It’s the eternal question.
“Where do you get your ideas from?”
I have several stock answers. My favourites are: “Ebay!” and “I steal them from your dreams while you sleep!” (When asked the same question, the much-missed Terry Pratchett used to say that he got his ideas from warehouse called Ideas R Us. For the record, I would go a long way to find a store full of Pratchett ideas.)
If I’m being honest, however, the answer is ‘everywhere’.
Most authors have a part of their brain that’s a bit like a deranged magpie. It’s always on the lookout for shiny things that can be stored away and used in a story later. Even as I’m going about my everyday life, thinly disguised as a sensible adult, the magpie is noticing oddities, street names, fragments of conversation or incomprehensible details that it can scavenge. It’s a habit of the mind.
Fleeting chance episodes can provide unexpected inspiration. On a train, I once overheard two women talking about a cat showing symptoms of shock, having seen or experienced something unknown but terrifying. Another time, I saw a red-haired woman sprint out into traffic so that she could tenderly pick up a dead pigeon and carry it away. Both these tiny incidents became seeds for stories that I later wrote.
Sometimes I’ll be chatting with friends when I feel the magpie fluttering. Once a good friend told me about a time when she’d been stranded on an open boat for hours, unable to escape the searing sun as she slowly dehydrated and burned. I was sympathetic, of course… but then I found myself asking whether I could use that episode in a book. She very kindly said yes. (People are often surprisingly generous about such things!)
Travelling tops up my store of ideas. I’m a great believer in the benefits of culture shock – it forces me to question all my lazy opinions and assumptions, and kicks the complacency out of me for a bit. During any trip, I fill a journal with my experiences, discoveries and new ideas. Funnily enough, the things and places that inspire me don’t tend to be the ones that appear on all the postcards. Tick-box tourism only shows you what you came to see. When you’re in a new place, there’s a lot to be said for taking some time to wander, and letting it surprise you.
When I visit somewhere new, whether it’s in the UK or abroad, I always try to find out about its history and folklore. I see a place differently once I know its stories. When I visited New Zealand, for example, I fell in love with its volcanoes, but it was a local legend about a volcano love triangle that really caught my imagination. When I wrote my third book, Gullstruck Island, I made the volcanoes inscrutable characters in their own right.
History fascinates me. I don’t mean the big, dry facts, or the dates you’re supposed to memorise, or the deeds of kings. I mean all the weird and vivid stories that long-dead people have lived, in a version of the world like but unlike our own. Even my wildest imaginings are nothing compared to things that real people have done, created, said or believed.
Dig into the past, and you come across all sorts of bizarre and wonderful things, begging to be used in a story. A kite-powered carriage. A woman who wore fake arms so nobody noticed her picking pockets. A mummified cat hidden in a wall to bring good luck to the house. Victorian photographs of dead loved ones, posed to look as if they were alive.
Story ideas are everywhere, glittering half-seen amid the mundane. It’s just a matter of training your greedy inner magpie…