Ideas – so where do they come from?

I suppose everyone confronts professionals with the same questions over and over- actors must be tired of being asked whether they ever forget their lines, surgeons if they are afraid of blood, tight-rope walkers what happens if they lose their balance. The answer comes with a polite smile and a sense of gritted teeth. The question that writers are always being asked, by young and old, is this: Where do you get all your ideas? It’s an odd question, if you think about it – not everyone has the skills to act or do surgery or tight-rope walking, but everyone has ideas; they aren’t exclusive to writers. I suppose the difference is that not everyone recognises them for what they are, and a writer is more likely to worry at an idea and shake it about violently until they can find a use for it. But every time you are intrigued by a newspaper article,or see a couple arguing and wonder what the hell is going on, or have a strange feeling of deja-vu as you turn into a street you didn’t think you knew – on these occasions and many more, you’re accumulating ideas, ideas that if you wanted to, you could fan into a story. For as long as you’re interested in things, then you’re having ideas.
People think that ideas come as flashes of inspiration, and sometimes they do. But there’s another sort which are more like the making of a patchwork quilt, assembling a pile of ill-assorted scraps, looking for a pattern, painstakingly stitching all together. Stories that have their birth in this way are just as valid, if less romantic than those that are generated in a blinding flash. My last two novels for teenagers demonstrate both sorts.Finding Minerva, which is a counterfactual story set in a Roman empire which has never declined or fallen, came pretty much in an instant on a visit of Wroxeter, when I found myself thinking, suppose all this was still here? Suppose the Romans had never gone away? And then I had an image of a tall dark girl running, and I had to find out what it was she was running away from. My new story, Helen’s daughter, is more of a patchwork affair, shuffling around scraps of stories in my head.There was a lightbulb moment, though, when I discovered that Helen of Troy had a daughter Hermione, whom she left behind when she eloped with Paris, and all at once a series of questions rushed into my head; and you can only answer such questions by writing about them.
My favourite story-about-inspiration is one that Trollope tells -I’ve been reading him avidly all summer. As a poor and clumsy boy at Harrow school, he was made miserable by being bullied, and used to escape into fantasy worlds; long and elaborate narratives, so that when he came to write them down as a professional, he was already skilled at plotting and pace and dialogue. This particular event, however, happened after he’d left Harrow and was working as a clerk in the Post Office. It was a wintery twilight night, and he was walking in London drizzle through a park, where he passed a young girl and her nanny hurrying through the wet gloom. He overheard the girl say ‘Oh, I wonder what he’ll be like!’ and the nanny replied ‘Well, we’ll soon know.’ At once something took fire in his mind. What were they doing walking in the rain, and why in such a hurry? Who were they going to meet? And above all, who was the enticing ‘he?’ A long lost cousin? A brother back from America? A rich uncle? All the way home, he was turning these fragments into a story. The girl became older and beautiful- well , he was a young man -and he became her protective hero. I don’t think this fragment ever made its way into any of the surviving Trollope novels, but I love it as a description of the way something trivial can make imaginative fodder. Probably ninety-nine people out of a hundred would have heard the little exchange and almost at once forgotten it. But Trollope knew that it was – it was an idea, and as such to be cherished.

One thought on “Ideas – so where do they come from?”

  1. Hi Frances,

    Overhearing snippets of conversation, something catching your eye, a short but amusing incident, something you want to show your readers, that is how blogposts worth reading are born too.

    Thank you for your illumination on the novelist’s craft.

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