Where do writer’s come up with their ideas? I’m often asked this question and almost exclusively by non-writers. They ask it as though I were an acrobat from the Cirque du Soleil and they wanted to know how I managed to balance thirty teapots on my head without dropping a single one. The rather mundane answer I normally give has the tendency of wiping that look of incredulous awe right off their faces. For me, story ideas rarely come nicely prepackaged with a tiny pink bow on top. It’s a sloppy, Darwinian process where crappy ideas (hopefully) get munched on by stronger, more elegant ideas. More often than not, a single novel is really a series of ideas, all meshed into one.
Predominately, the source of my inspiration comes from dreaming. These are snippets mostly. Tiny fragments which don’t seem to make a whole lot of sense on their own, but when connected to two or three other fragments, begin to take on the distinct shape of a story.
Another place I mine for novel ideas - because mining is exactly what we do - are what I call my ‘what ifs.’ It’s something I do everyday and some of the coolest books and movies out there were born from this process. What if you were the last man on earth in a world filled with vampires? (I am Legend). What if the devil opened a shop in a small town? (Needful things). The list could go on and on.
I’ve seen this play out in my own work countless times. My novel Malice is a revenge story about a witch, condemned and executed hundreds of years ago, who has returned to even the score. The dream part of the equation came to me one night when I dreamt that an old hag was crawling along the floor, trying to get me. I could see her dirty fingernails tearing at the carpet and in her wake was a long trail of gore and revolting slime. I woke up from that one thankful it was only a dream.
The ‘what if’ part of Malice came when the following question popped into my head one day: what if someone was being hunted for a crime from another life they had no memory of committing?
Now apart, those two pieces didn’t mean a whole hell of a lot. But together, that’s when something sinister began to take shape.
So in a way the process is about swinging an imaginary pick-axe, scooping up the loose chunks that gather at your feet and squeezing them together to see how they fit. 99.9% of the story ideas I’ve had are terrible and rightfully end up in a sort of mental dustbin, just where they belong. It’s that .01% that I keep my eye out for and when you find those rare gems, you just hope you’re wise enough to rub away at the edges and recognize that beneath that rough surface lies something worthwhile.