Ideas, and Where Do They Come From by Neil McGowan

 Probably the most common question a writer of fiction gets asked is where do you get your ideas from. It's not something I usually think about too much, but I thought I'd explore it a little in this post.


Firstly, let me say that ideas are not something I struggle with. If anything, I struggle with the opposite, having too many ideas. I rarely write them down, though (I know, very bad, goes against all the advice), preferring to let my subconscious do the sorting. The bad ideas usually disappear; the good ones tend to be those that won't leave me alone, and keep popping up reminding me that they're still there, and hello, am I going to start writing them soon?


See, almost all writers seem to be avid people watchers. We can't help it (I know I can't). Out having a coffee (I vaguely remember doing things like this prior to lockdown…) with your partner, and you spot a couple at a nearby table. Before you know it, you've started to develop a narrative in your head as to why they're there. What sort of story depends on how they behave - perhaps their body language indicates a recent argument, for example. The way they're sitting - tense, alert - could this be a scene in a thriller? Snippets of overheard conversation can feed into this, too. I've still got a phrase in my head a heard an old lady say a few years back - ' I had to run away, she talked all funny ' - during a documentary on the evacuations that took place during the second world war. I know it will fit into a story sometime; I just haven't found it yet.


Current events are also a fertile breeding ground for ideas - with the recent furore in the US over the elections, the debacle in Britain over Brexit, and the almost seismic upheavals in Scotland over the possibility of independence, there's enough material there for several books. I've even written a short story about it fairly recently, in an attempt to explore some of the issues, taking elements of Scottish independence and mixing in a healthy dose of US politics, before projecting how things might turn out going forward. The result was…interesting (and very dark).


It's not all doom and gloom though. One of the things that's kept life bearable for me during lockdown is music. I listen to a lot of different genres, but my real passion is classical music. Last year was the 250th anniversary of Beethoven's birth, and this inspired me to write a piece exploring what it might be like for a professional musician at the top of their game to experience deafness. I chose an opera singer, and structured it as a twin timeline, one running forward; the other running backwards. (It was a difficult piece to write technically, but from a story POV it flowed very well.)


But all my stories - books, short stories, or flash fiction - start the same way. I observe something, and at some point I observe something else. The magic happens when these two ideas come together and ask the question, 'What if?'


A couple of examples: I work in a hospital as a senior IT Trainer. One winter's evening a few years back, I was walking out to go home when I saw all the resuscitation dummies lined up ready for a CPR class the next day. Driving home, I heard a programme on the radio about locked-in syndrome, and the two ideas came together. Over the next week, I wrote a rather creepy story about souls being trapped in the resus dummies and taking over the next person to try CPR with them. It sold to the first place I sent it out to, and I later sold the audio rights.


Another time, I had been listening to the wonderful Professor Stephen Hawking talking about the dangers of AI, and later in the day I was reading an article about the ethics of DNAR (Do Not Attempt Resuscitation) notices within the medical profession. Again, the two ideas came together and I wrote a short piece of flash fiction about an AI being brought online, realising it had no soul, and going into shutdown.


Of course, the direction I took with these ideas is to some extent dictated by my interests - I like horror, and crime, and as an engineer, I have more than a degree of interest in science fiction. Someone else could take the same ideas and come up with something completely different.


I suppose the point of all this is that ideas are everywhere - you just have to remain open to them. Figure out what works for you (writing things down works for some people, and not others, although it's 'advice' you'll hear everywhere) and above all else, keep at it. It's like a muscle - if you don't exercise it, it tends to atrophy. And don't be afraid of a blank page. Think of it as an opportunity, rather than a challenge. Try freewriting if it works, jotting down ideas and thoughts, see if you can pick out the threads of a story.


But above all, just write. Bad writing can always be improved. No writing is just that, an empty space awaiting ideas.


Peter Leyland said…
Just write, good advice and not only for writers of fiction like yourself Neil. The lockdown is giving us all sorts of opportunities to write from life, fiction or facts, where is the boundary? You explain well how your stories might originate from something overheard and then presumably be bent and tempered in the fires of the imagination.

Yes, I'll all that empty lockdown space with words. Thanks for this
Eden Baylee said…
Hi Neil,

This >> "...ideas are everywhere - you just have to remain open to them."


Happy Monday,
Kirsten Bett said…
Hi Neil, great blog! I love how you also get ideas through music. And your advice on free writing works. I take part in Wendy's Authorpreneur Accelerator Academy and free writing combined with the daily 1-hour of writing challenge has led to the start of a new book. I am just letting it take me where it will and sometimes it feels more like reading than writing except when those moments of choice pop up:)

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