How do you come up with an idea for a novel? Stephanie Meyer came up with the premise of Twilight after dreaming of vampires. She couldn’t get the characters out of her head, they were so vivid. You’re lucky if inspiration strikes that way. But so many people would have taken it no further. Stephanie Meyer made an international bestseller out of it.
Wordism: When inspiration strikes, write it down.
I tend to get inspiration more organically from the world around me: the news, a radio item, a snippet of overheard conversation in Caffe Nero. When I was a journalist I would hear something and think, there’s a story in that. As a fiction writer, I hear something and still think, there’s a story in that but it’s a different kind a story. Instead of newsworthiness, I’m catching on to characters and dilemmas. I believe ideas and inspiration come from being mindful and being open. It becomes a habit to listen out for them.
Inspiration can also strike in the act of writing. For my last book, this is how it came about: I was doing a research exercise for my MA – we had to write an historical piece set on the River Thames, which runs through London. I thought I’d write about the Thames estuary in Essex where I grew up. I had recently watched Pirates of the Caribbean and remembered that I liked adventure stories about smugglers when I was a kid. After looking up smugglers’ haunts on the Thames, I discovered that a pub I used to go to was frequented by smugglers in Napoleonic times and secret tunnels had been found beneath it after a fire in 1892. This captured my imagination. In the stories I’d read as a child, the smugglers were always the baddies and the kids helped bring them to justice. But smuggling would have been a way of life for these poor fishing families. They were smuggling tea as well as gin, brandy and tobacco, because of the extortionate tax levied to pay for the wars with France. A child would grow up thinking smuggling was necessary to get food on the table and the Customs man would be the baddy. I started to write about this child, Esther. She was standing on the dock at night, waiting for her dad to come back from a smuggling run. She was a feisty, ragamuffin tom-boy who wanted to be a fisherman and smuggler herself and she leapt off the page at me. At the time I was writing a contemporary adult book but Esther scuppered that. She took over and I wrote my first book for children.
Wordism: Ideas come upon you from unexpected directions, by exploring avenues you haven’t considered before, from looking at things from a different perspective.
The idea for my current book came from seeing stuff on TV and the news about the pressures modern teenage girls are under to be pretty, skinny and sexy. I have been witnessing this social pressure building up over the years and had become worried by it. They were growing up seeing the glamour model Jordan as a role model. My own peers are trying to balance motherhood and careers and, pulled in both directions, often feel guilty that they’re not committing enough time to either.
Then I was listening to an interview on BBC Radio 4 with PD James, the crime writer. It was her 90th birthday and I thought how much she must have seen of life and was wondering if she had experienced any problems in being a woman and a writer in her early years. I was thinking that women had come a long way in her lifetime and what a success she’d made of her life.
And then it flew across my mind, a fleeting wisp of a thing I had to catch on the wing before it had gone. Suffragettes. What would a suffragette make of teenage girls today? What would they make of societal pressure on them. What would happen if a modern-day girl met the ghost of a suffragette? There was a story in that.
Wordism: Attune your creative antennae. Listen for the glancing thoughts that cross your mind. The ‘I wonders’ and ‘What ifs’. Be aware of the voice in your head that says, ‘that’s interesting’ and follow it a bit further. Note it down. Ideas come together in unexpected ways.
I wish you all a happy Christmas and a creative new year.