It’s the most common question asked at the end of a talk, and the most difficult to answer. Or rather, there are so many different answers.
· An abiding memory or recollection (the starting-point of We Never Had It So Good)
· Something heard or read that starts the mind turning (my interest in reading about the railway Stephenons would not have given me the urge to write a novel had I not been intrigued by the dramatic decision of young Robert to go off on a risky venture in Colombia only months after his father had installed him as managing director of their locomotive-building company – this became the main impetus for writing Mr Stephenson’s Regret).
· A stray thought that occurs while doing something else, with some loose association (the inciting incident for 11:59 came from listening to a late night radio phone-in while driving, and thinking, ‘What if...?’).
· A headline in a newspaper (started the sub-plot of 11:59).
· An evocative word or phrase (the theme for the stories I’m currently writing emerged from thinking about the folk definition of a Geordie as one born within the smell of the Tyne).
There are a dozen more possibilties. I suppose most could be generally grouped under the notion, ‘Life happens: something sticks.’ The trick is to pin it down when it does. I have always kept an Ideas File, and I make a new entry when anything remotely promising occurs to me – I write a note in the form of a provisional title and anything from one sentence to three paragraphs about the appropriate casing for the idea (a story? a play? a novel? an article?) and how it might develop. 99% of these ideas will never go beyond those few sentences, but I get them down quickly before they disappear altogether, and because I never know which is the 1% that I may eventually husband and grow into a capable creative life form.
As with any gardening, some plants seem to start well, then unaccountably wither and die. Others, that you thought were flowers, turn out to be weeds. (How frustrating that is for the writer/gardener; all that labour spent.)To continue the metaphor, one flower does not a garden make. It is not enough to have one idea to sustain your piece of work; you must germinate others along the way. Some of them come from the scoping and planning before you get deep down into the soil, but I’m always amazed by how much takes root and spreads right there beneath your fingers as you work, nudging with impatience as you dig channels and clear paths trying to bring some sense of order, some coherence of colours.
Stephen King, writing about writing, has also described the process as like digging, but he sees it less like a gardener than as an archaeologist slowly uncovering the bones of a huge fossil – dinosaur, or whatever – that is already there. It’s an interesting notion, that somehow the story is already there, waiting to be found. Where do you get your ideas from? The question seems to imply that there is a bank of ideas you can tap into, but what if King is right, that somewhere in our collective unconscious there are whole stories awaiting discovery? It would help explain the phenomenon descibed by many writers, and that I have experienced myself, of our characters telling us where we must go next, as if there were indeed some pre-determined track to follow.
Maybe the reason so many people seem to be fascinated by the source of ideas is that they have felt something there themselves, something tantalisingly out of reach as they have not the tools to excavate. Maybe the real answer to Where do you get your ideas from? is that they are universal, lying somewhere in all of us.