When I worked as a publishing professional, I got to visit New York twice a year as part of my job. I loved it: the people, the pace, the movie-set landscapes. So I gawked. I meandered. I stopped and stared up at the skyscrapers. I was a stranger in a strange land.
All that seemed to make New Yorkers unhappy. Finally a kind magazine editor explained to me what was going on.
“They seem…irritated,” I said.
He looked me up and down and shook his head. “You’re walking slowly, right? You’re stopping to look at things? They’re not mad, they’re in a hurry.”
Then he leaned way forward and whispered so no one else could hear. “Trust me. I’m from Michigan. They can tell you’re a Midwesterner, and you’re in their way.”
I did fine in New York once I learned to stay out of the way. But here’s the thing: I would never want to shut down that “country yokel in the big city” side of myself, because in many ways, it’s my single most valuable trait as a writer. Nothing has come in more useful than my pleasure at wandering aimlessly — whether it’s through city streets or a long conversation or the Internet — the whole time collecting the shiny bits of life as if I were a magpie.
Sometimes I pick up somebody’s life story. Sometimes I collect trivia. Sometimes it’s an odd expression. They pile up in my crow’s nest of a brain, and then seemingly out of nowhere, pop up and insert themselves into my writing. They suggest stories. They combine and mutate in strange and wonderful ways.
So despite the fact that it’s probably the most common question young writers ask me, I’m always a little surprised when I hear, “Where do you get your ideas?” Ideas are everywhere, I tell them: you just have to wander and gawk long enough to notice them.
As a brainstorming activity for your student writers, I encourage you to offer them meandering time. Take a nature walk. Go to the media center and tell them to grab nonﬁction books on any topics that catch their fancy. Allow them to browse Internet sites from museums or zoos. Ask them to bring in three curious facts about their own family’s history.
Information I discovered while researching one of my nonﬁction titles, about the walking catfish, turned out to provide the entire thematic basis for my mystery novel. You really never do know where a great story idea might come from.
Maybe even from the streets of New York.