This post is the first in my Ask the Writer series, which answers questions I’ve been asked as a writer, as well as other questions writers are often asked.
Question: Where do your ideas come from?
This is one of those questions asked of writers by readers in almost every Q&A or interview.
And it’s not a bad question as such, although some writers hate it.
It’s just not that easy to answer because the real answer is anywhere.
The thing is, writers don’t have an idea tree sitting side-by-side with a jade money plant (we wish), waiting patiently for them to pluck the next idea-bloom.
No, ideas come from the most obvious and least likely places.
Yes, I meant to write that. The most obvious and least likely places.
Ideas can come from a word, a song lyric, a moment, a feeling, a circumstance, a picture, a person, a holiday, a conversation (whether direct or overheard), your own life … the list is infinite.
Sometimes it’s easy to pinpoint that first idea and other times it’s not.
Sometimes it’s easy to see how that first idea led to the story … and other times it’s not.
Sometimes, as Neil Gaiman says, we “just make them up” out of desperation or boredom.
Let me give you some examples from my own novel-writing experiences.
The initial ideas for my three novels (two are complete and out on submission with publishers and one in is in progress) came from a newspaper article, a flower and a fairy tale.
I like to think of these initial ideas as seeds.
My first novel Wherever You Go (unpublished) was inspired by a reading a newspaper article about a family who had tragically lost all their children in a car accident overseas. I wondered, what would that do to a relationship? How would someone go on after something like that? Would they stay together or fall apart? What would their story be like a few years later? Can you outrun grief?
From that starting point or seed, I wove together a story of moving to a small town (modelled on Bridgetown, Western Australia – read a blog post about my research trip here) after a tragic event. Here’s the short summary:
Wherever You Go is the story of Amy and Matt Bennet, a couple in crisis, newly relocated to a small town after a shattering tragedy, from their emotional escape to the country to learning to live again in a new way. Through food and country hospitality they learn that grief cannot be outrun – it’s with them wherever they go.
Wildflower (unpublished) started with a photo of an acacia in bloom. I took the photo below on a bush walk and loved it so much it was my desktop background for months (indeed, while I was writing the novel).
At the time I was thinking of what to write to enter the Margaret River short story competition and an image of a young girl called Acacia, aged about 10 or 11, came to me. I found myself writing a story about this girl, and her friendship with her neighbour Jane (who is the story’s narrator). At the time, I had no idea where the story was going, but it slowly revealed itself to be a tale about domestic violence seen through the eyes of children.
How did I get that from a flower?
I still have no idea.
I didn’t get my story shortlisted, so I asked writer friend Laurie Steed to assess the 3000-word story. He came back with some fantastic advice and suggested I turn the story into a novel or novella. So, I did.
By this time I already knew the themes I wanted to explore but needed draw them out more. Months later … and I was done.
Here’s the two-sentence summary:
Wildflower is a story of friendship between two 10-year-old girls (plain Jane and exotic Acacia) set in the backdrop of a searing 1970s summer in Sydney. It’s about domestic violence before the phrase ever really existed, in a time when turning a blind eye was simply minding your own business.
The idea for my work-in-progress, The Bush Maiden, came from a Czech fairytale called “The Wood Fairy”. I’m a member of the Australian Fairy Tale Society and it was a monthly reading at one point. I remember thinking, “I’d love to write an Australian-based story set in the Blue Mountains that’s inspired by this fairy tale”, but at the time, I was working on Wildflower.
Luckily, the idea didn’t leave me.
So, when Wildflower was finished, I went to the Blue Mountains for a short research trip. I grew up in Sydney’s West, at the base of the Blue Mountains, and this was a setting I’d long wanted to write about. I remember sitting in a café in Leura back when I’d just started writing Wherever You Go, and telling my best friend I’d write a story set in this area one day. There’s something ancient and mysterious I feel every time I look out to the trees and valleys, especially when they are shrouded in mist. And now, here I was (with my best friend, who lives near this area), overlooking the mist-veiled bush and my mind was whirling with questions and possibilities. We walked through the Everglades in Leura and I saw an old cottage, and I knew a cottage like that, and a garden like the Everglades, would feature in my story.
Late 2018, I finally started writing The Bush Maiden. It’s still in first draft stage and there’s a long way to go, but I can tell you that a reimagined version of “The Wood Fairy” appears, as do references to Frederick McCubbin’s “The Lost Child” painting and a number of historical newspaper articles about lost children and tragic accidents in the mountains. I’m still deciding whether this will be a straight historical story or a dual timeline story.
This picture, taken last year at the Everglades, is now on my desktop, inspiring me while I write The Bush Maiden, because this very place is where the story idea started to come together in my head.
Recently, I used this picture to write a scene where the protagonist, Elsie Birch, is catching her breath while out in the bush:
Here, as she took a moment to recover and remove her shawl, she gasped at the giant eucalypts that stretched from deep in the gully below, a sea of trees reaching for the sky.
Where do my ideas come from?
Everyone has ideas.
Writers just observe them and ponder them, asking questions like What if?
For writers, the initial idea is just the starting point.
They are seeds that, once planted, might grow into a story for readers (after plenty of shaping and pruning and fertilising).
They might not.
But if they don’t, another idea comes along sooner or later.
And then we plant that seed and try again.