From Spark to Story …

One of the questions writers are often asked is where they get their ideas. It’s a perfectly good question but it’s also one I find perplexing. Because getting ideas is not my problem. If anything, my problem is having too many ideas. I think that once you open your eyes to what’s around you, there are stories absolutely everywhere.

I mentioned earlier that Surface Tension began with the image of a drowned town. But I also said that the image slept in the back of my mind for over 25 years. Because an image is not a story. Even an idea is not a story. For me, there’s a kind of collision that needs to happen before that initial spark of something begins to turn into a story – a sort of bumping together of two or more little fragments.

In Surface Tension, the image of the drowned town somehow bumped against a character idea I had. I was reading a book called The Member of the Wedding, by one of my favourite writers, Carson McCullers. In the book, a girl called Frankie has an older sister who’s getting married, and somehow Frankie convinces herself that she’ll be going with her sister after the wedding, which of course isn’t the case.

I started thinking about a character who was a ‘late baby’, born years after her older siblings, and who feels disconnected from their family history, all the stories that were made before she came along. Somehow that idea bumped up against the ‘drowned town’ image. I started wondering about a girl who not only missed the making of her family history, but also the place in which it was made. Maybe they lived in the town that got flooded? Maybe she never did and is now haunted by that idea. Ooh. What if she was born on the day it was flooded and that’s why she feels so connected to it? 

That’s where that story started. I can’t tell you why those two ideas connected in the way they did – that’s a mysterious part of the process that I often don’t quite understand. But I do love how it works.

A couple of the Lightning Strikes Books I mentioned in my last post came together in similar ways.

With Going for Broke, the two things were:

  •  An assembly I went to at my daughter’s primary school. There was a boy who had won a merit award for neat handwriting, who looked like he’d much rather have the shiny trophy a Year 7 kid had won for BMX bikeriding.
  • Looking through old photos and remembering my older brother’s attempts to break a world record when we were kids.

Once those two things had come together, the story began to form.

With Wreck the Halls, the two things were:

  • seeing my house on Google Maps and thinking it would be funny if something weird/embarrassing had been happening when the photo was taken, which would then be on the Internet for everyone to see.
  • knowing some people who moved, without realising, into a street where everyone goes all-out with their Christmas lights.

For me, ideas are easy. I collect them every day and jot them down into notebooks. And then I wait. I never say, I think I’ll work on this idea now. Okay, what can I write about? and I don’t say What if …? as I know some writers do. I just wait for an idea to join up with something else and push its way to the surface of  my mind.

Once it has a momentum and an energy of its own, once the story starts taking off by itself and I can’t stop thinking about it – that’s when I know it’s time to sit down and get cracking, to do the hard work of trying to find a narrative shape for it. And that’s when my problems really start!

1 Response so far

  1. 1

    Zack Waite said,

    Winters day 1939 poor Adam made to live Russia with little food and bad health to hide from war sounds hard.


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