The single question that writers are asked most often is ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’, so much so that it has become a cliché . Not so long ago someone started asking me this question, realised in mid-sentence it was a cliché and quickly re-worded it, but I wasn’t fooled – it was the same question!
Some writers tackle this by making up answers. I have been told there is one writer who jokes that he buys them from a shop. I have two answers, and they are both true. Ideas are actually all around us for the taking – but often it is not the writers who get the ideas but the ideas that get the writers, demand to be written and won’t go away until they are. The problem is that for many of us developing and writing plots is such a subconscious procedure that it is very hard indeed to describe what is happening.
But it is clearly an important question and one I want to address. So here is a story.
Three people go out for a walk. A chef, a photographer and a writer. They all pass by a tree, and the chef thinks about the wonderful fruit on the tree and the dish that can be made with it. The photographer notices the interesting pattern of the branches and realises what a great picture it will make. The writer spots a cleft in the tree and imagines a story about someone hiding stolen jewels there. All three have seen the same tree and in each it has sparked off an idea, but a different idea. All three of these people are working in a creative environment and when someone is immersed in that kind of activity the mind becomes attuned to spotting little cues that will lead on to a project.
Not that the idea springs into the mind full-blown. Far from it. I compare it to one of those crystal experiments I used to do at school with copper sulphate. If you suspend a tiny crystal in a saturated solution the crystal will grow. That is how ideas grow. It starts small, and as it develops in the mind it attracts other thoughts to it. So the little crystal could be a real event, one you read about in a book or a newspaper, or you have witnessed, or an interesting fact, or even just a comment someone makes, but the story it inspires will be different from the way it developed in real life. This is because writers are always asking themselves ‘what would happen if’ and a story will go on from the starting point, one event flowing organically from the one before, or two events combining to lead to another.
Sometimes it is possible to trace the start of a project to something very specific. When I read about a conference in 1880 that decided to ban the teaching and use of sign language in schools for deaf children, a well-meaning idea that actually set back the education of deaf children for about a hundred years, I knew I wanted to write a book in which this was an important issue. That led to Frances Doughty book 5, The Children of Silence, which begins with another real event, which I discovered in a newspaper, the draining of the Paddington canal basin during which fragmentary human remains were found.
I was once given as a secret Santa present a book called Buried Alive by Jan Bondeson about the fear of premature burial and I decided to write a novel involving a fictional mortuary — this was A Case of Doubtful Death. The events in my novel have nothing to do with the events in Buried Alive, but it was that book that provided the initial stimulus, that tiny crystal of an idea.
But I also read so widely on Victorian society and history that sometimes I don’t know where the idea came from at all. The idea for Mr Scarletti’s Ghost, which comes out in September, came to me as I was walking along the street and I just couldn’t say how or why it appeared. It was probably an amalgamation of lots of things I have read about, but as soon as it popped into my head I knew I wanted to write it.
Sometimes a reader will approach a writer and say ‘I’ve just had this wonderful idea and you are the person to write it!’ That’s a difficult one. I only really want to write ideas that energise and fascinate me, and maybe the suggestion will and maybe it won’t. Recently my editor suggested two thoughts to me one of which I knew at once was not something I wanted to do. The other one I wasn’t sure about. I considered ways I could make it work to my satisfaction and couldn’t come up with anything. Then, months later I was thinking about something else and suddenly the two things combined in my head, and locked together into something that really excited me.
Places like Crimefest where writers and readers mingle and talk about books are like a rich nourishing soup all bubbling away. It is an amazingly stimulating environment. Last year an idea that had been idling at the back of my mind as little more than a title, suddenly formed itself into a coherent project while I was at Crimefest. I think the inside of a writer’s mind is also like a kind of soup, heaving away with lots of little bits bobbing about, just waiting for stuff to clump together. I must have been born with it, because the first thing I ever wrote was a poem stimulated by a TV programme, when I was six.
But even if an aspiring writer didn’t start to scribble that early the writer’s mind can be developed. It’s simple really. Read lots. Write lots. Flood yourself with words and information. A man once told me he would like to write a book and when I asked him what about he said he didn’t know. Maybe he thought if he could get the right idea he could write the book. That’s the wrong way round. You write because there is something inside you that needs to be expressed. Be a writer, and the ideas will come to you.
Linda was born in Leicester in 1948 and first started scribbling stories and poems at the age of six. She became interested in true crime when watching Edgar Lustgarten on TV in the 1950s. Linda attended Wyggeston Girls Grammar School, trained to be a chemists dispenser, and later studied at Newcastle University where she obtained a first in Psychology. She then spent 27 years in the civil service before leaving to devote her time to writing. Linda loves spending time in libraries and archives and really enjoys giving talks on her subject. Visit linda at her website www.lindastratmann.com