Among the many questions asked of authors, one of the most frequent must be: “Where do you get your ideas from?”
My answer often proves a surprise.
I believe we generate ideas every waking hour of our lives. Our minds never rest. They’re forever churning out thoughts and sentiments, impressions and epiphanies, crafty excuses, and cunning calls to action. And they never, ever stop. Our streams of consciousness run dry only when we’re asleep, and even then our subconscious selves remain busy at work.
The knack, then, isn’t so much the generation of ideas as the recognition of them – the separation of viable notions from our mental detritus. And often, we don’t recognize ideas because they’re actually quite mundane.
Consider my first novel, All These Nearly Fights. It concerns a car salesman, Jimmy Harris, who wins millions playing the lottery. You and I hear of lottery winners all the time, and everyone knows someone who talks about what they’d buy if their numbers came up. Similarly, many of us must share a common perception of the stereotypical car salesman: flash, brash, boastful, and likely, upon winning the lottery, to blow his money on supercars, high-end trinkets, and the wooing of trophy girlfriends.
But if it’s easy enough to envisage Jimmy Harris painting the town red, it doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to think: Hang on. What if Jimmy doesn’t blow the money? What if he has strong reasons for keeping his lottery win a secret?
And there you have it: the nugget on which a story hangs. We have a man whose profession and lifestyle suggest he’d spend a lottery win extravagantly; yet he chooses to sit on his winnings, not even telling anyone of his good fortune.
Then there’s my most recent novel: They’re Closing The Lamb and Musket. It’s about an English pub due to be bulldozed to make way for a new supermarket. The Lamb and Musket’s impending closure, and its patrons’ campaign to keep it open, is a common-enough scenario in the real life of many UK towns. Its everydayness reiterates my point that finding an idea isn’t the hardest part of the story-making process.
It’s once we have an idea that the hard work starts – the hard work being to craft the tale in a way which is compelling, authentic, and entertaining. This is the stage where the magic begins, where the characters come to life and do the things that they want to do – which aren’t always the things an author expects of them. And that’s another aspect of storytelling which writers can find difficult. Although we start with a scenario, and some notions about how that scenario might develop, we often then find that the story then develops in entirely different ways.
Yes, They’re Closing The Lamb and Musket is a tale about the campaign to save a pub from closure, but it’s less about that and more about other considerations than I’d originally intended – the other considerations being the intentions and actions which the characters bring to the mix. My job at that point is to record their thoughts and behaviours, their words and deeds, and the general direction in which they take the story. I do so with a sense of
wonder, and I try hard not to intervene, tempting though it is to poke my face into their lives and ask, just a little wide-eyed, where it is that they get their ideas from.