There’s an old anecdote, dating back probably to the 1940s, about a fan asking a science fiction writer, “Where do you get your ideas?” The writer replies, “Well, see, there’s this post office box in Schenectady, New York. You send them five dollars and they send you back a postcard with five great ideas.”

This is an effective bit of sarcasm in response to a dumb question. But where do you get an idea?

I have three shelves of how-to-write books, ranging from a series of lectures on literature by Vladimir Nabokov to some stern advice on commercial success from top literary agent Scott Meredith, from meticulous advice on style and technique to borderline memoir by way of — well, here’s a good one: Cause of Death, subtitled “A Writer’s Guide to Death, Murder, & Forensic Medicine.” You never know which book might have just what you need today. But none of them really delves into the all-important business of what makes a good idea for a story.

In the introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, or, the Modern Prometheus, Mary Shelley says, “I busied myself to think of a story.” This is good advice, as far as it goes, though it doesn’t go very far. She then describes a conversation between her husband (the poet Percy Shelley) and Lord Byron about some experiments Erasmus Darwin had conducted on the nature of life. That conversation and the desire to write something really creepy were what sparked her vision of the moment when Dr. Frankenstein brings his creation to life. With that vision firmly in mind, Shelley was ready not only to start writing but to follow through.

This week I filled out some online forms in which I submitted queries on my just-completed novel to literary agents. One of the agents asked for comparable titles. This is a fairly standard question: The agent wants an advance tip or two on how to pitch your novel to publishers (“It’s like Hunger Games but with psychic powers!”), and also wants to know you’ve done your market research. But I could only answer, “I’m sure you know the market far better than I do. I’ve never tried to write a novel that used a commercially published book as a model. I can only write a story that moves me personally.”

That’s not what an agent wants to hear, but perhaps there’s some marginal value in playing the Honesty card. Unanswered is the question, what moves me personally?

While Caesar Sang of Hercules was inspired by the scene of the first murder. A young woman and her much older husband, minor nobility, are seated down near the lower end of the room at a magnificent banquet. Nero is the guest of honor. The husband has cautioned his wife that if Nero should decide to sing (which he did with some frequency), she is not to make a fuss. She is not even to cough while he is singing. And then, as Nero is yodeling about the labors of Hercules, the husband is poured a horn of poisoned wine and dies horribly, rolling off the couch onto the floor under the table. Until Nero finishes singing, the young woman can do nothing but hold her dying husband’s hand.

That interested me. I had no idea who had poisoned Pompilianus. I had no idea what would happen afterward. His wife is accused of poisoning him, of course, that’s an obvious plot development. But what then?

I think it turned into a pretty good book. (It’s on Amazon; you can buy it and find out what happens next.) The point is, that initial vision created a psychological tension in my own mind that required resolution — 150,000 words of resolution, as it turned out. I met a lot of interesting fictional people along the way, and did quite a lot of research into life in ancient Rome.

But where that inner tension comes from is, I think, rather mysterious. It might as well be a post office box in Schenectady, but listening to two famous poets talk about scientific discoveries could work too. You just have to poke around until you find it.

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