So: you’re ready. You’ve got a bucket of coffee, a laptop (or a typewriter, if you’re hardcore), a blank notepad, a pen, and quiet place to yourself for a couple of hours. You’ve put on your writing hat, turned on your time machine, let the baby Tyrannosaurus out of his cage, and you’re all set to write some kick-ass science fiction.
Now, what do you write about?
That is the bare bodkin.
As I’ve said in previous posts, coming up with original science fiction ideas is hard. Some of the genre’s greatest minds believe that there’s no such thing as an original science fiction story anymore. The key lies in taking a recycled idea—first contact with aliens, nuclear apocalypse, time travel—and putting a fresh spin on it. You don’t have to necessarily come up with a completely new, never-before-seen concept for your story; you just have to find a unique angle.
T.S. Eliot once wrote, “Good writers borrow. Great writers steal.”
It’s simply a matter of finding a good place to steal from.
So, without further ado, I present to you a list of five places where you can quickly find excellent writing inspiration.
You may not believe this, but some of the finest science fiction tales ever written were based on historical events. The one that leaps most easily to my mind is A.E. van Vogt’s Mutant Mage series. It’s basically the Roman Empire IN SPACE! You’ve got a gigantic corrupt empire that’s rotting from within with decadence and opulence, only it spans star systems, not continents. You’ve got barbarians pounding down the gates, but they’re from one of Jupiter’s moons, Europa. Not your typical Visigoths, these guys. And finally, you’ve got Lord Clane, a mutant with a superhuman intellect, who (at least at the beginning of the series) has to keep his powers carefully masked or risk being executed. Kinda reminds me of Claudius from I, Claudius, Robert Graves’s 1934 historical fiction novel (later turned into an excellent 1976 miniseries with John Hurt, Derek Jacobi, Patrick Stewart, Brian Blessed, and other treaders of British boards). If you’re a fan of the depravities and excesses of the Roman emperors, or are interested in the fall of the Roman Empire, you could do worse than read Empire of the Atom and The Wizard of Linn. Or you could read The Forever War by Joe Haldeman, or the Hammer’s Slammers series by David Drake; both were based on the authors’ experiences in the Vietnam War.
#2: Current Events
I checked the news the other day and I saw that a stream near Sacramento had mysteriously filled itself with soap suds, which were blowing all over a nearby road and panicking motorists. Representatives of the Environmental Protection Agency had already arrived and taken samples, but there wasn’t any word yet on what the mysterious suds were. The best the local TV news station could do was speculate that it was runoff from a nearby Dial soap factory.
Story idea: A meteor falls to earth near a small Californian foothill town, and in the days that follow, the nearby rivers and streams turn to purple suds and animals begin behaving strangely…
I saw another story about a place called Oymyakon in Russia, which is the coldest continuously inhabited place on Earth. No joke. It’s 88 degrees Fahrenheit below zero there. The village’s 500 inhabitants tough it out through layers of permafrost so deep they form tunnels, and plunging wintertime temperatures that would freeze the tits off a Yeti.
Story idea: Lena Polarpikov is a meteorologist living at a research station in the small village of Nokaymyo, on a planet called Gravnor III, which has an orbit so elliptical that it’s a frozen ball of ice for most of the year, and temperatures regularly plunge to minus 100 degrees. All plant and animal life on the planet has evolved to freeze solid for most of the year and then feed and reproduce quickly during the brief twice-yearly thaw, when Gravnor III swings close to its sun. One day, during the long winter, the village’s scheduled resupply ship fails to arrive. Then Lena deduces that the planet has swung out so far away from its sun that it may break free of its orbit and remain forever frozen…
See what I mean? There’s inspiration everywhere. Yes, even on the squawk box.
#3: Your Job
Stephen King, in his excellent book On Writing, says that a great writing idea is often formed by a collision of two mundane, everyday ideas. To use a rather graphic example, King was working as a janitor at a high school when he noticed the…uh…feminine hygiene product dispensers on the walls of the girl’s locker rooms and showers. He had no idea what they were until his supervisor, the grizzled old head janitor, explained it to him. Then, a short time later, King read an article in a magazine about ESP, in which the author posited that psychic powers manifest themselves at a very young age; in women, right around the time of their first—
POW! And just like that, a story idea was born. King went home and typed up the manuscript of Carrie, which became his first published novel, netting him a cool $200,000 from Doubleday. Don’t overlook your own job as a source of inspiration for your science fiction.
It seems that science fiction author A.E. van Vogt was quite the vivid dreamer. He stated that a lot of his best ideas originated in dreamland. They must have been flying in thick and fast, for van Vogt would sometimes get up every hour and a half just to jot some of them down.
Did you ever have a really weird dream that seemed like the perfect premise for a science fiction or fantasy story? Don’t write it off just because it seems stupid. Sit down and type it out. You may be surprised how well it turns out.
…unless you’re me, of course. My dreams are too weird. Either I’m being chased by dinosaurs (my nightmares always seem to involve dinosaurs), or I’ll be doing something completely boring. I swear I once had a thirty-minute dream where I was doing nothing but staring at a pot of water beginning to boil on the stove. All too frequently, when I dream, I’ll be sitting and talking to someone, turn my head to look at something else, and then find that the person I was talking to has morphed into somebody completely different, and the table we were sitting at is now the swaying back of an Apatosaurus, and I’ll get up and walk towards the neck to steer the damn thing away from the cliff it’s stomping toward, and by the time I get there the Apatosaurus has changed into the scullery of a medieval French castle, and I’m talking to somebody completely different again. And I’m stark naked. So, yeah. Maybe I better stop eating Gorgonzola cheese at bedtime.
#5: Other People’s Books and Stories
…and they don’t even have to be science fiction books and stories, either. Dan Simmons’s excellent novel Hyperion is essentially Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales IN SPACE!
Ever wondered how Shakespeare’s Othello might be different if, say, Othello was an alien? Wouldn’t it be neat if Captain Ahab had a robotic leg, the Pequod was a spaceship armed with giant-ass harpoons, and Moby-Dick was a ginormous space whale? Doesn’t it sound fun to rewrite Steinbeck’s Cannery Row set in 2500 A.D.? With Doc picking alien sea urchins out of the surf and Mack and the boys rattling around in a beat-up old Ford hover-car?
There are ideas everywhere: at work, on the telly, in the books you read, and rattling around in your noggin. Stop thinking that they’ve all been done before by better writers and write some of them the hell down. As long as you have an original voice, introduce new and interesting characters to the reader, and tell a vivid and unique story, there is (almost) no premise that’s too rehashed.
So what are you waiting for? Get writing!