Where do you get your ideas from?

The question “where do you get your ideas from?” is one writers dread. It’s a very popular first question at school visits and talks, and probably a natural one but it’s still extremely difficult to answer.

Just googling for where do you get your ideas from? produces pages of authors agonising over this question. Neil Gaiman’s answer is the first hit.

It’s difficult for the people who ask this question to understand why it casts us creative types into such convulsions as we strive to articulate an answer. I think the problem lies in the fact that the instant answer that flashes through my mind is “wheredon’t I get my ideas from?”

In fact it reminds me a little of when I was eleven years old and being asked by classmates “what’s it like to have a mother whose an author?” Again, the answer is: “well, what’s it like not to?” There’s no basis for comparison.

Having ideas for stories is one of the things that makes me a writer. I have them all the time. Sometimes it would be a mercy to have less of them since I have bulging files (actual and theoretical) of ideas I haven’t had the opportunity to do anything with yet. My head is stuffed with fragments of stories and snapshots of scenes, sometimes just names, words, a single sentence of dialogue.

Terry Pratchett has written about inspiration particles sleeting through the cosmos. Someone else (and if you know who, please tell me) described writers as dragging around an ideas net and everything that happens to us gets stuffed into the net.

One part of this question that some people focus on is whether writers get our ideas from real life: real people and real events. For me the answer to this is “much less than you might expect”. Real people and real situations can inspire me with ideas or empower the reality of my fiction but I don’t stuff my friends (or enemies) into my books. My characters are also much more me than they are anyone else. Raven was an ego ideal for me when I first wrote her. The three cousins in ‘Waking Dream’ and the five teenagers in ‘Bad Blood’ all have aspects of me in them. And ‘Bad Blood’ of course, has its origins in a real house and the real scenery of the Lake District. But if you’re worried about writers being a sort of vulture, greedying up bits of other people’s lives and using them in our fiction – that’s not the way I work. Perhaps because my literary origins are in fantasy, I hoestly don’t find real life interesting enough to write about – not without considerable embellishment.

For aspiring authors wanting to find ideas, the best advice I can give is that everything has the capacity to inspire. The more I learn and read and think the more ideas I have; too many to ever write them all down.

One vision I have of heaven is a place where every book that has ever been thought of exists and could be read. Not just my ideas, although there are some I’ve had that I’ve love to read the book since I don’t know how to write it… yet. But more importantly the unwritten ideas of the authors I’ve loved. Books they might have written but died before they could, or books they thought of writing but didn’t. I know from talking to my mother, Mary Hoffman, about ideas that she has the same problem of far too many than she can use.

One word of warning though. Once you open yourself to ideas for stories they come so thick and fast that you may end up forgetting some of them. I try to jot the best ones down even if I don’t have time to do more than summarise them. In my ‘ideas file’ I have synopses and first chapters of about twenty books right now and i have even more snippets tucked away in notebooks. One of the reasons writers will tend to carry a pen and paper is to keep track of the ideas. Sudden inspirations, like butterflies, flutter past all the time and need to be caught in the net or pinned to a page. Unlike butterflies, pinnning them down doesn’t hurt ideas and the more you think about them and play with them the more they flourish.

A stock of ideas, carefully saved, is a dragon’s hoard of gold. Some ideas are fairy gold and can vanish if you try to spend them. Others cluster together and can be scooped up in a shining goblet of rainbow gems. Some that seemed glittery turn out to be fool’s gold – or lead. But the shiny metaphor is leading me off into other questions for other days like “how do you use your ideas?” and “how can you tell which ones are the good ones?”

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