Writing Advice
- Introduction
- A room of one's own?
- Where do you get your ideas?
- Where do I begin?
- What books do I need?
- How important is research?
- Should I join a writers' circle?
- Literary terms
- Typing it up
- Sending it off
- Penbenders
- Creating characters
- Constructing the story
- Short Fiction


Where do you get your ideas?

Every published writer gets asked that question all the time. Some give facetious answers: ‘There’s this shop on the corner of Oxford Street and Wardour Street that appears just as the sun is rising…’ and so on.

But the question is serious. A lot of people know that they want to write more than they want to do anything else and they haven’t faintest idea what they want to write about.

I believe that plots arise out of characters, and that if you think about these characters long enough for them to become people, then the plot will evolve, but a lot of writers can’t wing it, don’t want to begin without an outline of a plot, sometimes a very detailed outline. So – where do you get your ideas from?

You get them from anywhere at all. Just keep your eyes and ears open, and you’ll find them. Ideas come from news stories, or an overheard remark, or a moment of misunderstanding that could be developed into a full-blown fiction. They come from memories, from wishful thinking – from dreams, even.

I jot them down; however striking they seem to be at the time, I will forget them if I don’t. Some writers think that if you can forget ideas they are best forgotten, but most writers have a notebook (I call it that, though chances are it’s the back of an envelope) and jot down anything at all that catches their interest.

And I mean anything. A sound. A stranger in the street. The way your windscreen wipers work in the snow. Anything at all. One note I remember making was when I was on a bus, and saw a man in the street who walked with a limp. I thought of him as ‘the man with the limp’, and then realised that for all I knew he simply had a stone in his shoe. Is that an idea? I don’t know. But I jotted it down, just in case. First impressions, snap judgments, misconceptions – they are the stuff of fiction.

Buses are always useful for the idea-hunter; I was on a bus when I saw a group of schoolgirls get on, and watched how they behaved. I wrote it up in my notebook, and in due course it turned into the story for A Shred of Evidence. A whole plot, this time for Redemption, came from a joke someone told. If a thought intrigues you, write it down. It might turn into an idea.

And ideas can come from other people’s work – it isn’t plagiarism to use someone else’s set up for your own ends, especially not if the work is in the public domain. The situation in a comic novel like Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones might give you an idea for a much more serious treatment, for instance. Or vice versa – you may see how Oh, Hamlet, What a Carry-On! could have them rolling on the floor.

The work doesn’t even have to be in the public domain, not if all it does is give you an idea for a story that will be completely different from the original. It might seem to you that a fellow author has missed an opportunity to take his story in a particular way – if so, then it is quite permissible for you to write the story you think he should have written. Obviously, I don’t mean that you should lift his story bodily, but you can certainly lift the element that intrigues you and which he chose not to develop, and write your own story round it.

Think of the sort of adventure story that was popular on TV in the sixties and seventies in series like Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), The Avengers, Danger Man, The Prisoner, and so on, most of which can be seen at the moment, being shown under the ‘cult’ banner on one channel or another. More modern series are just as useful – The X Files, Star Trek Voyager, The Simpsons

The writers on these shows have to come up with a host of ideas and take them into the surreal, but what if the basic idea were to be developed with both feet firmly on the ground? No evil masterminds, no ghosts, gizmos, or gadgets, no aliens, no temporal anomalies – what if this situation existed in the real world? You write your story, and I guarantee that no one will ever know that your pearl evolved from a grain of sand in someone else’s oyster.

As you may know, I’m a crime writer; a cousin of mine, also a novelist, said that the difference between us was that she wrote about what people did when they didn’t murder one another. And there is absolutely nothing stopping you taking a set-up from one of my novels and doing just that. What if they just had to get on with the business of life rather than death? A lot of plots can come out of ‘what if…?’ What if Hitler had won the war is always popular, but there are much more subtle ones than that.

Some books on writing suggest that you will find ideas if you sit in a comfortable chair, close your eyes, and let your mind wander to somewhere peaceful and lovely. That might work for you, but if I tried it I’d be asleep for the next two hours. Some suggest reading the opening of someone else’s novel, putting it down, and asking yourself what might be going to happen. There are even computer programs that will generate plots for you, taking the ingredients and cooking them into a dish that you simply have to pop in the oven. Whatever works, do it.

The truth is that writers don’t know where their ideas come from, not really. But if you’re a writer, the ideas will come. Believe me. In the meantime, I have borrowed a few from one rich source to get you started.

Jack Sprat could eat no fat; his wife could eat no lean. And so betwixt them both, they licked the platter clean.

Oh, really? Yes, really. Think about it. OK, you’ve thought about it. A couple whose tastes are utterly dissimilar discover that they are truly compatible. Yawn.

Yes, it’s been done a million times, but you could make an entertaining fiction out of that, however old hat the premise, by your use of locale, and character, and good, punchy dialogue. You could make them both male. You could set it in a New York apartment. You could call it The Odd Couple. You could be Neil Simon.

But even if they remain a less odd couple, they don’t have to be a couple at the start of the story; she could have answered an ad in a lonely-hearts column and be pretending to like everything that Jack likes, which has considerable comic potential. Or they don’t have to be a couple at all.

They could be colleagues, business partners, a trapeze act – anything. Warring generals, a couple of schoolboys, a prostitute and her pimp. It needn’t be their tastes that differ, but their approach to life, to problems. They could be sworn enemies who realise that they must cooperate to survive against a common enemy, because each has what the other lacks.

How obvious or how subtle you make the symbiotic relationship is up to you. How profound or how frivolous. How scary or how funny. The point is that their differences complement one another, and they need one another to survive. Whether that’s the basis for a sad story or a happy one depends on you.

And what happens if Mrs Sprat is widowed? Or if you turn it on its head? Mr and Mrs Sprat are apparent soulmates, but the problem is that their tastes are so similar that they both want the lean meat. Now what happens?

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall; Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. All the King’s horses and all the King’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again.

A dozen novels have been based on that one premise, and one true story even used a quote from the rhyme in its title. President Nixon’s fall from grace was gradual and devastating, and there’s nothing stopping you exploiting that in fiction. A powerful man or woman brought down. By greed? By stupidity? By political manoeuvrings? By love? By treachery? By anything you like.

And powerful doesn’t have to mean that Dumpty is a head of state. She could be a primary school headmistress in a small village. Children could plot her downfall; the very young have little time for ethics, and you can fill your pages with real menace. Or an innocent remark by a child could wreak havoc in her life. Or she could bring it all on herself.

And however you choose to bring it about, her fall needn’t be devastating; it could be a glorious bursting open of her shell, revealing her true self for the first time since her own childhood. All the King’s horses and all the King’s mean might want to put her together again, but she isn’t going to let them.

Or the wall could be what Dumpty sat on, instead of taking sides. Because he was truly neutral, or because he was scared of getting hurt? In love? In war? In office politics? In a family row? But he falls off his wall. Is that the end? Or the beginning?

Jack and Jill went up the hill…

I think you’ve got the idea by now. And it isn’t just nursery rhymes. Fables, myths, Shakespeare, the Bible, pantomimes, fairy stories, street-songs, folk-songs, pop-songs – anything, everything yields plots for fiction. They say there are only seven plots; it’s how you dress them up that matters.

Do enough jumping off from where you are to somewhere new, and no one will recognise Jack and Jill, or Humpty Dumpty, or the Sprats. It will be your story, and no one else’s. If everyone who reads this decides to write a novel based on Humpty Dumpty, they will all be quite different from one another. And why?

Because Humpty Dumpty will stop being an egg-shaped character on a brick wall, and start being a flesh-and-blood person. With back-ache. Or a cat. Or a small fortune made from inventing a bottled sauce, and several impecunious relatives. And he will, however, airy-fairy it sounds, take over. He will come to life. He won’t react the way you intended. He will turn left when you want him to turn right.

Go with him, as he strides away in the wrong direction, because he could be leading you to the shop on the corner of Oxford Street and Wardour Street, just as the sun is rising.


Jill McGown
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