The short, annoying answer is, “from my head”. While that’s true, I realize it’s neither helpful nor illuminating, so I’ll try to be a bit more specific.
If you and I were to go to the same film/lecture/bare-knuckle boxing match, we’d notice different details. Then we’d interpret and prioritize our experiences in different ways. So everything I’ve ever written comes from some experience of mine – something I read or saw or overheard. But it all gets processed in the back of my brain and spewed out later as something quite transformed. As the novelist Frances Trollope said, “Of course I draw from life – but I always pulp my acquaintances before serving them up. You would never recognize a pig in a sausage.”
To get even more specific:
- I set A SPY IN THE HOUSE during the Great Stink of 1858 after reading about Benjamin Disraeli fleeing the House of Commons with a handkerchief over his nose, so ghastly was the stench
- I made The Agency a women’s detective agency because I wanted to write about an elite, exciting, all-female institution. It was a reverse-inspiration, since the prestigious organizations and clubs of the period were generally all-male.
- I made Mary’s father a sailor after reading an academic article (Laura Tabili’s “‘Women of a Very Low Type’”) that talked about the children of common-law marriages between sailors and poor women in Liverpool
When I answered this question in a high-school presentation, the follow-up question was, well, how is that different from plagiarism? Great question! Plagiarism is stealing specific ideas and/or language from others, and presenting them as your own. In these examples, I’ve been inspired by specific things but used them as jumping-off points for my own ideas. I would never claim to be the originator of those first, inspirational anecdotes, facts or articles. And, obviously, I describe my own ideas in my own words.
All this brings us to a cliche that’s completely true: there are no new ideas. Other people have written about the Great Stink, women’s detective agencies (though I didn’t read Dorothy L. Sayers until after I’d written the first draft of SPY) and orphaned sailor’s daughters. So if there’s a bottom line, it’s this:
- all ideas come from somewhere
- keep track as best you can
- give credit to your inspirations and your sources
- yes, the ideas from “from my head”
*The butcher’s diagram comes from Zazzle, where you can buy it as a postcard.