Writing Post: Ideas.

I’m often asked ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ A couple of years ago, I sat down and wrote a post called Ideas Are Everywhere. I thought you might like it, so I’m reproducing it here, especially for you.

I think there is a tendency in novice writers to suspect that literary ideas must somehow come dressed up in evening clothes, wearing The Hat of Deep Meaning. This is not true. Ideas are at the bus-stop, in the corner shop, in the petrol station. They are in the most ordinary places. They do not wear special hats.

I get a lot of my ideas from listening to the wireless. In Britain, we have a terrific speech radio station called Radio Four. It has everything, from drama to politics to comedy. One of its most famous programmes is called Desert Island Discs. It has been running since 1942 and it is an official national treasure.

This morning, I caught it, quite by chance. They had a theatre director on called Marianne Elliot. I’m ashamed to say I’d never heard of her. (I live in rural Scotland, and very rarely get to the theatre these days.) I wasn’t especially interested, so I let her talk in the background whilst I thought a hundred unrelated thoughts.

Suddenly, my attention was caught. Elliot was talking about her childhood. ‘There was a lot of silence in our house,’ she said. 

I thought it was a beautiful line, haunting in its simplicity. I thought also how different it was from my own childhood. 

There was a lot of noise in our house: talking and singing and laughing and shouting. Especially singing. My sister played the guitar and Dad played the tea-chest and he had two great friends called Jimmy and Perce who would come and sing Irish rebel songs with him. 

There was the halcyon summer when my brothers had a tutor who taught us all to play the tambourine. It was the seventies, and my mother had a thing for the New Seekers, and she would put ‘What Have They Done to my Song, Ma?’ on at full blast when the mood took her. We would all sing along. Sometimes there would be dancing. So no, there was no silence in our house. 

Then Elliot said, ‘I had a very big woman in my life.’ This caught my attention even more. What did she mean? A great, roly-poly woman? A hugely tall woman? A woman of vast character? 

I think it was the latter. This woman used to take the child on nature rambles. She knew the names of all the wild flowers. And, wonderfully, her name was Sally Flowers. 

Then Elliot remarked that when she was small she didn’t say much. She sat under the table and listened, warily, checking for atmosphere.

Right, I thought. I’m stealing that. I rushed to my notebook and wrote down: SALLY FLOWERS AND THE CHILD WHO SAT UNDER THE TABLE. I wrote it like that, in huge capital letters.

I won’t steal it directly. That would be too ruthless, even for me. It is someone else’s life, after all. But I’ll bet you any money that sometime, somewhere, there will be a silent, watchful child under a table in a novel I will write. There might be a big woman with a slightly incredible name.

(Names are everywhere too. I found another terrific one this week: Johnny Slaughter.) 

I’m almost afraid about telling you of the everywhere ideas. I warn you: once you turn your idea detection radar on, you will never be able to turn it off. It’s a glorious blessing, and it’s a partial curse. You won’t be able to write all the ideas you have, not in your lifetime. I have computer files and papery notebooks filled with ideas I shall never turn into books. There are characters who will never see the light of day. There are brilliant projects I shall never finish. (All my ideas are absolutely brilliant, when they are in my head. It’s once they get on paper that the brilliance starts to fade. But that’s another story.) 

Your worry will not be that you don’t have enough ideas. Your fret will be that you have too many.

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