Here’s my opening business during the “Where Do You Get Your (Criminal) Ideas?” panel at the New York Public Library on April 3. I moderated the panel, which included writers Chris “Rhymes with Beer Stein” Grabenstein, Alison “Exclamation Point Enthusiast” Gaylin, and Jonathan “Brains!” Maberry.

David Lynch recently told Interview magazine, “Ideas are like fish. They just come to you sometimes, and when you’re really lucky, you fall in love with them and know exactly what to do.”

The question before us today is “Where do you get your criminal ideas?” Or more broadly, “Where do you get your ideas?” This is a question that often vexes authors in its apparent ubiquity as it seems to be asked at every author appearance, from signings to readings to when you get recognized waiting in line at Starbucks. Depending on how it is asked, it can seem nosy or intrusive, or even sadly polite, something asked just to fill the yawning silence after a reading.

It may seem like a simple question, but answering it in a complete and genuine manner can be difficult. There is a great blog called WhereDoYouGetYourIdeas—for everything there is a blog—and on it I found some wonderful answers. The author Joe Hill gives a flippant answer: “Schenectady. They have them on a shelf in a Mom & Pop on Route 147. ” JK Rowling tries to be more straightforward: ”The answer is ‘out of my head’, but people don’t seem very satisfied with that, it’s too boring, even though it’s true.” And author Harlan Ellison in his typically irascible manner reportedly once said, “From you, that’s why you don’t have any!”

So, yes, it is a cliché question and is easily mocked. But that is not to say that the question does not have merit and that it does not yield revealing answers about the mysteries of inspiration and creativity. I believe it helps to see the question as being asked from two different intentions. On the one hand, aspiring writers will ask, and they seems to mean, By what strange magicks have you conjured up your publishable works? On the other hand, non-writers may ask it to plumb the depths of your mind. This is especially the case when friends or concerned family members read your work and say, What is wrong with you? Where do you get these ideas??

In either case, as we hope to see today, when the question is asked, it is like the Kobayashi Maru of author questions, one that at the very least shines a light in the midnight-dark workings of an author’s mind. To wit, allow me to introduce our panel today.