Thank you for inviting me to guest blog. I thought I would attempt to peel that ancient chestnut, “Where do you get your ideas?”
In some cases, the honest answer would be, ‘I have no idea.’ But these are a few thoughts about how it works for me.
Firstly, deadlines. Nothing gets my brain going like a deadline. I once committed to write a flash piece every other week for a year. I went to story prompt sites, trawled my files for unfinished ideas, went to www.wefeelfine.com – but the best stories came at random. Listening to a radio programme about tomb-robbery while washing up, I thought of an odd tomb-curse and how it might affect someone who didn’t believe in tomb curses. I wrote it down. Actually I probably wrote – ‘tomb idea, comfy bed,’ or similar - just enough to remind me what the idea was. Staring at the pattern on the duvet while listening to the news, I had a thought about patterns and the banking system. I wrote a paragraph before I fell asleep, and once I was able to translate my semi-comatose handwriting the next day, the rest followed.
When I was invited to contribute to the Mammoth Book of Ghost Stories by Women, I was delighted – then I panicked. I’d never yet come up with a ghost story that satisfied me. But I was reading about the industrial revolution at the time, and thinking about creativity, and passion. And I had a deadline. Eventually, I had A Silver Music, the final story in the anthology.
Sometimes it works without a deadline. My sister, a teacher, was undergoing the delights of a school inspection at the same time as I happened to be reading about serial killers. The two things came together to create Inspection Day (End of an Aeon anthology.)
And lots of the time, I’m not actually looking for ideas. They just turn up, from pictures in galleries or postcards in a shop, talking to other writers, running, gardening – sometimes they’re ideas about running or gardening. (In fact my partner David Gullen and I discovered so many parallels between the processes of gardening and those of writing we decided to do a regular blog on the subject).
The ideas that seem to work best are usually about two or more things, coming together in an interesting juxtaposition. Like school inspections and serial killers or creativity and exploitation. And they may be sparked by anything from a photograph to an overheard phrase, but are given body by my own obsessions, beliefs, fantasies, hopes or fears.
For Babylon Steel the thought of a brothel in a place where planes intersected was hovering for some years; what, exactly, sparked it I could no longer say. But to write it I needed to be at a point where my own ideas about sex and sexuality had clarified, and where I was comfortable writing about them. Questions of power and its uses and misuses have come to form part of my political views, and those themes ended up combined with the trans-planar brothel. Portals have fascinated me since I first read Alice Through the Looking Glass and spent hours staring at that other girl’s bedroom in the mirror, longing to push my hand through the barrier and walk into another world. That fascination only grew.
And if I hadn’t read Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy I wouldn’t have heard, all those years ago, about sacred prostitution. Whether or not the famous courtyard of Mylitta ever existed, or was just a piece of propaganda on the part of Herodotus is irrelevant, as I’m not writing history – it helped spark an idea, and that’s all I needed of it.
I read poetry and fairy tales and classics and fantasy and contemporary literature and crime and sf and chicklit. I read history and popular psychology and New Scientist and the personal columns of the local paper and the ingredients on tins if there’s nothing else.
I also watch the news and visit galleries and museums and travel and look at odd bits of architecture and have conversations with taxi-drivers and shopkeepers and people with babies and museum attendants and undertakers. I watch films and trawl the internet and find weird stuff in charity shops. Any or all of these things can be the source of ideas. Many of them occur when I’m not actively looking for them, some when I am.
I wouldn’t call myself well-informed – I’m a knowledge-flirt, a magpie, I pick up what interests me and ignore or forget the rest. Even what I do pick up often gets forgotten, on a surface level, but some of it sinks into my own internal myth-pool. And when I go for a mental swim, searching for a story, I grab at that shiny thing gleaming in the mud of memory.
Sometimes it’s only a tin can. Sometimes, once I’ve washed the mud off, it looks like treasure. And sometimes it’s managed to accrete all by itself, lying there in the mud; a whole story, just waiting to be picked up. On the rare occasions this happens, it feels like cheating – as though I’d got away with something, like a burglar. I try not to feel guilty. There are enough other times when I have to sweat out a story from what looked shiny, but brought to the surface seems to be little more than a tin can and an old shoe.
And sometimes it just won’t work for me. But someone else can make treasure of it.
Ideas are all around, all the time; but what I see or hear will have no meaning, or a completely different one, for another writer. Set any roomful of writers three ideas, you’ll get thirty different stories. Because ideas are everywhere. Stories come from inside.