Writers are frequently asked where they get their ideas. It’s the question many of us dread when the floor is thrown open at the end of a talk or presentation. I’ve heard authors joke about buying them from a little shop around the corner near where they live, but the real answer is prosaic. LIFE.
The truth is most of us writers are never short of ideas – life is full of them. Things happen and from a small, possibly insignificant event or observation, an idea begins to grow. Whether that initial idea will flower into a full-blown plot is another matter, but the more you write the more you begin to see the potential in everyday events.
To quote Neil Gaiman – “You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it.”
Life sometimes throws us a googly. However, one of the advantages of being a writer is that even a major upset can be turned into a writing idea. There are whole novels inspired by some great adversity experienced by the writer, the death of a loved one, the diagnosis of a terminal illness or a divorce nearly all of which inspire readers by their positive attitude.
On a much smaller scale, things happen that might prove useful at some point in future writing. In my own case, I was able to ‘see the potential’ when I had to go into hospital for a major operation and used it as an opportunity for research. Writing crime, as I do, it’s more than likely that one of my characters might end up in hospital so I tried to make a note of what it is like in a hospital ward – the sights, the sounds and smells, the plethora of equipment, the routine tests performed by the nurses several times a day.
I had a disastrous experience when I was acting as an escort on a tour on one of my cruises. The majority of the passengers in my party ended up in a heap at the bottom of an escalator. I wrote about it in an earlier blog. (See ‘The Ups and Downs of Being a Cruise Lecturer’ May 2014.)
I vividly recall a talk by one of my favourite writers Zoe Sharp, who described losing the top of her finger when she and her husband were building their house. He rushed over as soon as it happened but she put out a hand to stop him saying. ‘Hang on a minute. I want to see how the blood drips.’ In my humble opinion, that is taking one’s art a little too far.
Short Story Ideas
In the days when I was writing short stories, I needed a constant supply of ideas – from newspaper articles, pictures (see my blog post Finding Inspiration – Pictures Tell Stories – December 1st 2014), television programs or an overheard comment while out shopping. One of my favourite methods was a pick-a-card game. This was something I used when I was teaching and still do occasionally at the writing group I belong to. The idea is to have four stacks of cards, objects, people, places and themes. Taking a card from each pile gives an unrelated set of prompts that sets the imagination rolling to come up with some sort of story line to include all four words. I always allowed my students to cheat – if three words begin to gel to make a possible plot but the fourth proves too difficult to make fit or turns the story into a farce, abandon it. There are all sorts of variations on this idea – open a book at random and take the first word (or noun) turn over a few pages and take another (or the first verb) and so on until you have three or four words to play with.
Ideas For Novels
Finding ideas for a novel is of a different order. I am lucky enough to talk about my writing on board ship as a cruise lecturer and sometimes over lunch or dinner I find myself sitting with someone who tells me they have this wonderful idea for a novel I might be interested in. It’s not always easy to explain that as a writer you have far more ideas than you have time to work on. The initial idea is only the start and that a novel is a time consuming process turning that germ of an idea into three hundred pages of scintillating plot, creating credible characters, believable dialogue, developing a sense of place all with just the right amount of tension.
Travel As Inspiration
I have written before about how all my latest novels have been inspired by travel. In my Fiona Mason Mysteries, the country comes first. In Blood on the Bulb Fields, the idea of finding a dead body in a beautiful place such a Keukenhof Gardens began a train of thought. It was a visit to a diamond cutting factory when we were in Amsterdam than prompted theidea of smuggling and thus a plot began to emerge. A holiday in the Rhine Valley led to Blood in the Wine and another to Belgium which inspired Blood and Chocolate.
Our trip to the Galapagos Islands was intended as a holiday not a research trip but watching a sea lion with a tuna fish in its mouth, batting it from side to side, prompted the thought – what if that were a human arm? Even then, I had no intention of writing a novel until the last day when we visited Post Office Bay and saw the old barrel used by tourists to send post cards back home.
Last year I returned from India after a wonderful holiday visiting three tiger reserves with a complete plot in my head though I doubt I will ever find time to write Tiger, Tiger.
My husband and I are just back from Japan and yes, the germ of idea for a novel started to grow in my head after only a couple of days. We were in Kyoto visiting the Gion geisha district. The true geisha is an accomplished performer. All that goes on in the teahouses where the geishas entertain leading businessmen and politicians is strictly private. We were lucky enough to have dinner in a geisha teahouse and talk with a maiko (a trainee geisha) and learn all about her training. Although there is no time limit, training usually takes three years. Her day begins at eight and is spent learning to dance, play a musical instrument, to sing and how to perform the tea ceremony. It takes her two hours to dress and put on her makeup. No television, no mobile phones and no days off! She sees her family three times a year. My mind immediately began to teem with ideas for Undercover Geisha – which had to be firmly supressed! I’m only half way through Blood Hits the Wall never mind all my plans for more Fiona Mason Mysteries.
There are always bad writing days when the words don’t flow; I frequently suffer from the soggy middle but short of ideas for a novel? Never! Being a writer, makes you appreciate every aspect of life. What could be better?