writer thinking

Where Do Your Ideas Come From…??

This is the question that is unfailingly asked by potential customers every time I go to a book or craft fair to sell my novels.

It’s also the question that is always asked at the end of a talk that I might give about writing and publishing.

But where do you get your ideas from?


By now, I should have a coherent answer ready to offer.

But each and every time the question is put, I find myself fumbling around and giving what no doubt sounds like an inadequate response.

Because the truth is that the source of ideas can be hard to pinpoint. But it is possible to categorize a few.

Starting with memories.

Memories of people, places, incidents, events, sometimes trawling back decades.

When I wrote my novel Counting the Ways one of my characters was very loosely based on someone I had vaguely known years before – not so much the man himself, but a trait of his that I wove into the creation of one of my protagonists which proved to be pivotal to the plot.

Writing The Legacy of Mr Jarvis was to use a fragment of an account I had heard many, many years before about someone who had woven deceit into his life.

My third novel, Miller Street SW22, with its climax at a centenary street party borrowed much for the actual street party I was part of when living in – no, not the fictitious SW22, but in SW15 during the latter decades of the last century. And memory is poignantly playing a part in the neurological disease that my character Lydia is suffering from, recalling my own late mother’s very distressing years with the same illness.

Writers tend to be massive purchasers of notebooks and I am absolutely no exception. I never go out without one tucked into my bag just in case I see something worth jotting down – either because of something I’ve seen or an idea that’s suddenly come to mind.

Recently, I wrote a short story based on a few phrases I had written down in a notebook about 15 years ago. I was on a train travelling home from London and saw two women – one younger, one older – and something about the two of them, the way they were dressed and related to each other, seemed to promise potential. For fiction, that is. And yet I did nothing with the pair of them for years. Eventually, however, an idea came to mind and, thanks to that scrappy note in a very dogeared notebook, I was able to weave them into a story.

Settings for me are not imagined – or only in detail. I marvel at authors who can set their fiction in places they have never visited. I admire them hugely as I know I couldn’t do that. All the places that I have included in my novels – and short stories – come from felt experience. London, (both north and south of the river)Oxford, Brighton, Somerset, Wales – and a Greek island. Even Pinner and Harrow make appearances! Somehow I need to see my characters living in these places and if I haven’t been to them, I feel there is something inauthentic in my writing.

But leaving memories aside, there are far more random sources for ideas that are hard to quantify.

Currently, I am planning my fourth novel which is going to be something of a departure for me as it is set in WW2. Obviously, this is involving far more research than I have needed to do in the past when I have always written of times that I have lived through – but I’m only one generation removed with late parents who were very much alive and living through those traumatic years.

But although the event and the setting – London once more – are certainly very real, my characters are entirely fictional. And last week an idea for one of them, an important and plot-driving notion – came to me, utterly spontaneously, when sitting on a bus, crossing the river near Battersea. Somewhere, this thought flitted into my mind and took very firm root in my imagination.

So no wonder my answer to that question But where do the ideas come from is so hard to answer.

For their source is multi-faceted, unbounded by the passing of time. Maybe a garden analogy would work. Those ideas that come from memory are like carefully planted and planned bulbs that only needed time and careful nurturing to produce eventually a flower. Other ideas are like the random and now prolific rose bush in my back garden in a patch previously barren that is presumably the result of a careless bird as I had nothing to do with its evolution.

Perhaps it’s best to sum up that ideas come unbidden from everywhere. From overheard conversations in a queue, from old photographs, misty memories and experiences – in other words, from the whole panoply of our lives – and beyond.

One thing’s for certain, though.

If you want to write, always remember to carry a notebook and pen with you on your travels!

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