-- Where Do You Get
Your Ideas From?
©2002, John Ravenscroft
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."
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 Stephen King is bang on -- not one of them
has ever asked me where I get my ideas. 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.
recently that although writers don't ask the dreaded question, radio
interviewers frequently do. Well, the one who interviewed me did.
us, John," she said, smiling her nice, red, Radio Lincolnshire smile into
her nice, red, Radio Lincolnshire microphone, "Where do you get your ideas
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."
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 was published a while back: Fairy Story.
was a competition entry. The magazine running the competition 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
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.
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 Fairy
Story, which you can read here: http://www.johnravenscroft.co.uk/11687.html
It was fun to
write, but it didn't do anything in the competition. A few months later I sent Fairy
Story (completely unchanged) to another competition. It came second and
earned me £150. Moral: Don’t bin your rejects. Find a stamp and send 'em out
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
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 forever. 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. They hadn't spoken to each
other since they arrived. Not one word.
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 is 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, and ordered
another. On a shelf above his head I noticed a stuffed owl.
clicked inside me, and I had the central image of what was to become Watching
Through Glass: an owl smashing into a huge window. 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.
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
writers, and we never ask one another where we get our ideas; we know we don't
old Stephen King is right on both counts after all.
John Ravenscroft has written several prize-winning stories,
including Watching Through Glass, which took 2nd prize in the 2001
Leominster Festival of the Arts Short Story Competition.
His web site is at http://www.johnravenscroft.co.uk/.