I’m sure every author’s heart sinks when they’re asked the question ‘So, where do you get your ideas?’. It’s as if the speaker suspects that there’s an ideas shop where we go to buy them.
But we all know that it’s a bit different. The simple answer to the question is – anywhere and everywhere. It can be something you’ve read in the newspaper (I’m a big fan of this one), a song (yup, I’m also in this category) or an overheard snippet of conversation. Wherever it comes from, they’re pesky little so-and-so’s and you have to grab them and write them down immediately, or they disappear from sight.
Whatever way the idea comes, you use your writer brain to turn it into a story. For example, as a crime writer, I always put a dark spin on everything. I was listening to a song that was supposed to be romantic, about a man (or it could be a woman) waiting for someone out in the street, watching their house, in the pouring rain. My first thought was ‘why is he waiting outside in the pouring rain? Sounds like a stalker to me’. And off I went. This has turned into a really dark tale of domestic violence and he’s watching his ex-partner. Creepy, yes? It even slightly frightens me. And yes, I know that I should accept it as a romantic song, but frankly I’m not a very romantic person and this is what works for me.
The best way I find to develop ideas is to have a game of ‘what if…?’. Start to ask yourself questions about your story – what if this happened, what if that happened, how would your character react to that situation. You’ll soon find the story spinning out and surprising you in a lot of ways. Raymond Chandler always said ‘When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand’ – what would happen to your story in this instance?
I think for crime writers it’s particularly worrying to tell people what gives you your ideas, because it can be really scary to hear how a crime writer’s brain works. They seek out the worst of the world, people who torture and kill and abuse, and then bring them to life on the page. What’s also strange is that the writers who pen the most dark and disturbing books are usually the nicest people you can meet. If you don’t believe me, read books by Elizabeth Haynes and Mel Sherratt and then go and meet them in person – you won’t be able to reconcile the two.
I understand though that the question is probably asked in an admiring tone, because the person is truly mystified about how you formulate your ideas, especially for writers who have a big back list. How do you create new ideas when you’ve written so many books? It has been said that there are only seven plotlines in the world, and this may be true, but it’s how you put the flesh on these skeletons that counts.
So, off you go, read the newspaper or online news and start playing ‘what if’ – I’d love to see the results in the comments below!