Writing: The Origin of Ideas

Anyone who mentions they are a writer invariably comes up against the question, “Where do you get your ideas?” We do an internal eye-roll. Telling someone where you get your ideas will either sound boring or make you seem quite mad.

  • They just come to me (The boring response).
  • I was standing in line at the butcher waiting to buy some pork chops and saw a string of sausages. I wondered what the story behind them would have been if they were made from human flesh, including the skins (The mad one).

The truth is, ideas can come from anywhere. I had one last night while reading Unnatural Causes by Dr Richard Shepherd. There are a few lines on page 103 of the hardback copy that discuss babies born in secret and hidden under floorboards or in the attic only to be discovered years later, mummified in the dry conditions. About half a dozen story-lines ran like 8mm film through my head in less than ten seconds. Gold.

I’ve recently finished writing a collection of short, dark fiction (The Passages of Melton Hall and other stories). At the back of the book I decided to include an “author commentary” to tell people the origin of each story. So far some of my beta readers have said it was the first thing they turned to because they wanted to find out what made my brain tick. One of them said, ‘It’s the small things, isn’t it?’ Absolutely it is the small things.

So what are these small things that give me dark ideas? I don’t think I’m particularly special in this, so my small things are:

  • Dreams

My dreams are like 3D, full colour, surround sound, smell-o-vision experiences. They are fantastic. I am either in the thick of the action or a fly on the wall. None of this wishy-washy I’m not quite sure what all that was about stuff. I am an ancient warrior, or a detective, or a lover, a murderer, an escaped convict, a universal entity flying through space. It isn’t the entirety of the dreams that spark an idea, it is something within them. The shape of a weapon, the shoes of a little girl, the hollow sound of someone knocking on a door. Every so often something will stick in my mind long after I have woken up and I start to mull it over to see if it could be made into a story.

  • Something I’ve read or watched

Like the above mentioned book, a line in a nonfiction book, or a scene in a documentary will strike me as interesting. Either story ideas will flow spontaneously, or they will start to surface a little while later. I don’t generally get ideas from fiction books or movies, because those are someone else’s ideas already made into a story.

  • Asking ‘what if?’ of any given scenario

This is one of my favourite idea generating things. I generally take an ordinary and mundane situation and ask what if something extraordinary happened. What if I opened the fridge one day and discovered a severed hand chilling in the crisper? What if a fox collapsed in my back garden and I decided to care for it, whereupon moving it into the garage and nestling it on some blankets I discovered it had a tattoo? (I do actually get foxes in my back garden). What if I forgot to move the clock in my living room forward for daylight saving and a time difference developed between my bedroom (where my phone changed automatically), and the living room? It would be the same time but not the same time, what strange things might occur in within the out of place hour? See, it’s a fun game.

  • Something I’ve see in the real world that makes me do a double-take

This is a good one, it helps if  you live in a city, weird things are always happening there, like spotting a man dragging a Jesus-sized cross down a busy street. Or a hive of bumble bees in my back wall that causes strange droning noises to be heard through my living room late into the night which allowed me to convince a visitor my house was haunted. Or someone who cut their hedge into the shape of a reclining naked woman.

  • Something someone says to me

This doesn’t happen very often for me, but every once in a while I’ll be having a conversation and something odd will come up: a crow that walks into my neighbour’s house to eat leftover cat food, a woman who had her leg ripped off after being hit by a motorcycle, the clock on my cousin’s bathroom shelf that seemed to turn one hundred and eighty degrees all by itself the day after his mother died. I don’t always write these things down as soon as I hear them, that would probably be rude. But if I remember them until I can write them down, they might be worth something story-wise.

  • And yes, sometimes they do just pop into my head.

I can be doing the dishes, folding clothes, or having a shower and the first line of a story will pop into my head. There is a theory regarding procrastination and creativity. The creative part of your brain lurks in the background, working diligently away while you are performing other mental tasks. When you have a bit of a brain break to do something that requires little synaptic power, those creative sparks come to the fore. See the Harvard University blog post, The Perks of Procrastination to find out more about this theory.

So there you have it, where my ideas come from. Do you have a similar list of idea generators? How about something else weird and wonderful? Let us know in the comments below.

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