Where do you get your ideas?
Every published writer gets asked that question
all the time. Some give facetious answers: Theres 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 havent 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
cant wing it, dont 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 youll 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 dont. 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 its 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 dont 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
And ideas can come from other peoples work
it isnt plagiarism to use someone elses set up
for your own ends, especially not if the work is in the public domain.
The situation in a comic novel like Henry Fieldings 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 doesnt 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 dont 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
As you may know, Im 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 didnt
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 Id be asleep for the next two hours.
Some suggest reading the opening of someone elses 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 dont know
where their ideas come from, not really. But if youre 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, youve
thought about it. A couple whose tastes are utterly dissimilar discover
that they are truly compatible. Yawn.
Yes, its 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
dont 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 dont 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 neednt 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 thats
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 Kings horses
and all the Kings men couldnt 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 Nixons fall from grace was gradual and devastating,
and theres 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 doesnt 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 neednt 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 Kings horses and all
the Kings mean might want to put her together again,
but she isnt 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
Jack and Jill went up the hill
I think youve got the idea by now. And it
isnt 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; its 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 elses. 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 wont 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.