“Where do you get your ideas from?” is a question writers are often asked – and sometimes all I can say is, “I just don’t know!”
It’s not a very helpful reply, I know, but I’ve been thinking of this recently as I read over a romantic suspense story I’m editing, ready for publication. I started writing The Scottish Diamond quite a while ago, and as I’ve been reading through some of the earlier scenes I honestly don’t know how or where the story first began to come together in my head. There’s no accounting for it, and when I look back on it, it seems like magic.
Take this couple of paragraphs for example, near the start of the book. The heroine, Lizzie, lives in Edinburgh and is in rehearsals for Macbeth. She’s convinced the Scottish play is cursed, and indeed, several unfortunate things have happened since she started rehearsing. Her boyfriend is from a fictional country called Montverrier. He’s unaccountably been turned down for several jobs in Edinburgh, and on top of this, Lizzie is convinced they are being followed because of his previous job as bodyguard to Princess Charlotte of Montverrier.
Here’s a passage that I apparently imagined one day and wrote down:
As the afternoon wore on, Léon shared my upsurge in spirits. The old smile I remembered lurked in his eyes, and occasionally he would tease me about my Scottish accent, copying my voice exactly when I pointed out the “darrrk hoosses” below us, or the “wee bairrrns” playing on the grass. I hadn’t seen Léon so relaxed since we arrived in Edinburgh. I didn’t want our rare light-hearted mood to end, but soon we’d made several circuits round the top of Calton Hill, and there was nothing left to do but make our way back down the stone steps and head for the crowds of shoppers and tourists thronging the streets below.
It wasn’t until we’d walked the entire length of Princes Street and were approaching the art gallery that I saw them again – the two dark-suited men from Montverrier who’d passed me on the steps of Calton Hill. They’d stopped to talk to a young woman seated at a stall by the gallery steps. I recognised them instantly. There was something about them that caused them to stand out from the passers-by. Despite their expensive suits, they had an air of suppressed violence about them. They looked like the sort of smartly-dressed men who would smile politely as they pulled out a gun.
It’s a while since I wrote this passage, and now I can’t for the life of me remember where my own idea has come from. It’s very strange, as I can picture the scene on Princes Street exactly in my mind as though it were real, when in fact it’s something that just came out of my own head.
I’ve been fascinated recently by how human beings can imagine whole ficitional stories in our heads and tell them to someone else so that they can picture it, too. And we start to love stories from such an early age! The photo here is of a story my daughter wrote in Primary School when she was about six years old. I really liked the punchline, so I saved it. You might not be able to decipher the spelling mistakes and the handwriting, but the story is lovely. It’s all about a man called Mr Mean, who “didn’t live in a nice house at all, because he never wanted the windows mended.” She writes, “Do you know what he gave his brother for Christmas? A piece of clay.” Then he’s visited by a wizard, who punishes him for his meaness by turning his money to potatoes, and an old lady punishes him by turning his nose into a carrot. Mr Mean learns his lesson by the end, and the last line reads, “Because he is so generous, he gave his brother two pieces of clay.” What a great story – and how amazing it is when you think about it, that even small children are able to use their imagination and make something up out of their own heads to entertain others.
There are some people who absolutely stand out as imaginative creators. I’ve been thinking particularly about David Bowie these past few weeks, who must be one of the most inventive musicians of our time, and I was really sad to hear of his death. He once said that at the peak of his creativity he would sit and write four or five songs a day. But he also said he suffered times of complete blankness. My favourite song of his – and one of my favourite songs ever – is Sound and Vision, and it’s about a time he suffered a mental block and couldn’t write. (He still turned that block into a brilliant song, though.) There’s an interesting version of it here:
I think when Bowie writes “Don’t you wonder sometimes about sound and vision?” he’s talking about wondering where ideas come from.
If you’re a writer, where do you tell people your ideas come from? If you’re another kind of artist – a singer or painter – how do you find your creative ideas? Did you love stories as a child, and did you dream them up for yourself? If you have any comments at all, I’d love to hear them!