Of the many predictable questions writers are asked (what time of day do you write being perhaps the most common) one that asks for a real response is: where do you get your ideas?
Some teachers have advised me that I should sit down every day and write whatever comes into my head for twenty or thirty minutes. Invariably, they have said, I will find the kernel of a new story buried somewhere in the product of this exercise. But it has never worked for me. I want to start with an idea and then write for twenty or thirty minutes, not the other way around.
For my first novel, Brothers, I tried a technique that I’ve used subsequently. Looking back over my life experience, I tried to put my finger on an important moment when I had a clear choice, and ended up going one way rather than the other. In each case, I took a close look at “the road not taken” to see if it offered the possibility for telling a unique and dramatic story.
In Brothers, I looked at an event in my early 20s when I lived in Japan and fell in love with a gorgeous Japanese woman. I was determined that I would go back, that the two of us would get married and live happily, etc. Though I did go back to Japan, I was never able to find the woman. We had written to each other, but the contact dried up after a few months, and I accepted the reality that the affair was over.
When I was first looking for story ideas, I asked myself, what if I had gone back and found the woman; what if we had been just as much in love and decided to marry; what if her father had objected but we had married anyway; what if I had gone back to the United States, planning to have her join me in a few months, and then learned that she was pregnant?
And there was Brothers! I found the idea by following “the road not taken.” I am not a research-driven novelist, but an imagination-driven one. I look for times in my life when I can say to myself, “What if I had done this and not that?” It sounds simplistic, but I feel certain that when applied to the circumstances of any writer’s life, it will (almost) always produce original, distinctive story ideas that no one else could have discovered or developed.