I recall that in the 'swinging ropes experiment' in which participants were shown two ropes and told to hold both at one time. The ropes, however, were hanging from the ceiling and in holding one, you could not reach the other. For the participants who had trouble, the researcher would step forward and encourage them, then walk away 'accidentally' hitting a rope and setting it swinging. Participants quickly got the idea: swing one rope and go get the other, reach out, and catch the swinging rope.
Participants, however, did not know how the idea came to them. To outsiders it was obvious, the researcher nudged a rope and set it swinging. To the participant, it was simply a flash of genius.
Steven Johnson covers deeper ground in his book and looks at revolutionary ideas - from Darwin's Theory of Evolution to Berners-Lee's World Wide Web - and sees, not a genius flash of unknown origin, but a steady buildup of years and even decades that led to the epiphany.
I liked this quote from a Salon interview with the author:
You cite a study that observed science labs and found the breakthroughs happened more often during staff meetings than at the microscope. I hate meetings.
It's funny that you say that, because I hate meetings too. I love those stretches where I've just been a writer -- when I haven't been doing Internet start-ups -- where I pretty much eliminate meetings from my life. But there are different kinds of meetings. What the research found was that it was the weekly status update meeting that was so generative. It was when everybody would get together and tell stories about what they were working on and the problems they were having in their particular work. That's very different from the meeting where you're getting together to discuss the annual budget.
This book has been added to my wish-list.
Just in time for Nanowrimo, is a 'female character flowchart' to create female characters for movies, TV and probably books. The idea reminds me of various suggestions for generating D & D characters.
I wrote earlier about a review of Agatha Christie's notebooks. They were chaotic, with 'to-do' lists next to plot ideas, next to travel plans...
J.K Rowling, by contrast, seems like a writing machine. I very much enjoyed the Harry Potter books and ordered the final three as soon as they became available (I started the series at about that time) and was impressed with how closely plotted they were. Here is a page from her notebook of plans for HP and the order of the Phoenix. This is supposed to be a larger image.