“Where do you get your ideas from?” is a question writers get asked so often it’s become cliché. I’ve been asked it twice this weekend already. And it’s not clear what exactly is being asked. Where did you get that initial spark, that ‘I want to write a book about Tibet’ idea? Where did the story come from? And what about the subplots? How did you decide the butler did it?
Earlier this year, I was asked to write a 366-word story for an anthology published by Scholastic. ‘Great,’ I thought. Here was an opportunity to do something with all those idea-seeds that sit at the back of my head waiting to sprout. And as I wandered around town for the next couple of days, more ideas arrived. Perhaps I could write about the twelve dancing princesses, my favourite fairy tale. Or do something with a child playing hide and seek, counting to twenty. Or ...
The problem, as I discovered when I came to write the story, is that an idea-seed needs roots. What exactly were the dancing princesses going to do? What was so interesting about a child counting? By the end of the day, I had four boring files of half-stories, none of which were going anywhere.
To get inspiration, I did what I always advise children who ask me this question to do, and went back to the books I love. Two of my favourite authors are Anne Fine and Hilary McKay - both of whom write stories about a whole class of children. My story, therefore, would be about a class with some problem (not too hard) which they could solve by the end of 366-words. Not something their teacher could solve. Something that came from them. A child with a problem?
Other bloggers here have already mentioned CS Lewis, who said the idea for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe came from pictures in his head: a witch on a sleigh, a faun with an umbrella, a lamppost in a forest. The picture in my head was a girl with long dark hair - Asian perhaps - perhaps English isn’t her first language - perhaps she’s very quiet and shy, so the class look after her. Perhaps she has a problem they need to solve.
So, what problem? The idea that arrived now comes from real life - a friend of my mother’s who took her mouse to school in a pencil-case. This girl - call her Narinder - takes her mouse to school. There’s a problem with the mouse!
The next idea comes from an adult novel: Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin, which features a little girl with a mouse and an angry and aggressive older brother. Perhaps Narinder has a brother who’s threatening her mouse? The class find a new home for the mouse (could it become a class pet?) and the problem is solved.
Except ... this problem’s too easy. There are no twists, no excitement in a problem so easily solved. And what happens to the brother? Does he get his comeuppance, or is he still threatening Narinder? We need a twist. Perhaps Narinder isn’t as mouse-like as she appears. Perhaps her problem isn’t what we think it is. Perhaps ... ahhh.
And there’s the story. If you want to know what happens, you’ll have to buy the book. There are lots of great stories in there, and all profits go to ChildLine. And if you do read it, you might notice that my idea-seed - the class solving a problem - has disappeared. When I wrote the story, I discovered I didn’t need a whole class, so I took them out. It’s no big deal. They can stay in the back of my head and inspire the next story.