Last week I was asked that dreaded question: where do you get your ideas? After I stopped gibbering, I gave it some thought.
There’s a reason, no two reasons, why writers hate that question. One is because the person asking it seems to assume that once you have the great notion, the concept, you’re done. Easy peasy.
The other is… We don’t know.
I get ideas all the time. I wake up in the middle of the night with diamond-bright plots and sure-fire bestselling notions.
Except, not really.
I mean, I do get ideas all the time, but frankly most of them are rubbish. At the very least they’re not worth the energy it takes to turn them into something of value.
The trick is identifying the good ones from the time-wasters.
At this point, my eager inquirer is giving me a ‘whassup?’ look and I remember that I still haven’t answered the question. Odd, that.
OK. The question is a valid one and I’ll try to answer it here. How do writers come up with ideas?
Stephen King tells the story of how he had a motorcycle that wasn’t working properly. He was told to take it to a man in another town. After some difficulty, he finally managed to get there and the cycle died just as he arrived. The man came to look at it and while he did so his 250-pound St Bernard was growling at King. The man told King to pay no notice. The dog was docile, he said. Then the dog reared up on his haunches and seemed ready to lunge. The owner smacked the dog with a spanner and he settled down. King went home and wrote Cujo.
Now, I would guess most people hearing King tell that story would say to themselves, “Aw, see: if great things like that happened to me, I could be a world-famous writer, too.”
Except, of course, such things happen to everyone all the time. The only difference is King is actively looking for inspiration all the time and you’re not. I’m sorry, but if you have to ask the question, you’re just not paying attention. Once you start to take notice, you’ll see potential stories are all around you. Of course, not having any ideas keeps you from having to do the bloody hard work of turning those ideas into a proper story.
We’ve all been scared, or ecstatic, or furious. Most of us, however, get so caught up in the emotion that we don’t see the potential for storytelling that lies therein. Or perhaps we can’t separate ourselves from the personal experience and make it into a work of fiction. Doing that takes practice.
But if you want to write and you believe having that one great idea is the only thing keeping you from success (it isn’t), then you should be pleased to hear that it’s not that hard to train yourself to spot those good ideas.
The big emotional moments in your life are perfect fodder for your fiction. (Try saying that with a mouthful of marbles.) Write about your first date, your wedding day, the birth of your child. Write about the old woman who terrified you when you were six. Write about the schoolteacher who inspired you but had a dark secret. Plunder your life story and ask yourself this question: What if?
“What if” is a magical phrase for a writer. Keep your ‘Open Sesames’ and your ‘Abracadabras’. “What if” rolls back the boulders concealing the treasure cave.
What if on that first date the girl told you she had been abducted when she was three years old and asked you to help her get back to her real family? What if your new bride’s uncle told you on your wedding day that the mafia was their family business. Son… What if the old woman down the street was a secret millionaire? What if your schoolteacher was a rock star by night?
The same question applies to even the most mundane of circumstances. What if the bus was late because it was hijacked by pirates or bank robbers? What if the dinner was burned because the imps have been messing with your appliances. Again. What if that unexplained bruise on your arm was because the ghost of your dead husband is trying to get your attention?
You’re starting to see why I have so many ideas, aren’t you? And you’re probably figuring out why most of my ideas fail to translate into stories.
Here’s something no one ever tells you: Just because you get an idea, even a whizz-bang idea, it doesn’t necessarily follow that this is your story to write. Take Cujo, for instance. Feral dogs just don’t do it for me. I’m not even tempted to read the book, (sorry, Steve), much less write it. I’d probably make the mechanic a serial killer. That spanner of his seems pretty deadly. Or maybe I’d deal with the biker’s walk home. There’s no phone and he has to trudge ten miles through rough country roads. Night has fallen and it starts to snow… Now we’re cooking.
That doesn’t mean the ideas will translate into a great tale. Recognising what will work as a story takes experience and practice. Until you have that experience, you’ll probably make some false starts. It’s okay, though, because nothing is every truly wasted. These fragments will teach you what works for you. They’ll reveal the themes you’re drawn to and give you a feeling for language and for putting a story together. What, you thought you’d just sit down and write a novel, just like that? Do pianists start playing concertos before they’ve mastered scales?
At some point, you have to stop running from the ideas and start to test them. As Louis L’Amour says in the above quote: the water doesn’t start flowing until you turn on the faucet. I, and most every writer I know, get my best ideas when I’m actually writing. The two conditions are symbiotic. It’s when you think of them as separate, independent conditions that you run into trouble. Sit and write. Use writing prompts to get the juices flowing, if you must, but write something. Staring out the window might look very Wordsworthian, but it won’t get the job done.
But getting back to ideas. Here are a few more suggestions:
Find out what stimulates you. If attracted to the visual, then go to a gallery and find a painting or a photograph that gets under your skin. Now write the story that picture inspires. John Fowles was inspired to write The French Lieutenant’s Woman because he was haunted by the image of someone standing on the shore. He wrote the novel to explore who she was.
If music is more your thing, find a piece that intrigues you or gives you ideas. Listen to story songs – Springsteen and Leonard Cohen are my go-to guys – and write about one of their incidents or characters. What happened to Rosalita’s father after she ran away with Bruce? Whatever happened to Cohen’s pal who wore the famous blue raincoat, and just how did it get torn at the shoulder? Or if the melody alone can do it for you, then away you go. A little Gershwin could inspire anyone.
Take a walk and use all your senses to capture the experience. How would this have changed if you lacked one sense? Suppose you had no ability to smell: what would that do to your life? What if one sense was tuned too highly? Suppose even a whisper sounded like a shout?
Read poetry and use a line as a springboard for a tale. “Them that ask no questions isn’t told no lies / so watch the wall, my darling, as the gentlemen go by…” (The Smuggler’s Song, Kipling) Doesn’t that evoke all sorts of images?
Read newspapers, watch the news, read magazines. Martina Devlin’s The House Where it Happened was inspired by one of those “On this day” notices in a newspaper.
Take a classical story and make it modern. It worked for West Side Story (based on Romeo and Juliet). Use Shakespeare, Homer, Marlow. Try folk tales and legends. My friend CRJ Smith wrote a fabulous story based on the Irish legend of the púca High Strange Horror
Change your routine. Take a different route to work and see what changes.
Pick a theme: Success. Loss. Betrayal.
See what I mean? Ideas are everywhere. They’re in the air you breathe. Turning them into a tale, though. Well, that’s a different story.