10/24/2013 11:06 am ET Updated Dec 24, 2013

The Writer's Junk Drawer Mind: What's in Yours?

Last month, I had the pleasure of appearing on a panel at the West Hollywood Book Fair with writers T. Greenwood, whose latest novel is the fantastic Bodies of Water; Meg Howrey, author of the poignant novel Blind Sight; and Amy Wallen, author of the hilarious Moonpies and Movie Stars. Our topic--doled out by the fair organizers--was "the fictive mind."

This title sounded like a disease to me, but the real topic was a familiar question to most writers who meet with readers or teach creative writing: Where do novelists get their ideas?

Superstar writer Neil Gaiman answers the question on his web site this way: "I make them up. Out of my head." He then does a marvelous job of trying to answer that question more thoroughly in his daughter's elementary school class--only to arrive at the same conclusion.

As I listened to Tammy and Meg talk about their novels, I realized that, although all novels evolve differently, every writer's mind is like a junk drawer. Just as I stash odd rubber bands, bits of string, coins, bottle caps, and mystery objects in my kitchen drawer, I keep interesting stories, scenery, and characters in some dark, cluttered compartment of my mind. When I need an idea, I pull out the drawer and marvel at what tumbles out.

Tammy talked about a true story about ill-fated love told to her late one stormy night (yes, really) that spurred her to write Bodies of Water. Meg talked about the various elements in her life that allowed her to inhabit the mind of a seventeen-year-old boy in her book.

For The Wishing Hill, my most recent book, the kernel story involved sibling rivalry between my grandmother and great aunt, who were separated as teenagers when their grandmother only chose to raise one of them. There is a snuff mill in that novel that was in the backyard of my old house, and one of the characters hikes the same marshes with her dog that I do with mine.

Some novelists try to catalog the things in their junk drawers, furiously writing everything down in journals. I've done this as well. But the truth is that many details slip out of that drawer as I'm writing, details I didn't even know were in there. And, no matter how hard I try to stuff that particular character or tropical storm or black dog back into its proper dark musty place, the detail will keep escaping until I have to use it somehow. Otherwise my mind is too crowded.

"Write what you know," say writing teachers around the world, but that isn't the same thing as writing fiction. What sets fiction writers apart from other people is that our junk drawers are infinitely deep--and we rarely use objects in their original form.

We take that snippet of conversation overheard in a restaurant, the comical event in the grocery store, the fight with our mother, the worry about our children, the neighbor's house, the plaza in Spain we love, and cut it up with scissors or paint over it. We wad it into a ball and lob it at the dog.

As we play with the things in our junk drawers, they transform, changing shape and reflecting edges and colors we never noticed until now. That's when we know we've done our jobs right.

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