Daily Archives: January 17, 2012

Where do you get your ideas? (or, Could you defend a murderer?)

Where do you get your ideas? This is one of those questions that comes up a lot as a writer. It’s as much my standard fodder now as “Could you defend a murderer?” was when I was a lawyer(1). In fact, probably more so.

Writers never ask it of each other. We occasionally read books about it, and we even occasionally swap ideas or steal each others’, but we don’t ask each other “How do you come up with these things?” Perhaps that’s because we know there’s no real answer. Or at least, if there is an answer, it’s hard to put into words. But I’m going to try my best to answer it anyway – if you’re a writer, feel free to send people here next time they ask you, or to leave comments about how you get your ideas. If you’re a reader, I hope this begins to answer your question.

1. Inspiration

The first stage of any idea for me is the inspiration. This can come from a variety of sources. On Fridays, I get a picture from Madison Woods’ excellent blog. For Bookers’ Seven, I was given themes, first lines, chracter names and a rough idea of the plot type. Sometimes I work with an interesting phrase, or an overheard snippet of conversation. Very occasionally, I start with a character or a setting. And once in a while, I have a dream which becomes the opening or closing scene.

In addition to all this, there is the technical way to seek inspiration. In books on plot, we are told that all plots start as what ifs. What if some young boys found a body in the woods? (Stephen King’s Stand By Me). What if a young wizard came to the royal court, believing he was destined to take care of the Prince when the King had banned magic? (BBC TV’s Merlin). What if two handsome strangers arrived in a village full of eligible young women? (Pride and Prejudice). I’m less convinced by this – I think it’s easy to reverse engineer a what if out of a story, but I’m not persuaded about how many writers sit down with a What if stuck in their craw.

2. Motivation

Possibly this should go first! Different writers have different underlying intentions in writing – for fun, for money, for company or for solitude, but a specific motivation can help too: a contest with a weird brief, an event like NaNoWriMo, or a deadline. Sometimes i just get hooked on a story in my head and have to write it down. there’s always an underlying motivation, there’s usually also a trigger.

3. Imagination

Inspiration, with a touch of Motivation, gives me the nugget. But that’s not enough of itself. If it were, everyone in the Friday Fiction group would write the same response to Madison’s pictures, and we definitely don’t.

This is the hard bit to explain. It’s about looking around the inspiration. If that’s a picture of an acorn lying on a rocky path, where is that path- in a forest or on a barren mountainside? In one case the acorn is perfectly natural and unremarkable, in the other it’s special, either a miracle or a clue to disturbance. Who is seeing this acorn? How were they feeling and what were they doing when they found it? A squirrel will see it as food, a depressed human might see it as hope of rebirth, someone in love might just think it’s pretty.

Sometimes I light upon a story straight away, sometimes I try a few different scenarios, often I just find a scenario that interests me and start writing, to see where it leads.

A bit of old-fashioned bloody-mindedness helps. I find the story comes easier if the acorn is not in a forest in the springtime, surrounded by other sprouting acorns, being found by someone walking the dog who saw it lying there unsprouted yesterday. Boring. Put it on a rocky mountainside in early winter and suddenly there has to be a story!

4. Perspiration

As tWhere do you get your ideas?hey say, there’s no substitute for hard work. Once the basic story idea is there, I run with it. It might twist and turn and come out differently from how I expected, but that’s fine by me. Or, I might know right from the start what the ending is going to be and keep dropping hints as I go. I enjoy it either way, because the first is like reading a story for the first time and the second is like sharing a secret.

The more I write, the more I feel able to pick up any challenge, any inspiration and turn it into a secret worth sharing or a story worth hearing. I hope you tend to agree!


(1) The answer to the lawyer question is equally long and complex. Luckily, I was a property lawyer, so I never had to wrestle with it in the flesh. It would make a good story though … Just ask John Grisham!


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