One of the most common questions I’m asked at events or on social media is where my ideas come from. I don’t have an Ideas Shop just down the road from where I live – but I do have an Ideas Factory. It’s this:
I listen to people talking and I think about what they say.
You might be disappointed by my ‘revelation’ but here’s how it works. If a person finds a situation remarkable enough to tell me about, then that’s an indication that there’s something worth exploring. ‘Remarkable’ is good.
Sometimes it can be a central idea. Over dinner, a friend told me about her holiday from hell. I laughed until I cried as she made it sound very funny but in amongst the extraordinary happenings was a story of a family in crisis, a woman who was acting bizarrely because she’d fallen violently in love with a younger man. She’d kept another big secret, too, and the truth came out during the holiday.
It’s no coincidence that my next release is called Just for the Holidays because I asked my friend if I could use some of the basic facts of her holiday from hell. I haven’t used all of them but what I have used is what I thought about: the confusion and fear of the woman with the secrets, the impossible situation she got herself into and the incredible fallout in her family. In fact, it’s her sister who’s the heroine of my novel, because she’d chosen to be single but ended up in France looking after her niece, nephew and brother-in-law. This irony underpins the story.
This technique has worked for me with novels, short stories and serials. If someone tells me an anecdote about a little girl who wouldn’t come home from the park or a lady who went to the funeral of Eric Brown and realised when Eric Brown tapped her on the shoulder that she was actually at the funeral of Eric Green, I begin thinking about the emotions involved. Why did X do this? How did Y react? And, what message or messages would I like to put across?
To show you how important I believe a message to be to my writing, here’s an example of someone giving me something to think about and my taking a message from it. It’s not a happy story but I hope you forgive me that.
A girl of six was at school. Sitting next to a boy she didn’t like at lunchtime she deliberately spilt his orange juice over him. Almost immediately, she was called to the headteacher’s office and was walked along the school corridors in silence, heart pounding because she thought her moment of meanness had been observed and now she was in big trouble. In the headteacher’s office, she found that her daddy was waiting for her. He’d come to tell her that her mummy and her baby brother had been killed that morning in a car crash. The little girl’s first thought was ‘At least I’m not in trouble for the orange juice.’
What I took from this sad story is: our first reaction to something is not the most important or most far-reaching. It has set off a whole chain of thoughts about bizarre reactions in crisis and what the consequences of them could be. My story will not be about orange juice or bereavement. It will be about first reactions.
Next time you’re short of ideas listen to the stories of others and just think about them. You don’t have to lift entire stories but just use one aspect as a starting point. What if …? Why …?