“Where do you get your ideas?”
It’s a question that crops up at almost every reader event I do as an author, in one form or another.
Interestingly enough, I don’t hear it quite so much at events where there are a lot of would-be writers. Maybe that’s because all writers feel they should know where to get their ideas, and admitting that sometimes the store cupboard runs a little bare is akin to an admission of failure.
I’ve heard all kinds of answers from authors, too, varying from “Plots-R-Us.com” to “Walmart”, and although these may sound unduly flippant, probably the truth is that most writers don’t actually know, and they’re worried that if they try to analyse it too much, the magic will somehow disappear. Ideas just … arrive. It’s like trying to remember an obscure fact that you know is tucked away somewhere in a recess of your memory. You try and avoid thinking about it, and suddenly up it pops, but you’ve no clue how it got there.
For me, ideas really are a state of mind.
At the library event I did last week I used my New Car analogy when it came to where ideas come from, and received a few puzzled looks until I expanded on this theory.
So you decide you’re going to buy a new car – doesn’t have to be new new, just new to you. And as soon as you’re behind the wheel suddenly it seems that everyone on the road is driving the same kind of car, possibly even in the very same colour. You see them everywhere. This doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s been a rush on that particular model. In fact, I’d hazard a guess that they were probably always out there. It was simply that you didn’t notice them before.
Your eyes may have been open, but your mind wasn’t.
It’s exactly the same with being a writer and having ideas for stories. They’re out there. All the time. They’re floating in the ether, whispering at you from magazines, newspapers, the radio, TV, and the internet. It’s a babble of voices that sometimes makes it hard to hear when people speak, and explains the distracted frown that writers tend to wear a lot of the time. It’s the reason we wake in the night and scrabble for pen and paper from the bedside table, or seriously consider hanging a Chinagraph pencil in the shower so you can scribble vital notes on the glass screen without having to get out first.
Our brains are being constantly bombarded with sensory information and most people learn to filter out the background chatter to avoid being completely overwhelmed. Writers lack part of that filtering system, I think. We get everything, good and bad, the nuggets and the spoil.
The difficult part is working out which is which and turning it into something coherent.
Mind you, right from the moment Charlie Fox arrived in my mind, I knew I’d be a fool to ignore her. Besides anything else, she probably would have broken my arms and legs if I’d tried.
When I look back at the books I’ve written so far in the series, the strongest are always the ones that sprang from the simplest ideas. I also like to turn things around on people, so that what they expect is not always what they get. Hence writing about Northern Ireland without paramilitary action, and taking a very different slant on a California cult.
For her latest outing, FIFTH VICTIM, the story kicked off with the idea of loss, and what that means to different people. How you don’t appreciate what you have until you’re faced with losing everything, and the effect that has on Charlie and on the people she’s tasked to protect. Who has the most to lose, I wondered? The people who apparently have it all.
If I’m honest I have to say I don’t know where the initial idea came from. It floated past me one day and I was lucky enough to grab it and hold on tight.
But once I’d got my grubby little mitts on it, I nailed it down and started to play with it – although not in a nasty serial-killer kind of way … I simply wrote down each development as it occurred to me, and then played the ‘what if’ game, jotting down all kinds of possible outcomes and scenarios until eventually the whole thing more or less came together.
So, ‘Rati, where do YOU get your ideas? And what’s the best basic idea for a book or movie you’ve come across? Note I said ‘idea’ – the execution didn’t have to live up to the premise. Although, if it didn’t why not?
I’ve been lucky enough to have been invited to contribute to some great blogs over the past week. Hope you’ll take the time to check them out, if you feel so inclined:
This week’s Word of the Week is chorizont, or chorizonist, meaning a person who disputes the identity of authorship, especially one who ascribes the Iliad and Odyssey to different authors. From the Greek chorizon, separating.
Next Tuesday is my Wildcard day. I was lucky enough to catch up with the highly acclaimed Timothy Hallinan to talk about the e-book publication of the latest in his Simeon Grist mystery series. Don’t miss it!