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I can’t begin to speculate on when or where the first book-signing in history was held, but I’d bet the house that someone in the audience asked—maybe in Latin or Aramaic—some variation of this question, the oldest in the fiction game: where do you get your ideas?

It’s an honest question, usually asked by someone who is either impressed by the author’s imagination, or frustrated by their own creative struggles. And it’s typically number one with a bullet on any author’s list of Most Irritating Questions I’ve Ever Been Asked.

Because no one knows. Let’s face it, if it was actually possible for someone to identify and master the secret to generating good ideas, that person would rule the world inside of a decade.

No one knows… but the question lingers. Where do your ideas come from?

The author Neil Gaiman had a great answer he used for a while: “From Pete Atkins.” Gaiman explains: “Pete Atkins is a screenwriter and novelist friend of mine, and we decided a while ago that when asked, I would say that I got them from him, and he’d say he got them from me. It seemed to make sense at the time.”

It’s as good an answer as any. (Maybe I should say I get them from Roger Trott.)

Personally, I’m both mystified and intrigued by the creative process. Nearly 700 album reviews and interviews into my music writing career, I still often find stories about where songs come from at least as interesting as the songs themselves. So, not that anyone’s asked lately, but here’s my answer:

Ideas slip through the spaces between conscious thoughts.

They arrive, uninvited and on their own peculiar schedule, in those moments when you manage—to borrow a concept from Buddhism—to quiet your mind. In that stillness, your mind’s eye opens to connections that your subconscious has already made, but that your conscious mind has been too busy thinking-thinking-thinking all the time to ever notice.

You might be able to achieve this state sitting in front of your keyboard, but I rarely do. The keyboard is where the ideas are fleshed out and given substance; only once in a blue moon is it where they are born.

For me, the context is often a simple, familiar, repetitive activity of some kind, something you do almost without thinking. You’re shampooing your hair, you’re shaving in the mirror, you’re driving to the store, you’re walking or biking. There might be music, but if there is, it probably doesn’t have words. You’re just there, your mind quiet and still, when a slender filament of memory—something you heard or felt or read or saw—pokes up from the depth of your unconscious and delivers a spark.

On his website, Rob Yardumian explains how the essence of his wonderful debut novel The Sound Of Songs Across The Water came to him during a single run around Silver Lake. A week ago, on the 14-mile bike ride my wife and I take most weekends, I was pedaling north along the inside shoulder of Sunset Drive, not even minding my own business, not minding any business at all, just riding with the wind in my face and the sun at my back, when an idea arced up out of my subconscious like dry lightning.

The spark came from an article I’d read in the newspaper that morning, or the morning before, I don’t remember. There is no knowing how or why, but in a flash I understood how the article I had read could answer a critical question for my character Tim Green, one that remained even after both Believe in Me and the sequel to it that I’m currently shopping. In that moment, I had the heart of the next Tim Green story handed to me.

Where do my ideas come from? From the wind, the sun, the water. From the quiet moments of simply being. From the sparks.

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