Thursday 16 June 2022

The Ideas Factory

As I approach the publication of my second children’s book (cue humble plug: The Mermaid Call), I’m being asked to go back to the beginning and pin down my inspiration for the novel. So long in the writing and editing, I sometimes find I have to stop to think about a book’s origin, to recall what exactly formed the idea for a story.

The Mermaid Call cover and themes

It’s probably one of the most common questions a writer can get asked: Where do you get your ideas from? (Alongside, how many have you sold? Best to ignore that one.)

So, where indeed? 

Gah, story ideas, they can be slippery creatures, full of fool’s gold and emperor’s new clothes. In the same way The Supremes found you can’t hurry love, I’ve discovered you can’t rush an idea. Like love, ideas tease, play hard to get, disappoint you. And when you finally find ‘the one’ idea you love, beware: writing the story can ruin the relationship.

In the past, I would relish some time in my ideas factory. I’d book time off work; fresh pad, fresh coffee; fresh-faced. I’m ready, brain, show me your best. And nothing. Nada. Not a nugget. I soon came to realise that - like my cat - story ideas won’t come when they’re called.

Why? (the story idea not the cat)

My theory is this. The core threads of any story idea already exist in your mind, lurking there like spectres, unseen but shadowy. To knit these threads together into a potential story idea is a process that often requires a random spark. An external source, from the banal to the unusual, that sets alight the fuse, gathers those elusive spectres together and presents you with: THE PERFECT STORY IDEA. Or something nearly like that (N.B. see above, writing can ruin the relationship).

Back to The Mermaid Call (2nd humble plug) and its origin – I can clearly recall said spark. It was a visit to a shell grotto at a charity open garden; this magical outside space that was plastered floor to ceiling with all kinds of shells. 

Shells in a shell grotto

I stood there in wonder and - without warning - the fuse lit in my cerebral cave, spotlighting disparate threads around my brain. Threads that had previously been swimming solo; threads that had no idea they could synchronise to form a story idea. They included:

  • My love of a good legend, mermaids particularly, and the stores of tales I’ve collected
  • Growing up with the pressures to be pretty and being different
  • The Lake District and Matlock Spa, close to my heart, and settings that both combine stunning scenery with the fun of seaside attractions, but inland!
  • The Suffragettes and their campaigns 
  • A childhood fascination with the mystery of Loch Ness monster – real or not?
  • My teenage hatred for my very curly hair and how it seemed to set me apart
  • Gender stereotypes I’ve watched my children and others continue to endure
  • The tragedy of Andersen’s Little Mermaid 

Threads that, for whatever reason, wouldn't present themselves together in the Ideas Factory. I needed that spark to unite them. A spark that went from the wonder of a shell grotto...

... to a mystical queen conch shell

... to village tourism 

... to a lake mermaid myth 

... to hair that doesn't fit 

... to young entrepreneurial Suffragettes

... to a secret diary and a missing girl

... to real-life monsters

... to personal truths.

-        Course, I still continue to make regular trips to my Ideas Factory on my days off; why not: fresh pad, fresh coffee (less fresh-faced these days), there’s a lot to love about a creative brainstorm. But I also try (I say, try) and practice patience, to wait for the spark that might light up those lurking spectral threads. In the meantime, I'll remind myself to keep filling the well, with interesting people and places and objects - because who knows what, where or when that spark will set the threads a-spinning?

      Alex Cotter’s middle-grade novel THE MERMAID CALL will be published with Nosy Crow on 7 July 2022. Her previous novel, THE HOUSE ON THE EDGE, came out in July 2021. Find her at or on Twitter: @AlexFCotter

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