"Of all the questions I have been asked as an author of children's books, the most frequent one, without doubt, has been 'How do you get your ideas?' Most people seem to think that getting an idea is both mysterious and simple. Mysterious, because inspiration must come from a particular state of grace with which only the most gifted souls are blessed. Simple, because ideas are expected to drop into one's mind in words and pictures, ready to be transcribed and copied in the form of a book, complete with endpapers and cover. The word get expresses these expectations well. Yet nothing could be further from the truth.
"It is true that, from time to time, from the endless flow of our mental imagery, there emerges unexpectedly something that, vague though it may be, seems to carry the promise of a form, a meaning, and, more important, an irresistible poetic charge. The sense of instant recognition with which we pull this image into the full light of our consciousness is the initial impulse of all creative acts. But, though it is important, it produces no more than the germ of an idea. Each book, at the birth of its creative history, has such a moment. Some are fortunate enough to have, from the outset, a strongly identified hero, one with an inescapable destiny. Others are blessed with a promising beginning, or perhaps with the vision of an ending (which means working backwards to a surprise opening). Others stem from a clearly articulated conflict situation. Sometimes, I must admit, the motivations of a book may be found in a sudden, unreasonable urge to draw a certain kind of crocodile. And it may even happen that in the dark of our minds there appears, out of nowhere, a constellation of words that has the bright, arrogant solidity of a title. Only last night I was jolted out of a near-slumber by the words the mouse that didn't exist. I am sure that, temporarily tucked away in my memory, they will eventually become the title of a story for which as yet I have no idea.
"To shape and sharpen the logic of a story, to tighten the flow of events, ultimately to define the idea in its totality, is much like a game of chess. In the light of overall strategy, each move is the result of doubts, proposals, and rejections, which inevitably bring to mind the successes or failures of previous experiences.
"Inspirational raptures may happen, but most books are shaped through hard, disciplined work. Creative work, to be sure, because its ingredients come from the sphere of the imaginary. But the manipulation of these ingredients requires much more than mere inclination or talent. It is an intricate process in which the idea slowly takes form, by trial and error, through detours and side roads, which, were it not for the guidance of professional rigor, would lead the author into an inextricable labyrinth of alternatives.
"And so, to the question 'How do you get your ideas?' I am tempted to answer, unromantic though it may sound, 'Hard work.' "
-Leo Lionni (found through his Amazon bio)