A case in point: Last time, I talked about Craftsmanship, and in the comments Quantum said, "It seems to me that generating ideas for new plots is even more important…Can you comment on how ideas for new novels are generated. Do you have to work at it or do the ideas just float into your mind from the aether?"
And since that seemed to be a topic too involved for me to give a good reply within the comments, I asked Quantum to bear with me while I thought it through properly.
“Where do you get your ideas?” is one of those questions that all writers struggle to answer. For me, at least, it’s difficult to come up with one pat answer that explains the process, because every book I’ve written has begun a different way.
With my second novel, Mariana, for example, I was sitting on my sofa one night when I “saw” a scene in my imagination, so I grabbed a piece of paper and wrote it down, with dialogue and everything. And when I read it over, I could tell it was a woman of the modern day experiencing something in the very distant past—another century, in fact. Which meant a story in two times…except when she was in the past she didn’t seem to be aware of any other life, so that meant, what? Reincarnation? Possibly…
And so, from that beginning, grew the novel. I went looking for the setting, which I stumbled on while travelling through England with a friend who made me board a bus to Avebury (I didn’t want to go) where I discovered all the buildings—pub and manor house and church and grey stone house—just as I’d “seen” them in my mind. I picked the Plague Year as my time frame (likely thanks to my own interest in King Charles II, and my too-young reading of Forever Amber), and the rest just…happened. It just grew.
The Winter Sea began when I picked up a little history book entirely by chance, because the title caught my interest: Playing the Scottish Card, by Edinburgh historian John S. Gibson. “The Franco-Jacobite Invasion of 1708” read the subtitle, and never having heard of the Franco-Jacobite Invasion of 1708 I started to read it, and became completely riveted, letting Gibson’s bibliography carry me back to the primary sources, where I found John Moray, and everything, again, just grew from there.
Every Secret Thing began at a dinner with friends, when one of them (an older man) was recounting his father’s experiences in World War II intelligence, and an injustice he’d witnessed and spent the last years of his life trying to bring to light. “He’d set up a meeting with a journalist,” my friend said, “but he died before the meeting could take place.” And everyone agreed that was a sad thing, and the talk moved on. But my brain, with its writer’s love of angles, had already started building possibilities, and by the time we’d finished our dessert I had the character of Andrew Deacon firmly lodged within my mind, beginning his adventures.
The Rose Garden grew from the death of my sister, because that’s what writers do. Writing is how we make sense of the world, how we process life. Things happen, and we work through them with stories and characters.
But if every idea that starts a new story arrives in a different way, what do they all have in common?
I’ve thought about this, since you asked, and while I wouldn’t say they “float in from the aether”, exactly, I do think they’re like those fluffy seeds that float by on the summer wind, except instead of floating past, they fall into a bed of soil that’s already prepared and has been waiting for them.
Let me use, as an example, my novel The Shadowy Horses. The simple answer would be that immediately after reading something about Rosemary Sutcliffe’s The Eagle of the Ninth (which I still haven’t read, incidentally), I chanced to read a chapter in H.V. Morton’s In Scotland Again where he mentions the Eyemouth Disaster of 1881, in which nearly their entire fishing fleet was wiped out by a freak storm, and the two things—those two groups of men being lost in the same general area, in different times—just crossed wires in my mind and formed the seed of story.
But I’d argue that the bed of soil was already prepared and waiting for that seed to float by and fall into it. My mother, when I was a little girl, read stories to me of the Roman Empire, and passed on to me her fascination with not only Rome but Roman Britain. Though I’d never read The Eagle of the Ninth I was aware of the mysterious “disappearance” of Legio IX Hispana, and like many others wondered what had really happened. Also when I was little, I’d spent time on an archaeological dig (again thanks to my mother, who was volunteering) and found that fascinating, too—an interest I was able to explore a little more when I entered museum work myself.
So while in any other writer’s garden, that small story seed might have dried up and come to nothing, it was just the kind of seed that I could tend and grow.
Where do ideas come from? I’m afraid I still don’t have an easy answer
I’d imagine that for every writer it’s a different place, a different process. But for me, I guess it really is a whole lot like a garden. Some seeds look like they’re about to grow, and don’t. Some shoot up quickly and with purpose. And then there are others, like the seed that grew to be The Winter Sea, that take their time, and bloom the brightest of them all.