Ideas are the kindling which ignite and fuel all stories - without ideas, writers are just people with pens and bits of blank paper. We asked our resident writers where their ideas come from, and you might be surprised by some of the answers...
My first thought is ‘I wish I knew. I’d go there more often.’ Now, having given it a bit of proper thought, I’ve come up with an answer. Unfortunately, that answer is: ‘I don’t; they get me.’
Trying to ‘get an idea’ is like trying to catch a fish with your bare hands. Only the very rarely skilled can do it. For the rest of us, trying only results in wet sleeves, muddy knees and an escaped fish.
But the good news is, it is possible to live in a way that invites ideas in, and I’ve found the following to be very useful:
Be aware of the world around you. Listen properly to your friends; read the news; learn about your ancestors and wider family. There are hundreds of stories waiting for someone to tell them.
Give yourself time for ideas to brew. Stare out of a window, meditate, go for a long walk, drive in silence, even embrace your insomnia and make the most of the thinking time. Writing is only about 30% putting words on a page. A lot of the graft happens before you even reach that stage.
Stay open-minded. Don’t talk yourself out of writing something before you even start. If it’s piqued your interest, it’ll pique someone else’s.
Don’t question your ideas. You often won’t know what’s inspired the story until it’s on the page and you’ve read it back. Many’s the time I’ve thought I was writing about one thing, and afterwards realised I was writing about quite another. Just go with it.
Look for the small people. Read history books and news stories, but look for the supporting cast. Lots of people have written fiction about William Shakespeare; coming up with something original is a big ask. But who pierced his ear? Who sold him his ink? Who cut his hair? I bet they’d have great stories to tell.
Embrace the woo. I ’m happy to say I regularly consult my tarot cards for inspiration. Why not? They encourage a bit of lateral thinking. Try it – and if you daren’t…write about that!
Pay attention to your feelings. If you read/see/hear about something that upsets/excites/interests you, that’s your material. You just have to shape it.
I needed an idea for a sci fi anthology I was keen to get involved with. I’d already been through my back catalogue of half baked, half written ideas and nothing was jumping out as suitable for upcycling. I rarely have an issue generating ideas but this one was a stumper.
Usually, I have a good horde of ideas. I’m a bit of an inspiration magpie. My digital world is cluttered with saved images, screenshots, bookmarked articles - anything that catches my eye. A short story I'm working on right now, for example, was inspired by a photograph I scrolled past on Instagram of two tall buildings in the mist with neon lighting.
I produce a lot of speculative fiction about colonising Mars, and have been for a few years. It’s a particular fascination of mine requiring quite specific idea generation. I went and visited the Moving to Mars exhibition at the Design Museum in London and I bought the exhibit book. I must have listened to the audiobook of Stephen Petranek’s ‘How We’ll Live On Mars’ at least eight times, probably more. I find immersing myself in the imagery, theories and knowledge surrounding the subject is a great way to get myself asking questions. And I’ll let you in on something - those questions are really just ideas in different clothing…
I'm also really into writing about things I've felt, experienced or encountered in my life. Personal truth, if you like. That can range from everyday snippets of conversation that have stuck with me, right up to events that I’ve gone out of my way to take part in, like firewalking. It’s easy not to write about your life because you don’t think you’ve done anything worth writing about - you need to get over that. The one thing nobody else has is your perspective. Take the ordinary and pick it apart until you get to the juicy, extraordinary core.
So, I needed an idea for that sci fi anthology. I was stumped. I snapped my laptop shut with more force than necessary and headed out for a trundle with the dog. I’d been trying to listen to an audiobook of Moby Dick while I walked, unsuccessfully. After a couple of kilometers I realised I’d taken in absolutely nothing of Ishmael’s description of the Spouter-Inn and thumbed the little progress bead back to the start (again).
Despite enjoying the nauticality, I was just about sick of the verbose Ishmael and his dratted whale bones. I’d give it one more go and then consider switching books; some Hemingway perhaps.
“Call me Ishmael”. My brain shut back down immediately. And that’s when it happened:
What if The Old Man and the Sea was set in space and condensed into a thousand words?
Ideas are tricky. They can often be elusive and hard to grab a hold of. Sometimes, an idea seems perfect until we try to put it on the page and then it withers and dies. The great John Fante once wrote:
Sometimes an idea floated harmlessly through the room. It was like a small white bird. It meant no ill-will. It only wanted to help me, dear little bird. But I would strike at it, hammer it out across the keyboard, and it would die on my hands.
I like the notion that an idea is like a bird, flitting around us – waiting to be nurtured or
destroyed. However, it isn’t necessarily an opinion I agree with. It sometimes seems like
ideas pop out of the abyss and into our minds, ready to be spun into words. But they have to come from somewhere, don’t they? Whether it be our dreams, real-life, or inspiration from other media – our ideas as writers must have an origin.
I think most of my ideas are probably borne from real experiences, though that doesn’t mean that they are translated on to the page verbatim. They often become warped and manipulated by the time I’m finished with them, whether that happens through the writing process or the way my brain interprets the things that affect me. I might write about a spaceship or a priest, but the chances are, those stories, those ideas, started out as something I experienced in real-life.
The thing with ideas that come directly from your own life, is that they can’t always be
transformed into something different and new. Sometimes they have to be told as they
happened. Sometimes that’s the only way to nurture those ideas without hammering them to death. The thing with ideas like those is that they can be quite emotional or painful to spend time with as the writing process takes its course. But the thing with ideas like those is, they often make for better stories.
I think asking any writer where their ideas come from will leave them with a baffled look on their face. Often, I'm so grateful for the idea that I just don't think about where it came from unless absolutely forced to (university critical commentaries, I'm looking at you). However, upon reflection I've figured out where my ideas spawn from and I hope you're prepared for the silliest sounding answer ever. Dreams. My ideas most frequently come to me in dreams. It sounds like the biggest pile of rubbish anyone's ever heard and it's embarrassing to admit but, it is very much the truth. I don't often dream but when I do they are vivid, peculiar and sometimes nonsensical. Even the strangest of dreams tend to crawl under my skin until it becomes an idea that I have to write. Often I have absolutely no idea where I'm going with it when I start putting it into words but I grab on to one tiny piece of my dream and somehow it just grows.
The ideas that don't come from my dreams are the stuff of nightmares in a sense. They come from the worst experiences, the cruelest aspects of life. Those are the ones that hurt to write, as if your heart is bleeding all over the page instead of ink. Sometimes the best ideas come from reaching inside yourself and poking your own bruises to see what hurts. You'd be surprised how cathartic it can be to turn those aches into words and look at them on a page, but it isn't always an easy process and some things aren't always ready to be written.
Write what you know, write what you don't, write your dreams. When it all boils down, it doesn't really matter where your ideas come from, it's where they go that counts.
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Cover image by geralt via Pixabay