'Where do you get your ideas from?' she said.
Most writers will have encountered this question many times. Don't get me wrong. It's not irritating. Most of us love our readers and love to talk about the inspiration behind our books. But I also think most writers will find that question - however often people ask it - very difficult to answer. Or if not difficult, then puzzling. Where DO we get our ideas from? Are we puzzled because we don't know, or is it because people who ask it are always genuinely surprised that we can make things up so easily - and it makes us wonder about it too?
The truth is that most writers have heads which are positively stuffed with ideas. We have ideas, characters, settings, stories, coming out of our ears. The problem is hardly ever the ideas. The problem is in making the time to get all those ideas written down in some form and then deciding which of them you want to live with and work with for the next year or so, which of them stay on the back burner, and which of them might as well be consigned to the dustbin. Actually, that's not strictly true either. Whenever you consign anything to the dustbin, you will invariably discover that it is exactly what you needed - but didn't realise it till now - for whatever you are working on at the moment.
I sometimes think it's a question of practice. The ideas, I mean. I remember doing a sort of 'taster' session for a lovely group of young mums, about writing. By the end of it, they had all created an imaginary character, and some of them were starting to have ideas about interesting things that those imaginary characters might do. Making stories for and with and about them. All of them seemed slightly surprised that - once they got over the hurdle of thinking there was some great mystery about 'getting ideas' - it was so easy to make something up. And so pleasurable. It's one of the reasons why writers carry on writing, in the face of troubles which include lack of cash and lack of time, but seldom lack of ideas!
Anyway, here's how it worked with my most recent project.
Seeds of Blood and Beauty, by Ann Lindsay, published by Polygon - which gave me some insight into the possibilities which might have enticed my characters - and another very old book, which I had to spend a somewhat traumatic afternoon in Glasgow University library examining - but if I told you all about that one, it would give my story away!
|Part of a christening cape, embroidered with flowers.|
Some of the characters are very loosely based on people who actually existed, back in the early 1800s, or what little we know about them. But the book doesn't pretend to be true. Not even that curious hybrid called 'faction'. It's undoubtedly fiction. I made almost all of it up, although I hope the setting is authentic enough. William lived with me day and night for a spell, and told me his story as clearly as though he had been speaking into a recorder. I was reminded of those slightly sinister tales of 'thought forms' that become so vivid that they assume a strange kind of life beyond the mind of the thinker. Except that with William, it wouldn't have been sinister at all, because he is such a lovely, honourable elderly man, looking back on his young self with wisdom and understanding. And that, in a way, makes it even worse. You see this is a tale of a terrible betrayal that permeates the novel, events that have influenced (although not ruined) William's whole life.
Where do such ideas come from? I suppose the answer is all kinds of sources and none, real life events and make believe. It would be nice to know what other people think. How does it work for you?