Monday, 25 August 2008

Where Do You Get Your Ideas From? - Sally N icholls

“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.


Anonymous said...

That question? My theory is that it's either just a polite way of trying to engage with you. Or, that non-writers simply can't conceive at all of how anyone comes up with words to put on a page. A bit like I just can't understand how to work out what plants to put where in my garden, because I simply can't see anything in my mind when I look. Whereas I can furnish a room in my head with no problems.

Or, they think it's an original question, that you've never come across before...

Must get round to investigating this book, as I've seen things about it elsewhere, too.

Sally Nicholls said...

Maybe. I certainly couldn't think where to start composing a symphony.

But everyone tells stories. You tell stories, every day, in your blog. I know - I read it. Just because they're true, doesn't make them less of a story ...

Nick Green said...

In some ways it's the wrong question, isn't it? What we think are 'ideas' are often just the window dressing around the bit that really matters: the themes and the emotional resonance. Better, perhaps, would be to ask, 'What did you care about so much that you felt you had to write a story on a similar theme?'
At least, that's how it seems to work for me. To power a story, I need to get hold of something that makes me so angry/upset/thrilled/intrigued that I can't let it go. Once I've got that emotional reactor core simmering away, the actual 'ideas' seem largely arbitrary.

Nick Green said...

Addendum: and yet it's not so. The 'fauns with umbrellas' often precede that, despite what I just said. I imply that I set out with a theme in mind, when what actually happens is that the themes emerge from the umbrella'd fauns. It is a mysterious sort of thing. Perhaps I need to post on this topic myself at some point, once I've decided what I really DO think about it...

Anonymous said...

Yes, I know I'm OK with the blogging. Ideas spurt at the worst possible times. It's the garden planning, or the symphony composing that is a little harder. I just get surprised by people who think ideas are difficult to come by. We are all good at different things.

Gill James said...

It is such a big undefined question that I am now trying to pin it down and work towards an answer.
As a writer who is also an academic, I do have to do some research and I am fascinated by creative process, and in particular my own creative process and that of other writers.
I completed 45 school visits last year and I turned the tables on the children and asked thme where they got their ideas from when they had to write a story.
The answers were fascinating.
Of course, they are often helped by beign given a starter by their teacher.
Do some of our "starters" come from doing nothing?
I'm currnetly communting a lot and find that the ideas pour into me as I travel.
My greatest fear is running out of ideas.
Fortunately for every novel I write, I have five or six other ideas. I also know how to force them -aha, is that a clue?
I still enjoy doing creative writing exercises and often do them alongside my students.
Then there was thta little alien who grew out of a visit to Winchester cathedral when we were invited to do ... nothing.

Sally Nicholls said...


Gill, I'm pretty sure my ideas don't come out of nothing. Not usually anyway. There's usually some spark - a story, something I see. Although I'm not sure where the picture of the dark-haired girl came from ...

Nick, I think it's six of one, half dozen of the other for me. 'Ways to Live Forever' I started out with the theme - dying. 'Season of Secrets' (new title for book two) started with the story of the green man, and the fauns and the themes both rose up from that.

Do write a blog post about it! Then 'fauns with umberella's will link to three posts, which I think is entirely as it should be.