The genesis of ideas.
A question that all writers get asked from time to time is: where do you get your ideas from? Well that’s not always easy to answer. Ideas come from the mind, don’t they? From the imagination.
Well, yes and no, I would say to that. There’s usually a spark somewhere that emanates from something a writer has seen or heard, something read, maybe on the news. Sometimes it may come from a snatch of conversation overheard on a bus, or in a café or pub. That doesn’t mean that anything and everything gets turned into a story, and usually, if it does, it comes out in a different form. And quite often it’s misremembered anyway. But somewhere along the line that incident has stayed inside the head of the writer, slowly taking shape, emerging half-formed, to be worked on, polished, tossed about until it reaches its final shape where it’s quite probably unrecognisable from the original incident. I often think ideas are like sauerkraut, they start from very humble beginnings to ferment, with time and patience, into something nutritious.
What started me thinking about this was reading Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction by Patricia Highsmith, herself an absolute master of the art. She gives as an example the various stimuli that set Bram Stoker on the way to his masterpiece, Dracula. When holidaying in Whitby he apparently came across an old newspaper report of a shipwreck which had landed on the beach below the ruined abbey with no survivors on board. From this he developed the idea of Dracula’s coffin washing ashore.
At this year’s Cromarty Arts Festival Ian Rankin talked about his idea for the short story and radio play The Death Watch Journal. On holiday with his wife in St. Lucia he saw a clipping from an edition of Private Eye about a private detective who had been found dead in a car park whilst looking into a miscarriage of justice. This combined in his mind with another incident in which children found a body in a wood in an abandoned car and Voila! A story began to emerge.
For myself, ideas can take years – even decades to germinate. Hangman’s Wood began because I saw the writer Simon Kernick being interviewed by Mariella Frostrup, and talking about an incident that occurred to himself and another boy when they were abducted and taken into a nearby wood and physically assaulted. My current work in progress, Washed in the Blood, was precipitated by two incidents, both of which took place over thirty years ago. One was a report of a small child’s body washed up on the beach somewhere down south. The child had been in his pyjamas, and no-one ever claimed him. The other part of the plot was driven by a story told me by a total stranger at a bus stop, which was that her grandson had just committed suicide because the company who’d employed him on a Youth Employment Scheme had given him the sack as soon as he was eighteen and therefore entitled to a proper wage.
So ideas can come from the most unexpected places. And at the time they may not even feel like ideas. But where they don’t come from is from somebody saying to you – I know a good story you could write. That, I’m afraid just doesn’t work. That’s your story, not mine, and I like to use my own imagination, even though sometimes it seems to be wearing a bit thin!
Paula K Randall