Sunday, 26 February 2017

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

If you're actually a writer, you have heard this question more times than you would have liked. It occurs with roughly the frequency of people comparing your Deerhound to a horse.

Any working writer knows that ideas are not the problem. It is like asking a person in the middle of autumn where he gets his dead leaves.

Nevertheless, there can be times when one really is stuck for an idea. For example, you want to submit to an anthology or contest, but nothing you have fits the theme. 

With that in mind, I thought I'd share the origins of some of my own work. There's bound to be something that will work for you. Here, organised according to frequency, are the origins of those of my stories that did not spring fully formed from my head, like Athena. I'm leaving out those works where the idea was spontaneous; they are not relevant. These are the things whose origin I can definitely name.

16 - What If
11 - Elements
6 - From a dream
3 - From a picture
3 - From anecdotes told to me     
2 - From a news story.     

How It's Done

What If

Sometimes a hypothesis is all you need

I don't have to explain about the What If, do I? It is the What If style of thinking that, more than anything in my opinion, causes a person to become a writer.


This is my absolute favourite technique for story generation. I use it a great deal, because one gets such surprising results. 

I first encountered the notion of elements when I was entering my first short story competition. The contest organiser had provided three elements, all of which had to appear in the story. The elements were: a sudden, unexpected hailstorm, a magnifying glass, and a bag of cement. From those elements I got my story Excuse Of The Day. And I won a prize! 

A few weeks later, the same man announced another contest. This time, the elements to be used were: a page torn out of a calendar, towering jealousy, and a passage from Collins' The Moonstone. Because of some banter in the bulletin board associated with the contest, I announced that I would also include rubber pants as a fourth element, for bonus marks. That collection of items gave me Sophie's Revenge, and incidentally gave birth to Sophie Green, a character I have used again and again.

I was so taken with the ease of generating a story using these elements, and the really off-the-wall things that sprang from them, that I turned my mind to how I could do it for myself. It seemed to me that the elements needed to be provided by a third party, but I hate to rely on other people for my work. I didn't want to be one of those whiny people one sees in writers' groups.

I created a spreadsheet. Down the first column I listed all kinds of random things. Not just basic things like a prince, a dragon, and so on, but all kinds of stuff. A letter to the editor, a trading opportunity, a foul smell, sunshine on water, jurisdiction. Using the RAND function, I could then generate random elements to be combined into stories. Three was, I found, the ideal number. From this came The Dragon of Butter, Nigel's Holiday, No Such Thing, Sophie and the Frog, and a number of things that are still in progress. 

I can't say enough about this method. If I had to limit myself to a single means of creating story ideas, this is the one I'd go with.


When I first heard that Stephanie Myers was claiming to have received the whole of the Twilight series in a dream, I dismissed it as pretentious rubbish, like the maunderings of those people who claim their characters are talking to them. I've had to revise my opinion. In fact, I've had totally to recant it; I now believe it could be the literal truth. If you're a fairly intense dreamer, as I am and, I suppose, as Ms Myers is, dreams don't just encompass their own events; they often come with a set of memories and backstory. One day, I awoke from a frightening, horrible dream. I was drenched in sweat and my heartrate was elevated. I found my thoughts returning to the dream throughout the day, and I realised that it could be written as a story with very little work. That dream is now available as Authorised Staff Only. 

With the new respect I'd gained for the dreaming state, I took to checking, whenever I awoke from a dream, whether it was a 'useful' dream (one that could be a story). I've never again received a complete story, but often I've got the story concept and a substantial part of the story. I've taken to keeping a notebook in my bedside drawer, so that I can get as much of it down as possible. If I go back to sleep without writing stuff down, it's gone in the morning. Of my published work, Danse Macabre, Operation Tomcat (which has spawned a whole series) came from dreams, and so did a pile of other stories, some of which are in progress and more of which exist only as notes. They are my little stash for the future, a writer's nest egg, saved against the winter of barren invention.


Years and years ago, in one of the Facebook groups for Irish Wolfhound fanciers, someone posted a photograph so strange and haunting in its beauty that it wouldn't leave my mind. There was, I felt, a story behind that photograph of an elderly man sitting in a kitchen chair on a lakeside pontoon, with a massive wolfhound lying by his side. I downloaded the photograph and made it my desktop background, and for two years I would sit and stare at it from time to time, wondering. Finally, I started to see the glimmerings of the story, and The Real Winner was written. I tracked down the photographer, and he graciously gave permission for me to use the photo, so you can see it here. Of all the things I've written, this is my favourite. This edition is dedicated to the memory of Drosten, my friend's hound.

The photograph is by Truls Bakken

Pictures aren't my favourite method, but this one was really special. I've generated a couple of other stories from pictures, too - one because it spoke to me, as the picture above did, and one for an anthology that never came to anything; we were all supposed to write stories from the same picture, and it was going to showcase the variety of writers.

If you think this method is for you, there is a Facebook group that may interest you. It's called W.A.P.A.T. (short for Write A Paragraph About This). The members post pictures to be used as story prompts, and the main thrust of the group is to write off-the-cuff flash fiction, but you can always take the picture and work on it to produce an actual story. In any case, it's a great way to warm up before you tackle your day's work, or a new project.


Occasionally on hearing that I'm a writer, people will kindly gift me with their 'ideas' for things I might write. We're harking back to my opening paragraph - the fact is that lay people just do not understand that ideas are the least of a writer's worries. However, occasionally someone will relate an anecdote. Thrice I have liked these anecdotes well enough to write stories based on them. Two are complete but as yet unpublished, and one is still in the planning stage. 

I don't really think this is a fertile enough field to spend a lot of time on, but it never hurts to keep one's ears open and carry a notebook.

News Stories

Sometimes there will be a news story that just catches the imagination. Operation Camilla came about in that way; the crime was based around the Ashley Madison affair. I've also got one short story now in revisions that was based on one of those 'awww' stories on the internet - probably Upworthy or Huffington Post. Again, it's not my favourite technique, and it can be expensive in terms of the time you could waste surfing around, but it doesn't hurt to be looking out for things that may be useful, and of course you always have your notebook ready, don't you?

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