The Mythical Initial Idea…
People are constantly asking writers where we get our ideas from. Don’t you find that? It’s like there’s a secret ideas mine somewhere that only writers can access, as if we are all given our own silver shovel and sent down to dig up a little nugget of magic which we can then shape into a fully formed novel.
Oh, that it were that simple!
Of course, it isn’t. Nor is the phenomenon of having ideas for great stories unique to writers. Everyone has ideas all the time. It’s part of being human. But the difference is that we writers get very good at recognising which ones might be the bedrock for a whole novel and which ones are just a passing fancy.
I think what people tend to forget is that having good book ideas is a bit like being able to ice skate or play the clarinet. It’s not that hard to get the hang of, but if you want to get really good at it then you need to practise.
Imagine that during the day you go about your business but that every evening you have to spend the time with someone whose sole entertainment in life is talking to you – a kind of reverse Scheherazade if you will. You can cover subjects like what you ate, who you saw, or even your personal hopes and dreams, but sooner or later these topics will become tired, and you’ll have to start casting around for something with a little more meat on its bones, something that you can weave into a tale worth listening to, maybe over several consecutive evenings. You start looking for things that would make a good story.
Sometimes this will be something that you heard in the news – a man who fights off a shark attack for example. Now, at first glance, this may not seem like the basis for a whole book. A man goes into the water for his daily swim, attracts the attention of a great white and ends up bashing it on its nose until it swims off with its tail between its non-existent legs.
This, you might have identified, is an anecdote. It has the makings of an exciting short story but it’s going to be quite hard to sustain it as a full novel. So, you might reject it as an idea. Or you could start asking questions.
Why did the man go for a swim in that particular spot? Maybe he didn’t know that it was a known shark area? Maybe he was blind and wasn’t aware of the warning signs. Was the place special to him and so the risk of a shark attack was worth the pleasure of being there? Or was he gung-ho about the risk? Maybe he wanted to appear brave to his friends. Perhaps he didn’t care whether a shark ate him – was this a complicated suicide attempt.
Now we’re starting to get somewhere. Let’s run with the idea that he didn’t care about the risk. Why might that be? Has something in his life gone terribly wrong – his business gone bust, his lover left him. What was his business? Did it fail because of something that he should have done or known? Has he let down his employees, his business partners, his father?
But when faced with the pearly white teeth of the dead-eyed shark he changes his mind. What brings him round? Does he decide that he can face the adversity, fix the business, win back the lover if only he can just get this shark off his back. Has he made another huge mistake by going into the water in first place?
And when he comes out of the water, what then? Does the global publicity that he gets allow him to earn enough money to save the business? Or maybe having had a life-threatening experience he decides that change might be just what he needs to get him out of his rut. Or maybe seeing of a great white shark might be what he needs to regain the confidence to win back his lover.
This is all very silly, but you can hopefully see how the one news item can set you off down no end of storylines.
All you have to do is ask questions.
A great example of this question asking is my first novel Postcards From a Stranger. I wrote this book when my four children were aged between sixteen and nine. They were running me ragged and I felt like I never got any time to myself. One day I decided to disappear to Paris. There is an airport fifteen minutes from my house and I spent a joyful afternoon planning out how I would go. I thought about just leaving a note for when they got home from school and pointing them towards the freezer. They could make their own tea. And it wasn’t as if I was going forever. It would just be a few days.
Of course, I didn’t go. How could I? But it got me wondering what kind of mother might leave her children and what could be so terrible in her life that she felt she had to do it. And that initial idea and the questions it made me ask became the basis of the book. Postcards From a Stranger has now sold more than a quarter of a million copies and was number one in both the UK and the Australian kindle charts. All from one little nugget of a thought.
Get into the habit of asking questions about what you hear or think and see which of those grows into something big enough to be a book. Oh, and write them down! You think you’ll remember your genius ideas because they’re so brilliant but believe me – you won’t. Next time you watch the news ask yourself a ‘what if’ question about each item and see how far you can take the story.
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