The one question people always want to ask writers is – where do you get your ideas?
That’s no surprise – it does seem like a strange, mysterious phenomenon. How on Earth did Philip Pullman come up with the idea for Northern Lights? Did it just pop into his head, complete with daimons, armoured bears and a storyline involving a colossal struggle between good and evil? Or was there just a tiny seed out of which it all grew?
Only Philip could tell you, and the truth is that different writers get their ideas in different ways. For some a visual image or an object sets them thinking. For others it’s a character who seems to walk into their minds and refuses to leave until the writer begins to tell a story which that character can inhabit. Sometimes a whole story seems to leap fully formed from the subconscious. At other times a tiny idea will lead to others, and it’s almost like a detective following clues in a mystery.
If you dig a little deeper with most writers you’ll find that ideas seem to grow out of a combination of observation, experience and thought.
Observation of the world around you – and particularly of people – can show you the strangeness and individuality behind even the most ordinary faces. Just spending some time eavesdropping on conversations on public transport or in queues for the supermarket check-out can be enormously valuable – and very enlightening. Stories are about being human, and the more you observe the people around you the better. Many writers also read a lot of non-fiction – history, psychology, science. It’s another way of coming across something that might spark off an idea. In the 1950s children’s historical novelist Rosemary Sutcliff famously came across a mention of the Eagle from a Roman Legionary standard being found in an excavation at Silchester. From that she weaved an absolute classic about a young Roman seeking the standard of his father’s legion which went missing north of Hadrian’s Wall, The Eagle of the Ninth.
Experience is important because you’re human too, and your own past and memories can be great material for stories. Most writers quarry their lives for material, even if only to infuse their fictional characters with the tang of genuine thoughts and feelings, and of course some people write successful memoirs. But for fiction writers ideas can sometimes come when a new experience sparks a memory of an old one and puts it in a new light. Many children’s writers find that having their own children or visiting schools brings back memories of their own childhood and sets them thinking. A great idea can also be a new slant on an old one, a universal theme filtered through one particular individual’s experience, which can also include the books you’ve read and everything you’ve done. There are many tales of good versus evil, but Northern Lights could only have come from Philip Pullman’s unique experiences and thinking.
Thought is important for most writers. Obviously, thought plays an important part in deciding whether your idea is a good one, and then in shaping it, a subject I’ll come back to. But it is possible to think up an idea – many professional writers are asked to do that all the time, whether it’s for a series of children’s books for a specific age range, or for a TV soap storyline. Indeed, many professional writers would say that one of their main sources of inspiration is studying their bank statement. The secret is to have read lots (or watched lots) in the particular field you want to write for, and to think about the kinds of stories that are used.
The more you study stories, the more easily you’ll see that there are particular types of story that come up again and again. The ‘fish out of water’ idea – the new detective on the squad, the new kid on the block, the new girl in class. The ‘what-if’ story – what if there was a secret entrance to hell at the end of your street, what if a serial killer was stalking old people’s homes, what if a pig in a picture book could actually fly? The ‘love story’– boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back – but that can be used as the basis for a school friendship story, too. Girl makes friend, girl loses friend, girl gets friend back. Once you get into the habit of thinking about stories in this way, and meshing them with your own experience and observation, the possibilities become endless.
The important thing, of course, is to cultivate an open mind, one that is receptive to ideas, to get into the habits of observation and thinking. Try to have a notebook and pen with you at all times – if you don’t write that great idea down you’ll probably forget it! Just leave them there for a while. You’ll find that when you go back to them some will seem very thin, or instantly remind you of a famous story. That doesn’t have to be a problem – so long as it’s not a straight copy, why not have a go at something that’s a different take on something of universal interest?
You might also find that some ideas just won’t go away, that you find yourself thinking about them all the time. At this stage it’s probably best not to force it, so don’t try to start writing yet. If you have an idea like this, just play with it, spin it out, ask questions about it – who is the story about? Where is it set? What might happen? Who else might be in it? Children’s writer Adele Geras says this is the best part of the whole process, the playful, creative stage when the more you relax into your idea the better it will be. And another children’s writer – Jacqui Wilson – echoes that, saying that it can be like a childhood fantasy game, the kind you might have played when you had an imaginary friend (or several!).
But what happens if the you can’t seem to make progress with an idea however playful and relaxed you are? How can you tell if a particular idea is the right one? It can be as hard as deciding whether a potential partner is right for you, and if your intention is to build a fantasy trilogy like Philip Pullman’s, then it needs to be right because you might have to live with it for longer than some marriages last. But this is probably the most difficult part of all. You might not discover that the idea isn’t right until you’ve written most of the story, and many writers find that the final product of their work might have moved a long way from the first idea. So it’s important to be prepared to adapt your idea if at all necessary.
Another problem can be that you might have lots of ideas that seem good, but that don’t go anywhere, stories that peter out after great beginnings, or whose endings are contrived. Some writers feel that the idea is just the beginning and that it would kill their interest in a story if they knew the ending form the start. But others say that some of the best ideas come with the seeds of their resolutions already in them, or even just a hint that the ending is in the beginning. The great film director Billy Wilder – who made Some Like It Hot, The Apartment and many other classics – once said that if you have a problem in the last act of your story, then the problem is in your first act. By that he meant that in all the great stories there’s an intimation of where they’re taking you, if not how.
And if you sense any of that in something you come up with, however tenuous – then you can probably say that you have the right idea. Maybe even one that could end up being as big as Northern Lights…
Tony Bradman has been involved in the world of children’s books for nearly 40 years. He has written for children of all ages, edited many anthologies of stories and poetry, and taught creative writing to both adults and children. He regularly visits schools and appears at the major literary festivals. He also reviews children’s and YA fiction for The Guardian. You can visit Tony's website or follow him on Twitter here.