Updated: May 14, 2021
I can tell you where the Mississippi starts, but not where the water comes from. The same is true for ideas. Folks ask creatives like me where we get our ideas all the time. Best I can do is take you to the top of the river.
Every now and then I’ll see advice thrown at somebody to keep a notebook handy to write down any ideas you have so you won’t lose them. I also watched a writer’s panel where that was put to the authors, and I agree with their response. “If I wrote down every idea I ever had in a notebook, I’d have a notebook full of ideas.” I don’t bother with them either. I can’t poop or watch a commercial without having three ideas pop in my head. I can’t execute on all of them. What one of the authors from that panel added, which is true for me as well, is certain ideas, the good ones, keep coming back. They’re the ones we mull over and feed until they grow solid enough to do something with.
An Idea is Born
I’m going to take you through one of my stories and talk about how the ideas came about as I can recall. An author's commentary track, if you will. Let’s see if that gets us to the springhead.
Murder Most Fowl
I got into Animal Crossing during the pandemic, and joined a Facebook group for trading. Around Halloween, one of the admins posted a challenge to write something, anything for a million Bells (game money). That’s a low bar for a writer, but I decided to write something new rather than send them an existing piece. That kicked off a flurry of creative activity for a week that culminated in a seven thousand word short story. That’s a lot.
Let’s rewind a bit. I decided to name my island in the game, “Moreau Cay” and took on the persona of Dr. Moreau. It makes sense, my game avatar is the only human around, the rest are talking anthropomorphized animals. The island is decorated along that theme, including the Research Institute where the lab is (my house). I opted to use that as the setting of the story.
NOTE: I suggest you go read the story (it is funny), as we’re going to spoil it during this article:
The game is wholesome, and I thought I’d explore a topic that would never happen in the game, a murder. Once a week in the game, a seagull named Gulliver washes up on the beach and needs your help getting back to his ship. It seemed pretty obvious who the murder victim would be and how he’d be found. After a storm, washed up on the beach.
We also need a hero. I opted to not use my Dr. Moreau character directly. That’s too much of a self-insert from a game/fan-fiction perspective. So I came up with 20-something Jennifer living in a tent on the island, having amnesia and being here for a month. This is how the game starts new players, kind of. They don’t really know how the world works and they owe Tom Nook to upgrade from a tent. I had Jessica Jones from the Netflix series in mind, which helped me get her jagged personality on paper.
Murder investigations look for the three M’s: motive, means, and method. There’s an alternate character to Gulliver who washes up on the beach, a pirate named Gullivar. I decided to use that similarity and tried to red herring that they’re the same person because you never see them side by side. I also used the pirate cannon (an item in the game), and tied the motive back to the secret of Moreau Cay and Jennifer’s lost origin. That helped simplify how many loose threads I had, but also tied Jennifer into the mystery in a personal way.
This is where it gets weird. In the game, I decorated my house to be a research facility. There’s a server room in the basement, a genetic bank in the back, a recovery room for patients with medical charts on the wall for Billy and Jennifer. Upstairs is the surgery with blood on the floor and cryo tanks for storing candidates. This is what Gullivar was after, the secret to Dr. Moreau’s research. In the original Island of Dr. Moreau, animals were given intelligence and turned into people. My story maintains that assumption, but now Dr. Moreau tried to turn humans into animal hybrids. Billy and Jennifer were the first subjects before something went horribly wrong. Namely, Jennifer turned into a giant squid and ate him. She reverted back, with no memory, thus setting up our story.
Jennifer will learn her origin and face it while resolving the threat Gullivar poses. All wrapped up in a neat little bow. All the parts in the middle are Billy and Jennifer trying to do a murder investigation based on what they know from watching cop shows. I’ve made TV references in other works, because it stands to reason that you can be ignorant on a subject (like actual detective work), but you’ve seen TV and might assume, or acknowledge, that’s all you know and use it as a basis for figuring out what to do next. This also lets me tell a few jokes about that since this is a funny story.
I also reduced the number of characters on the island from ten (most left when Dr. Moreau disappeared, which jives with what happens in-game when you quit playing). This shortened up the list of suspects to talk through to keep the length down (did I mention it turned into 7,000 words?). I used the actual characters on my game island, so people familiar with them would get a chuckle as they recognize behaviors and game responses in dialogue.
Deriving a Lesson
To my thinking, a lot of these ideas are making connections of existing things or making derivatives. I piggybacked on H.G. Wells’ story because I saw dark humor in using it for my Animal Crossing setting originally. It just fit, and I'm surprised nobody else thought of it first. Using it for the story meant the mystery had to be about Dr. Moreau’s science as much as it was the murder. Sure, I could have had any animal kill another for a love/jealousy/money reason. But look at the game and the pieces I had. It would be crazy to ignore the washed up body on the beach. And the “human” character is begging to have something different about them that incorporates them into the mythos.
This is the crux of why authors say “this is how it came to me” and “it had to be that way”. The idea and the connections that make it work for the author are like grooves in our brain. Doing it another way, doesn’t make sense to us during the creative process.
Dream Tours Now Available
If you’d like a tour of Moreau Cay, here’s my dream code: