‘So. Where do you get your ideas?’
This is one of the first questions people usually ask me – and I’m pretty sure it happens to other writers all the time. It kind of makes me want to groan, because it’s next to impossible to give a sincere and considered answer to this question without boring the pants off everyone by talking for an hour. The short, somewhat trite answer might be: ‘Everywhere!’
But if we really want to answer the question, it takes a minute or two longer. Because really there’s no single answer. Ideas don’t come from one unique, unvarying source. Nor do they come in the same way each time. Anything from the world seen or unseen can randomly come to my attention and lead me to think, ‘Hmm, that’s interesting…’
Inspiration, which is what ideas really are, comes from everywhere and nowhere. A snatch of song, a news story, a little patch of colour on a card in the paint section of the DIY store, the turn of a person’s head making you think just for one split second it’s someone else – someone from another time, someone who should be dead. An unexpected view of yourself in a shop window at an unusual angle, that odd moment before you recognise yourself, that brief second when you think, slightly puzzled, ‘I know that face.’
An overheard snatch of genuine conversation: ‘Don’t lose my hat, man, my hat’s my identity,’ and ‘Of course she never did find out who’d sent it.’ A film, a book, a taste, a smell, a memory. What about a story your mother told you – you’ve known her all your life yet this is the first time she’s ever mentioned this particular incident. People-watching is endlessly fruitful. I’ve written about beloved family friends recalled from my childhood.
I have based two full-length stories on dreams. Three short stories and one novel on songs. One novel (The Mantle of God) based on two documentaries I saw on TV. One was about ancient tapestries: Opus Anglicanum which is Latin for ‘English work’, and the other was about the Reformation. I’ve written a short story about an arrowhead, and another about ancestral bones and the relevance they might have to a Neolithic man, about a trip to Skara Brae in the Orkneys. I’ve written a whole series of stories about the fact that all too often people think it’s okay to take the law into their own hands. (I’m looking at you Cressida, main character of Criss Cross etc, from the series Friendship Can Be Murder.) I’ve written about work situations, about hopes and plans for the future, about family tree research, about children, and pets, and parents. About love. About the absence of love. About faith. About fear. About books I read as a child. And books I read as an adult. I’ve written about identity and what it means to be who I am, who you are. I’ve written about death – loads.
I saw a gorgeous man on the bus many years ago and wrote a story about him, (The Ice King – it’s still not ‘available’, but if you’re intrigued, here’s a link to a short bit about him.) I’ve read news reports and been inspired to create my own story around some of those. I’ve written in hospital having just given birth, in hospital awaiting treatment for cancer, at work during my lunchbreak when I felt so depressed I just wanted to run away and hide. I’ve written when sitting on the loo, sitting in the garden, on holiday, in bed with flu, and in cafes all over Britain, Europe and Australia. I’ve written on buses and trains and planes. I’ve written when someone I cared about has died. I’ve even got inspiration from sitting down at my desk every day and just making myself write. Sometimes I’ve written a whole page that just says, ‘I don’t know what to write’, like the lines that we had to do at school when we got into trouble, and still nothing has come to me and I’ve gone away desperate, feeling that the well has not only dried up, but was only a mirage to begin with, that I’m an imposter and just fooling myself.
If you are a writer, you squirrel away in the eccentric filing cabinet known as your brain EVERY single thing that you ever experience, and a bit like doing a jigsaw puzzle or creating a patchwork quilt, you keep trying pieces together every which way until thing one fits with thing two and makes a pleasing, meaningful picture. There’s not really a pattern to it, there’s not a system or a set of regulations to follow. You just do it.
That’s where I get my ideas.