Write Stuff – What’s the Big Idea?

Why is it bad to ask authors where they get their ideas from? I hasten to add that I’ve never committed this sin in person (and it does seem to be a sin in the eyes of many writers). Neil Gaiman describes having to answer the question as one of the pitfalls of the job. However, he’s written an essay on the subject available here, that does actually address the question and I think is a really interesting read.
I’ve also discovered a whole blog – http://wheredoyougetyourideas.wordpress.com – devoted to the topic.
And then, just for contrast, there’s this video on You Tube which bravely covers the whole novel-writing process in 1 minute 57 seconds. (I’m afraid there’s a noisy ad. before the video proper starts). Classic. I particularly love the woman throwing herself down on her desk. Maybe it’s in response to the weird order of the instructions the video gives. I rather like the comment below the video by noworryz too.
Neil Gaiman points out that the idea is only a tiny part of the process, and how creating believable characters – for instance – is much harder. Well, that’s true, but when it comes down to it, you’re still stuffed if you haven’t got the key idea in the first place.
I have always written stories – at first just as and when I felt like it from the moment I could hold a pen, and now because, career-wise, it’s all I really want to do. It’s a compulsion, and ideas come so fast it’s almost uncomfortable.  But I’m sure I can remember a time as a teenager when I sometimes had the urge to write something, without the idea to back up the desire. I suspect Neil Gaiman is right, and that everyone has ideas; it’s just a case of getting your eye in, so that you notice when you’re having them.
Now, when I see Mrs You-know-who from 35 Accacia Drive in Tesco, I ask myself, can she really eat that much ice cream on her own? Or is she in fact hiding an escaped convict in her loft? My mind moves on to ponder what really underlies Mr Thingummy’s obsessive hatred of cats. And if Mr Mad minds that much about his begonias, what would he be prepared to do if they were threatened? It’s amazing how many crime fiction ideas can come from observing the most innocent people. At least, I presume they’re innocent.
I think I get most of my ideas from a central question like those above – resulting from particular characters and their likely response in some kind of crisis. The details become more dramatic in my mind of course: the threatened begonias become a family member, the cat becomes a youth who lives down the road, who looks so innocent, and yet…
However, I know that PD James says her ideas usually begin with a place and I imagine there are many other starting points. I’d love to hear about what sparks your imagination if you feel like leaving a comment below and breaking the taboo!

4 thoughts on “Write Stuff – What’s the Big Idea?

  1. Interesting post:) Here is a quote from S. King “Let’s get one thing clear right now, shall we? There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.”
    Quoted in KM Weiland's newsletter http://www.kmweiland.com/index.php

    For me ideas come from all sorts of places and are commonly triggered by the 'what if..' question. Neil Gaiman says it well and I like the quesions he identifies that lead you further into creativity.


  2. Hi Clare, I always loved writing as a child when we lived in rural Yorkshire. I used to make up stories for my younger sister about our cuddly toys. Once I typed up a series of stories about a pink mouse and sent them to Ladybird. I still have the beautifully worded rejection letter somewhere! I always knew I'd write a book as an adult. Whenever I've been in a situation I didn't want to be in I've laughed about it saying I'd use it in a book one day. In the 1990s I au paired for a family in Italy. They were not that nice to me, but like Jessica in my book I wanted to see The Palio in Siena so I stayed with them for the summer. At the
    time I thought, I'd like to put this experience into a book when I get chance. When the time came to write the book, I used the au pairing experience as
    inspiration. I also spent a month working in New York in 2001 which was fascinating. I brought an Italian-American hero into the plot so I could put New York in. He was the grandson of the old lady Jessica needed to look after as an au pair. I lived in Yorkshire as a child and Jessica needed to be from a place where there wasn't much going on. How did she get to Italy? Her grandfather fought and died there during WW2. She visited Italy with her gran to see his
    grave and decided that studying Italian will get her out of Yorkshire. There is
    plenty more but that's how the book started for me. Anita


  3. Thanks so much for your interesting comments. It's really great to hear what inspires you, Anita, and I think the King quote's spot on, Vasiliki.

    I love doing the 'what if' thing with ideas..!


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