In his excellent book 'On Writing' Stephen King - a writer who makes a little more money at the game than I do - says this: "We are writers, and we never ask one another where we get our ideas; we know we don't know."
In my experience, the first half of that sentence is the simple truth. The second half? Well, I’m not so sure.
I’ve met quite a few writers in my time, and here old SK is bang on - not one of them has ever asked me where I get my ideas from. Maybe that’s because my ideas stink, but I don't intend to unwrap that particular parcel right now. I mean, there's always the chance I might get asked to write another article someday – a motivational piece, perhaps: One Hundred Crap Writing Ideas For Writers In Search Of A Challenge. Could be a hot seller, and as my wife keeps reminding me, I have a duty to win bread and put it on her table.
Anyway. I digress.
I discovered recently that although writers don’t ask the dreaded question, radio interviewers frequently do. Well, the one who interviewed me did.
‘So, tell us, John,’ she said, smiling her nice, red, Radio Lincolnshire smile into her nice, red, Radio Lincolnshire microphone, ‘where do you get your ideas from?’
I’m tempted to do a bit of a Jeffrey Archer at this point and tell you I came back with a smooth and snappy answer, but the embarrassing truth is I’d nipped into the pub an hour before nipping into the studio (I get nervous) so I can’t actually remember what I said. Something like hic! I expect – followed by a mumbled sentence or two along the lines of: ‘I don't know where they come from... It’s a mystery… I’m just grateful when they arrive.’
Thinking about it later – after the Guinness had worn off – I came to the conclusion that no, I don’t know where my ideas come from in quite the same way that I know Tripe and Pasta dog food is on special offer at Tesco, but I do have an inkling, a kind of fuzzy awareness. There are certain processes going on just before a story idea winks, flashes and (with luck) explodes inside my head, and although I can’t pin them down with any precision, I can usually sense them charging up and preparing to spark.
As an example, let’s take a piece of mine that appeared in the last issue of BuzzWords: 'Fairy Story'.
Originally it was a competition entry. The magazine running the comp wanted writers to submit Adult Fairy Stories – so for a while I’d been thinking around that concept, hoping something vaguely Fairylike would start jumping up and down and pointing to itself. Nothing did - not until one painful Saturday morning when I was fitting a new electrical socket beneath a shelf in the living room. Reaching for a screwdriver I turned my face and brushed against a spider’s web. I don’t like spiders. I jerked my head up and smashed my skull on the bracket supporting the shelf.
It hurt like hell – but suddenly I had the core image for my story. A guy with his head in the oven and a fairy’s wings fluttering against his face.
Why an oven? Dunno. Don’t ask me. Something to do with the hot, sticky, confined space under the shelf I suppose, although why that should translate into ovens and thoughts of suicide, I know not. Perhaps I need therapy.
Anyway, from that initial image it was just a case of asking myself questions. Why did the guy have his head in the oven? What was the fairy doing there? How would a fairy auditioning for the lead role in an adult fairy story behave? She’d be a boozer, that went without saying, and she’d have a bit of a mouth on her – and she probably wouldn’t wear knickers!
The result was the story you read in BuzzWords 12 - at least I hope you read it. It was fun to write, but it didn’t do anything in the competition. (NB. A few months later I sent Fairy Story (completely unchanged) to another comp. It came second and earned me £150. Moral – don’t bin your rejects. Find a stamp and send ‘em out again!)
Another story of mine – 'Watching Through Glass' – was born as I was sitting in yet another pub (you picking up any personality traits yet?) taking a break on a long journey to Birmingham. Believe me, when you’re heading for Birmingham you need to take plenty of breaks.
I sat in a quiet corner sipping my pint, reading a Raymond Carver story, and people-watching. People-watching is one of my favourite pastimes. Reading Raymond Carver stories is another.
A couple came into the pub and sat at a nearby table. I guessed they were in their forties and they looked like they’d been married to each other for ever. The woman sat down, the man went to the bar and ordered drinks and some food.
I returned to my book – it was 'Call If You Need Me' and I was reading the title story – but all the time I was aware of this couple, curious about them. They had absolutely nothing to say to each other. The man brought over their drinks and sat down. A few minutes later their food arrived. Since walking in they hadn’t spoken to each other. Not one word.
There’s an unhappy couple in the Carver story, and as I was reading, peeking, reading - the two couples began to merge in my imagination. I got to the section in the story where the fictional couple are in a café looking out of the window and the man sees a hummingbird. At that point the real couple exchanged a few whispered words – I was too far away to hear – and the woman suddenly got up and almost ran to the toilet. The man drained his pint, went to the bar, ordered another. On a shelf above his head I noticed a stuffed owl.
Something clicked inside me, and I had the central image - an owl smashing into a huge window - of what was to become 'Watching Through Glass' (later rewritten and retitled 'Owls'). In that same instant I also had my characters: a couple with marital problems, unable to communicate, the guy a drinker. And I knew the owl smashing into the glass would be some kind of metaphor – a shattering of the barrier between them.
Again, from that point on, building the story was just a case of asking the right questions.
So I guess what I’m saying here is this. My ideas come from making connections, and sometimes those connections are very sudden and to some degree beyond my conscious control.
"We are writers, and we never ask one another where we get our ideas; we know we don't know."
Hmmm… maybe old SK is right on both counts after all.