’Where do you get your ideas from?’ is the question writers are asked most often. Well, anywhere and everywhere is the answer. But the truth is, an idea has to come to life before you can make it into a story, and sometimes it just won’t come But then sometimes it does, and that’s the exciting part of the process.
One of my favourite stories about how this happens comes from the writer Anthony Trollope, talking about the origins of his books, a process he describes as ‘castle building.’ He writes about a young would-be author, obviously himself, crossing Regent’s Park one damp and grey afternoon. Coming hurriedly towards him, he sees a little girl and her nursemaid. The little girl is well dressed, although her skirt is splashed with mud. As they draw level to him, he hears the little girl say to the nurse ‘Oh I do wonder what he’ll be like!’ to which the nurse replies ‘Well, we’ll see.’ At once he was intrigued. Why were they hurrying so fast through the rain? Why couldn’t they have got a cab, as respectable people did? Where were they going? And most of all, who was the he that the girl was dying to see? A cousin, a long lost brother, a future lover? What would happen when they met?
At once the writer in him was sparked into life, and before he reached home, he’d composed a long an elaborate narrative about the pair ( making the girl into a slightly older maiden, so he could spin a story of drama and protection in which he played the hero) The tiny incident had taken form and become a story, which, while it probably didn’t play a part in any of his later books, for those few hours and days was as real to him as anything in his everyday life. And he went on to write his great books, while holding down a full time job in the Post Office, and inventing the pillar box – he wrote in trains, coaches, using any odd moment; managing more words than most of us do in a lifetime.
Of course, I can’t pretend to be anything like Trollope – but the process of a story coming out of nowhere and then suddenly sparking into life must be familiar to all writers. I was feeling rather down after I’d finished my last book – I thought everything had dried up and I had no more ideas. Then Helen Hart of Silver Wood books invited me to write an ebook for a new series they were doing. I thought about my Girls of Troy trilogy, and wondered who else there was whom I could write about. There was Helen of Troy, of course, who’d played an intermittent part in the trilogy. Could I write about her? Could I write about her girlhood? Well, it was an idea, of course, but there was no life in it. Without that spark, there couldn’t be a story. So I put the idea aside in a corner of my mind, and thought about something else. I was weeding the vegetable patch at the time. And then all at once, there were voices in my head. Helen’s brothers, the magical twins, Castor and Pollux, were speaking to me. I listened to what they had to say. And then Helen herself joined in, and I listened to her, put down my trowel, and tried to jot down what she had to say to me before it vanished.. The spark was fired – the story was there. My castle building had begun.