By David Flin
“Here’s an idea for your next book.” If I’ve heard that phrase once, I’ve heard it a thousand times. Many people know that I am a writer by trade, and they assume that the hard part of writing is getting the initial idea. They seem to think that by giving an idea, however good or bad it is as a concept, they have done the hard work of writing a story, and all I need to do is merely the writing.
They’re wrong. Any writer who has difficulty coming up with ideas really needs to find another line of work. The hard part is working the ideas through, and developing them into a story. Ideas should not be elusive, and any self-respecting writer can come up with a dozen ideas on any topic at the drop of a hat.
I daresay that I will be challenged to put my money where my mouth is in the comment section on this article. So be it.
However, what’s true for an old hack may not be the case for everyone. If you tend to struggle for ideas to get you started, well, I’m not necessarily going to give you the ideas, but this article may give you a few hints on how to get ideas.
Don’t get too specific Not at this stage. An initial idea is no more than that, just a very simple outline of a concept. For example: there’s a myth that if the Ravens ever leave the Tower of London, disaster will befall Britain. Six ravens are kept at the tower, with their wings clipped, and they are looked after by the Beefeaters to ensure that this disaster never happens. So, what do the Ravens think of all this? There’s an idea. How that idea played out can be found in The Return of King Arthur and Other Myths.
The point is that an idea is not a finished concept. It’s simply the starting point, the spark from which a concept can be fleshed out. It can be anything; a character concept, a setting image, even a simple phrase.
To take an example for the last of these. For unimportant reasons, I’d been playing around with the wording of the American Pledge of Allegiance, and how the Pledge has changed over the years. In particular, I was struck by the 1954 change, which changed “one nation” to “one Nation under God”. Naturally, my errant brain promptly rewrote that as: “one Nation under Dog.” This led, naturally enough, to pondering what American politics would be like if a werewolf was President. It would certainly give State dinners a certain je ne sais quoi during the period of the full moon. It’s only a hook, but from here, the story can be developed in any number of ways.
There are a number of other idea-generating techniques that I’ll briefly discuss.
Flipping concepts can also provide interesting ideas. Some of you may have noticed that there has been discussion about Brexit recently, with some political confusion resulting from the situation.
There has been a slogan running around, “Leave means Leave.” Flip it around; assume that Remain won a narrow victory, that Leave supporters were angry about the result, and that the slogan “Remain means Remain” gained currency. That idea resulted in a collection of short stories.
Flipping is an integral part of alternate history. What would have happened if America had lost the War of Independence? What would have happened if the Germans had launched Operation Sealion? What would have happened if India hadn’t been partitioned on independence?
All you need to do is take one thing that hadn’t, and change the outcome.
This is where you take two totally different concepts, and see what happens when you combine them. There are countless possible options, and the trick is not to worry if there’s no possible connection between the two. It’s the very act of trying to come up with something to merge the two that can inspire ideas. Musicals and WW3, for example. Yes, it can be done. Wacky Races and US Presidential elections. Absolutely. Dastardly Dick Nixon and his sidekick Spiro. In a more serious vein, Romeo and Juliet combined with the Scottish borders produced the idea that became Gentlemen of Leisure, the first chapter of which can be found in The Return of King Arthur and Other Myths
The trick is, when picking the two concepts, not to think too much about what they are. The inspiration comes from trying to rationalise them, and the point is defeated if you’ve thought it through first.
Props. I’ve mentioned before how valuable props can be for inspiration and ideas. Music, paintings, photographs, newspaper headlines, anything can help spark something off. For example, I keep a deck of tarot cards beside the laptop, and if I’m stuck and need inspiration, I draw a card at random, to see if that sparks any idea.
For example, say I’m stuck for an idea about how the Uganda-Tanzanian war of 1979 turns out. It’s only a sideshow to the main TL, so I only need a quick concept. Uganda launched the attack, so I draw a card for how it turns out. I get the seven of wands, which shows a picture of a person with a staff holding off attackers. That suggests a successful defence, which was followed by the Wheel of Fortune, things changing round. Tanzania repels the Ugandan invasion and follows up into Uganda. Finally, we get the Knight of Swords, driven, ambitious, and diving in head first. Sounds like the Tanzanian forces push quickly deep into Uganda, and probably achieve a quick victory.
Obviously, these props are for inspiration, not to lock you into a certain line. If you don’t like the idea, discard it.
It probably varies from person to person, but I find background music very useful when writing. Quite often, a particular composer can give me inspiration and help the flow of a particular piece. Much of Six East End Boys was written to the sound of assorted Irish rebel songs. I’m sure a psychologist would find something deeply significant there, but it got the job done. And before you ask: Jungleland by Bruce Springsteen.
Real life. Don’t laugh. Real life can provide a wealth of ideas. That’s one reason so many authors have fairly exotic personal backgrounds; it gives them plenty of material to call on. Use that hard-won experience. You don’t need to limit yourself to your own experiences. Talk to people and read about people. Sometimes little phrases can spark off a whole idea. I’m sure one can come up with a vignette at least based on the phrase: “In the circles in which I move, sleeping with a woman does not constitute an introduction.” It’s a genuine quote from the 1920s, and explaining it could involve many possibilities.
Coffee shop conversations At the start, I said that when people say: “I’ve got an idea you can use” to me, that idea is rarely of much use. The ideas are often tired and done to death. However, some of the conversations can be illuminating and interesting. There are all sorts of snippets one can pick up, and even misheard comments can generate some interesting ideas. For example, a few years ago in one coffee shop, there was a sign where the space had been misplaced, and it informed customers that there was “Nosmo King.” Who could resist a challenge like that, and the story was born of the quest to find this mysterious undercover operative who went by this name.
As for his colleague, Fyodor Keepshut, the least said, the better.