Where [oh God please please don’t say it] do you get your ideas? An unexpected inspiration

Gabriel García Márquez was driving his family on holiday when a childhood memory of touching ice came into his head in the form of the first line of what would become One Hundred Years of Solitude. Apparently he slammed on the brakes, turned the car around, jettisoned the family holiday, and returned home to write. I somehow doubt his Nobel Prize for Literature is on the shelf next to a Father of the Year award.

When C. S. Lewis was sixteen, he had a daydream of a faun carrying an umbrella and a bundle of parcels through snowy woods. With somewhat less urgency than Marquez, he got around to writing a novel around that two decades later, adding a lion, a witch and a wardrobe.

Stephen King got Misery from a dream. Arthur Conan Doyle got Sherlock Holmes from his tutor at medical school. Chuck Wendig claims to get his ideas either from shady men in trenchcoats or from you while you’re sleeping.

Mostly, let’s face it, there isn’t an amusing story. You think of a thing and there’s another thing that kind of goes with the first thing, and a what-if, and a where, and then you wonder what kind of idiot would get into that situation, and then you have the outlines of a plot. You didn’t get the idea, it just grew in your head, like blue woolly stuff on forgotten cheese.

All that said…

My four year old likes to play with fridge magnets and present the results.

‘Mummy, how do you say that?’

‘Kgeuntbd.’

‘What does it mean?’

‘Nothing, sweetie.’

‘WELL WHY IS IT WRITTEN, THEN?’

The other day he called me over to display the word ‘feximal’. Well, if ‘feximal’ doesn’t mean something, it should. Is it a superlative like ‘optimal’, and in that case, what would be a feximal outcome? Is it a classification of nature – animal, vegetable, feximal?

Or is it a name? And if it is a name, whose name is it? What kind of person has a name like that? And what first name could possibly go with it?

Well, I can now tell you. Simon Feximal is a Victorian ghost-hunter, in the mould of Thomas Carnacki and Dr Silence. He has a complicated private life, and a set of living occult tattoos constantly rewriting themselves on his body, and his first story has just been submitted to a publisher.

So that’s where I get my ideas, apparently. Kiddy fridge magnets. How about you?

Reducing Your Options: how to beat the blank page

– Mummy, tell me a story. About a princess, and a cat, and a … fridge.

– A fridge?

– An ANGRY fridge.

My kids used to ask me for these all the time. They’d pick three items from whatever drifted across their mind or vision – cows, trees, forks, balls, trains, the colour yellow – and wait expectantly for a story. (I don’t know why three, except it’s a natural storytelling number.)

It’s surprisingly easy to do. Not that The Angry Fridge and Other Stories is going to win the Carnegie, but once you start telling a story about a princess, and you know that a fridge has to play a role, and you consider why a fridge would be angry (because it’s empty? Is that because the cat ate all the food?) the story pretty much writes itself.

I’ve recently done some sticker storybook gigs. Each book has a topic, eg Monsters, and offers a few pages of stickers – various monsters, footprints, caves, monster grooming products, funny food, whatever. The idea is that the child writes a story and uses some of the stickers, rebus style. I was asked to do a couple of sample stories for each book. Pick some stickers and write a story round them. It was harder than the three-item story by an order of magnitude. The possibilities seemed endless. Is the monster nice? Scary? On holiday? At war? I could write anything! Where do I start?

And then we come to writing novels, where your sticker sheet encompasses all known and unknown creation, past present and future. That’s a lot of stickers to choose from.

This is why the notorious blank page is such a terrifying thing to writers. It’s not scary because it’s empty. It’s scary because it’s potentially full of everything in the world, and how the hell do you start from there? You end up flailing, writing half a dozen versions of the same scene, or not writing at all because how can you tackle anything of that magnitude?

And the answer is, reduce your options. Pick a sticker, and millions of options fall away. For every choice you make, you home in on the actual final shape of the story, like a sculptor cutting away all the bits of stone that aren’t the statue.

A small practical example. I’ve got a final showdown scene to do. Our heroes (soldier and spy) are outnumbered and in big trouble in a remote country house, with bad guys all round and a McGuffin to retrieve, and damned if I know how we’re going to get there. Is the showdown outside? Inside? Who’s getting killed, who’s folding? Is our spy actually going to be there or has he buggered off to manipulate events from behind the scenes? Are we talking about a siege or a capture/turnaround situation? Too many options!

So pick a sticker. Say the soldier has a shotgun that holds two rounds, while the villains have cutting edge semi-automatic rifles that chamber six rounds and shoot far faster than a shotgun. And immediately the shape of a scene springs out: this can’t simply be a shootout, the soldier is outgunned, the spy has to box clever.

Or pick a different sticker. The soldier has a revolver with six rounds, the villains have fowling pieces loaded with buckshot, we have a siege situation, this is the soldier’s big story moment…

Almost, it doesn’t matter what you pick (within reason – I’m not working an angry fridge into this). But pick something, reduce your options, and watch the shape of the story emerge from the fog of limitless possibility.

Inspiration: from Facebook to Freud

I had a silly Internet conversation.

Alex: When you become a world renown writer with like 10 books on the NY Times top selling books list, can you make one TERRIBLE psychology pun in a book, so I know that you love me

KJ: If you can give me a good psychology gag appropriate to the Edwardian era (Freud, I suppose?) I’ll see if I can get it in the one I’m doing now. Hmm. I’m looking at 1902 here, would that be hideously anachronistic? Off to Wikipedia!

KJ: Oh bah, the period’s wrong. I shall keep this challenge in mind, somehow.

Alex: Wait, this is not the wrong era

Alex: oh, out by a few years

KJ: 1902 so Freud wasn’t famous yet

KJ: Alright, the Psychotherapy Gag Gauntlet has been thrown down and accepted subject to me writing a book set after 1904.

And there the matter rested and I thought no more about it.

Three weeks and 20,000 words later, I was doing a conversation that revealed backstory.

I knew that my hero, Daniel da Silva, had been kicked out of Cambridge. I knew why, it’s important for his character and reactions, but I wasn’t sure what he’d done next. I was sure he’d finished his degree somehow, he’s a stubborn sort. So, when I came to that part of his backstory, I wondered if he’d he’d gone abroad.

Where? Well, Germany was the European centre of education in 1902. And a German education would mean he speaks fluent German, which would open up all kinds of new fields for his part-time employment as a spy. I had already started wondering if maybe his mother should be German, to give him fluent language skills; the foreign education is a much more elegant solution.

So, I had a useful backstory point. Nothing serious. But at this point, a number of existing plot points and issues started to coalesce.

  • If da Silva speaks German, lived there, has probably been travelling for spying purposes in the German alliance states of fin de siècle Central Europe, he might well have encountered some cutting edge thoughts on how the mind works.
  • In fact, Da Silva has a phobia of going underground. Might he have sought out and consulted some forward-thinking doctor about that?
  • Curtis, his counterpart, has a post-traumatic psychosomatic injury. You try saying that in Edwardian English. But if da Silva was able to discuss that in the context of modern (1902) thought…
  • Da Silva is ultra-modern, intellectual, Jewish, Continental, introspective – all the things that Freud represented that were alien to a stolidly English mindset, such as Curtis’s, which da Silva is busy upsetting, leading to some wonderfully difficult conversations.
  • And after quite a lot of subterfuge, sneaking, verbal sparring, psychological cave torture and bare-knuckle fighting, I really needed a scene where the two of them could stop, and talk, and laugh…

Bugger me. What I needed, quite specifically, was one of the psychology jokes that Alex had sent me.

 

Now, I absolutely did not twist the plot to shoehorn in a joke. I’d entirely forgotten about the silly Facebook chat at that point. But somehow, spending five minutes three weeks ago looking at early psychology on Wikipedia had fermented at the back of my mind till I had a really useful bit of backstory, a way to talk about one of the characters’ issues, a running theme that clarified the contrast in personality and background between them, and a terrific joke for a scene that needed the sort of connection that comes with shared laughter.

I’m not sure what this goes to show about writing, except that you never know what will prove fertile ground for the story to grow. But thank you, Freud, for the glory that is the human subconscious. And thank you, Alex, for the joke.