles at the keyboard, trying to put it all together. Jenny Crusie was the first person I'd ever heard who feminized the term, calling them "The Girls in the Basement." I think her Girls do collages and drink wine, but the general gist is the same.
I'm a girl, so I stick with The Girls. They're notoriously difficult to explain in regular, everyday terms, so I'm gonna move into a fantastical realm for a minute to try and get the general feel of them across.
Imagine my mind as a house. Big. Old. Victorian in structure, but wide open and with clean floors. (Hey, if my real house can't be clean, my imaginary one will be.) I wander through it aimlessly, pondering the pictures on the walls, looking out windows, waiting for ideas to form.
Then I realize it's laundry day. I gather up all the clothes, stuff 'em in a basket, and start towards the basement. I'm at the door when I hear it.
Music. Talking. Raucous laughter. There's the sound of ice clinking in glasses, and they're playing some kind of game. Could be cards, could be Monopoly. I kinda think it's a game I've never heard of, one I know nothing about. Something mysterious, creative, feminine.
But I don't know, because I never make it down into the actual basement. I stand at the top, laundry tucked under one arm, my other hand resting on the doorknob, and I listen, catching only bits and pieces of the conversation.
"A rare parrot in New York City!" they yell up, following it with a little laughter. "Your heroine owns a winery! Psychic quiltmaker! (murmuring amongst themselves) Oh, forget that last bit, that's the next one!"
I stand, listening some more, pressing my ear up against the door. I can hear that they're still talking, still laughing. I can't understand anything, though, until...
"Go away!" they yell. "That's all you're getting today!"
Sometimes, I hate those wenches.
I drop my laundry immediately (in my imaginary house, as in my real one, the laundry never actually gets done) and run upstairs to my attic office, where I stare out the window and wonder how in the name of all that is holy I'm going to fit all this stuff together. Eventually, though, I do, and I bring it down to them for approval, leaving it gently at the basement door, and then returning later to find it covered in red marks.
"The parrot works," the notes will read. "Dana could use some emotional work in the second act. Make Vivian's husband gay. That should do it."
And I go back up to the attic, and go to it again, having no idea where it's taking me, but just trusting the Girls. Magically, when I listen to them, it works. I don't know why, I don't know how, I just trust that it's beyond my understanding, and I work with them.
And then, when people ask, I still say "K-Mart." Now you know why.