I sculpted opening sentences as I sorted spikey Velcro rollers at my job at the hair salon. I pictured my own name in print, as I sold books in WH Smiths. I noted customers’ dialogue as I worked the shop floor at Harrods. The words, jokes, settings, and characters built up in me until my ideas overflowed. I had to write a book.
Where do writers get their ideas from? Everywhere. Here are my top three places to hunt the muse:
1. Real Life
Write what you know, so the saying goes. And what do you know better than your own life? To me this doesn’t mean write a memoir (though you can certainly do that). More it means, what is your unique selling point? Apologies for the marketing jargon, but this is an important concept: what is it that you know that is distinctive or, as of yet, unwritten about elsewhere?
– What life event? John Green drew on his experience of being a student chaplain at a children’s’ hospital, to write about two teen cancer patients in The Fault in Our Stars.
– What location? The rugged Cornwall wreckers’ coast inspired Daphne Du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn.
– What job? Kingsley Amis wrote Lucky Jim about the eponymous university lecturer, whilst working as an English academic himself.
– What person do you know? Mario Puzo said his inspiration for his main character in The Godfather, was his ‘wonderful handsome’, but ‘fairly ruthless’ Italian immigrant mother, who single-handedly raised her family of twelve in the New York slums. Badass.
Whether you’re reading about complex crimes, long lost loves being reunited, or domestic incidents playing out against global events, there’s a wealth of stimulus in newspapers. I keep copies of articles that I find intriguing. Newsworthy events are also a great way of pinpointing what’s of the zeitgeist. Publishers are keen on identifying this, because a book that captures a public spirit or moment often enjoys increased sales!
A quirky image, whether a photo, a painting, a film, a TV show, or a postcard is a great jumping off point for ideas. Tell yourself a story about what you see: what’s happening? Who is this character? What will happen next? Write a line about it. Write a paragraph. Write a page. It’s a great way to get your mind to wander (in a good way!)
To paraphrase Wet Wet Wet, (there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write): I feel it in my fingers. I feel it in my toes. Ideas’re everywhere you go…
When I finally sat down in my late twenties to write my book, I had several false starts. Some manuscripts stretched into the tens of thousands of words, but no matter how promising they seemed at the beginning, they all petered out and ended up in the trash. What I had was an idea of a book: a vague notion of character, an opening scene, an impression of what I wanted it to be about. But something was missing: story.
Now I work as a professional reader for The Literary Consultancy, I appreciate how common it is for writers’ first books to lack story. A good old fashioned yarn, with a beginning, a struggle, and a triumphant, or otherwise, end.
Ideas are good, but they are only the first step. Ideas are bricks. Play with them. Then use them to build something bigger. Use them to build your story. Use them to build your book.
Where do you get your ideas from? Share your own tips in the comments below.
Catch up on How Do Writers…Write A Book? here. And check back for the next instalment: How Do Writers… Tell A Story?