Time to set the record straight on another frequently asked question. Namely, where I get my ideas for books, plays, films and so on.
I’ve very rarely got only one project on the go. Even now, my current work-in-progress You Can Hear Chopin from the Attic shares weeks with plans for the latest season of my podcast. Say nothing of the multiple ideas in the early planning stages. Or those that just occupy tiny compartments in my mind waiting to be put down on paper. Telling friends and family about this and they wonder how a person has one story idea. Much less several. “Where do you get your ideas for books?” they’ve asked me. Well, here are some of the answers.
Keeping up with the news
As a journalist, we’re taught to be interested in a variety of subjects, and then become an expert on those subjects. Back then, I focused my attentions on food, travel and entertainments, as those were my key interests. And much as I never became an accomplished news writer (apart from my days at HQB News and BeInCrypto, maybe), training as a news journalist helped me expand those interests. For one thing, I now keep a keen eye on crime-related stories – both the investigations and the legal proceedings following them. And every so often, I’ll discover something that I think would make a decent novel, play, series or film. There are two ideas, one local to me in Bournemouth, the other of more national significance (relating to the Holocaust), that I’ve got in the bank for plays in the future.
Channelling what you know and love
The age-old bit of advice: “write what you know”. Not necessarily the best or most interesting course, as I’ve said previously. But even as I’m writing You Can Hear Chopin, which, apart from reinforcing my interest in World War II, draws on my experiences working in the hotel industry, I find myself thinking of other stories that could also be set in a hotel. Obviously, I don’t want to make everything I write set in a hotel. So I end up thinking of what stories could follow a struggling novelist? A disgraced restaurant critic? A journalist who’s down on their luck? Experiences and interactions — these inspire better stories than thoughts, feelings and emotions. I’d reserve a poem to channel mental health issues, anger, and so on.
As for channelling what you love, that revisits my earlier point about what you’re interested in. If you’re mad about cryptocurrency, there’s plenty going on in that sphere to inspire a work of fiction. It doesn’t even have to be current. I have a long-seated love for a series of comedy films whose stars had their fair share of drama and comedy in their personal lives. That’s an idea for a multi-season TV show right there.
Playing with hypotheticals
I always advise people to pay attention to what’s going on around them when looking for ideas for books. Play the spy for an afternoon. Eavesdrop on the odd conversation, or just sit in a public place and people-watch. There are nuggets of inspiration everywhere. Usually, that is. If you find life’s on a bit of a monotone, take the time to think about a situation and ask “What if…?”
I’d recommend starting with yourself. “What if that person I knew 20 years ago suddenly reappeared in my life?” You have a character there already, and from that, you can develop the idea. The conflict, the setting, the events, and so on. There are several people in my life that I wouldn’t mind reuniting with after ages. One or two, I’d rather avoid, but in a fictional setting, it might still be fun to explore. “What if I encountered someone I went to school with who was convicted of manslaughter in his teens?” It’d be quite scary in real life, of course. But as an idea, it could make for quite a compelling thriller.
Ideas for books in family history
Family history has come up in previous posts as being catalysts for stories. In my opinion, it’s fascinating to know what our ancestors got up to. After all, they’ve made series upon series of Who Do You Think You Are? out of it! Taking a family legend as the core of a story is all you may need. Personally, I have a branch of my family in the smuggling world from the early 1800s. The key facts are now part of the public record, but the conversations that went on behind closed doors… the scenes that developed in between… that’s where the story lies.
Taking note of dreams
Science tells us we only remember a small percentage of our dreams. But that small percentage could just be enough. The end of a dream inspired You Can Hear Chopin, after all. However, there’s a clock on even that tiny portion of subconscious surrealism. So if it’s good enough, for God’s sake, write it down.
It can start with a name
Sometimes the ideas for books, series or whatever… they come after I’ve found a name for a main character. Or even the title itself. Titles and endings are two things I absolutely hate coming up with. But when I have a title at the ready and no story to attach it to… that’s a different kind of frustrating. There’s still a fair few character names in my bank that are just waiting to be given a place somewhere. But it actually reverse-engineers the process. I ask myself what story, what characters, what events can belong to this title? The possibilities can, in theory, be endless. In the past, I’ve mind-mapped anything that I think will fit, and then chosen the one I think would be the most interesting, compelling, or that just makes the most sense.