Saturday 16 April 2022

Frequently asked question: where do you get your ideas from?


Book, Old, Surreal, Fantasy, Pages

Dreaded question

This is the question I always used to dread on school visits.  Not: how old are you, are you rich and famous or do you know J.K Rowling? In comparison with this question, those are easy to answer. For many of my works, certainly for my very early ones, I have no idea where the ideas came from; the stories were just there. 

Plucked out of the air

Yes, it did seem that they were plucked out of the air. One well-known writer indeed makes a feature of sprinkling invisible magic fairy dust over the students to give them ideas for their writing. If only.

People watching

Many writers, myself included, enjoy people-watching, Stories come from that:  just why are there so many distraught–looking people in the big out-of- town store’s café just after 6 p.m.? Oh I know. There are a few affairs coming to a close here. How did that young man become homeless? Whys is that colleague so temperamental? We make up plausible stories.

In fact, many of us become so good at this that we could take on another role as a private eye. I wasn’t at all surprised when a couple announced they were getting married, even though she was twenty years older than him. I’d seen it coming. Nor when a colleague left the school where we taught and set herself up as a financial advisor. Nor when a friend decided she didn’t want children.

We get so good at this that we know the way a film or a book is going to finish long before the end comes. We know how life works and we know how story works.

This doesn’t entirely spoil the fun; the figuring out brings its own pleasures.

And in fact life is presenting us with stories over and over.    


I enjoy working with prompts. They force the creativity a little. It’s good exercising that muscle. I’ve also enjoyed creating prompts for other people.

I have edited three books of wring prompts. Find them here.

My Writing Teacher blog often features prompts. Take a look here.

My U3A creative wring class meets twice a month and I set them a prompt each time.

I’ll often post a picture on Twitter as a wring prompt, also adding a few hints at how writers might interpret the picture.

At any time I can use any of these prompts to direct my own writing. Why should anyone ever run out of ideas?

One story leads to another

My Schellberg Cycle is indeed a cycle. As I wrote about a child who came to England on the Kindertransport, I then became fascinated with her grandmother who died in Treblinka. Part of the first story is about how a school for disabled children was saved from the Nazis.  I felt compelled to explore the motives of the ordinary girls who allowed the children to escape. As I have told the story of the daughter and grandmother, I must tell the mother’s story.  After all she almost changed history. And what about the ordinary German girls who were left behind? Their story came next. One of the girls lodges with her aunt who seems to know a lot about what’s going on. Ah, she also deserves a book of her own. And so it goes on.      

Retelling the same story

According to Christopher Booker, there are anyway only seven stories. His book is quite convincing. In fact, even the cover of his book is convincing. See it here.  And there are stories all around that we can clone, adapt and bring up to date: stories from the Bible and other religious books, fairy stories, stories form Shakespeare and stories from our favourite soaps. Why are Cinders’ sisters the way that they are? Why is that funny old man building such a big boat? What would a modern day Romeo and Juliet look like?   

Family histories 

Our families are full of rich stories. All families become interesting if we tell their story effectively. If I ever finish my Schellberg cycle I would love to tell my grandmothers’ stories: brought up in the back-to-back slums in  Birmingham, managed to get  a job in the jewellery  quarter, became a greengrocer, made hats, was a tailoress, had nine children, became the wisewoman of the street …. And much more.

Vivien Dockerty does this brilliantly. Take a look.   

 So then tell me, where do you get your ideas from?

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