It’s a question all writers get asked, but few can honestly answer. We tend to use humour to dodge the issue. For instance, science fiction author Eric Brown swears there’s a little old lady from Leeds who will, if you send her five pounds, mail you an idea by return of post. Neil Gaiman has spoken of a “little ideas shop in Bognor Regis.” And, when readers ask how I came up with the idea to write a trilogy about a Spitfire-flying, cigar-smoking monkey, I tend to jokingly place the blame on alcohol and lack of sleep.
The truth though, as you’ve probably already realised, is a lot more complicated.
Ideas, you see, are rarely the problem. You can sit down with a sheet of A4 paper and jot down half a dozen while having your morning cup of tea. In fact, that’s exactly what I’ve just done. Here are my six ideas from this morning’s cuppa:
- What would happen if everybody in the world suddenly forgot how to speak?
- Romeo & Juliet set in modern day China.
- The last woman on Earth writes a letter to her Martian daughter.
- An ordinary housewife decides to become a super-villain.
- A sentient comet composes haikus while falling towards the sun.
- The world heavyweight-boxing champion turns out to be an android in disguise.
Now, I’m not claiming any of those are particularly good or original ideas, but each could certainly provide the seed for a longer story, and that entire list only took me three or four minutes to compose. Generating ideas is the easy part. The difficulty we face as writers is in finding the one particular notion that inspires us to take up our pens and start to write.
And often, it’s not simply one idea. Sometimes, you need to smash two or more concepts together in order to generate a creative reaction. Look at John Wyndham’s Day Of The Triffids, for example. In that story, he has the idea of the mobile, stinging plants. Unfortunately, by themselves they’re not too scary. They are slow and vulnerable. But when he brings in his second idea, and introduces a cosmic meteor shower that blinds everybody on the planet, suddenly those plants become much more threatening, and that story becomes way more interesting.
In my experience, ideas for novels rarely arrive fully formed and ready to write. More often than not, the elements accrete over time like the ingredients of stars, slowly coalescing until they achieve a critical mass and spark into life.
These elements tend to surface while I’m in the shower or taking a walk. Sometimes they appear in that liminal haze between sleeping and waking, when the brain’s still whirring away and you’re not entirely sure whether or not you’re still dreaming…
But where do these elements come from? That’s what readers and aspiring writers want to know when they enquire as to where we get our ideas. They keep asking the question as if hoping we’ll tell them that there’s a special incantation or rite they can use to summon inspiration from the ether. But the fact of the matter is, these ideas come from everywhere.
When I was a child, my father had a shed, which he filled with things he found. There were green glass fishing net floats, lengths of rope, and pieces of driftwood found washed up on the beach; old fashioned ceramic bottles and pieces of pottery dug from the allotment; fossils; off-cuts of wood; old tools; a roof rack for a car we no longer owned; pots of paint; old doors and window frames; old metal signs… He liked collecting interesting bits of old junk because he thought they just might, one day, come in useful.
For me, my notebook is my shed. If I come across an interesting idea or unusual nugget of information, I’ll jot it down and file it away. It doesn’t matter what it is, if it stimulates my imagination, it gets saved somewhere.
For instance, way back in 2007, I stumbled across an article in The Guardian, revealing how Great Britain and France had almost formed a political union in the 1950s. At the time, I had no immediate use for that piece of information, but it caught my imagination and so I filed it away. I knew it would come in useful and sure enough, five years later, while I was searching for an alternate world in which to set the book that became Ack-Ack Macaque, it did. As did snippets I found about the remains of a great river delta that once lay under what is now the English Channel, and a TV documentary about a strip of once-inhabited land that now lies submerged beneath the North Sea.
The spaceship in the book I’m writing at the moment owes its distinctive shape to an old bullet I once saw in a dim and dusty military antiques shop, and its interior décor to a Royal Naval ship I once toured as a child.
Stories often arise from the collision of two unrelated ideas. Keeping a file of them, and looking back through it in search of inspiration, can suggest interesting juxtapositions and connections I might not otherwise have considered.
The same goes for old story ideas, snatches of conversation, and quick, two-or-three line observations of people, places and objects. They all go in the mixing pot because, as my father said, you never know when something might come in handy. What looks like trivia today might one day turn out to be exactly the inspiration you need. But, until that day, it’ll bide its time quite happily in your notebook, disguised as useless old junk, just waiting for its moment to strike.
You’ll be swimming lengths of the local pool, or walking the dog down by the canal, and lightning will strike. Your brain will make a new and unexpected connection between two hitherto unrelated concepts, and ask itself a question it’s never asked before.
For John Wyndham, that moment came when he saw a bramble bush blowing in the wind, and wondered what would happen if plants could move by themselves. For me, it came when I realised the best way to explore my questions about what makes us human would be through the eyes of an artificially sentient monkey.
It’s difficult to force these sudden insights, but you can encourage them. In order to give your unconsciousness time to process all the cool oddments you’ve squirrelled away, you can distract yourself by taking a walk or a long, hot bath. And you can increase your chances of making new connections by providing your brain with as much raw material as possible.
- Open yourself to new experiences.
- Watch dramas and documentaries on all sorts of subjects.
- Read widely, both with and beyond the confines of your chosen genre.
- Learn new things, and meet lots of new people.
Try to live a life worth writing about, and the ideas will take care of themselves.