The honest answer is: I don’t.
Oh, I’ve tried. Believe me, I have. I’ve sat at the computer all morning and willed myself to generate an idea. Sometimes, after a few hours of mental torture, if a deadline is looming, I’ve managed to squeeze out something, just one idea at least. The trouble is, I know even as I’m typing it out that it’s not very good.
The best ideas, you see, come in a completely different way. Here’s an example.
Since we moved to Barbados, Genie and I have got up at 5:30
every morning some mornings and gone for a walk. It’s beautiful here in the early morning, still cool and dewy from the night before. If we leave it much later, the sun gets too high in the sky and makes any kind of physical exertion almost impossible.
This morning, as we were passing a small wooden house, I heard a list of names being read out on the radio, and asked Genie what it was. “Death notices,” she said. It’s something they do on the radio every morning, apparently – list all the people who died the day before. A little different from the pop songs and traffic reports I’m used to in London.
A little further along, we took a path across open country, and it occurred to me that if anything happened, we were a long way from any other people and didn’t have a mobile phone or anything. I pictured Genie hurting herself and me having to run and shout for help.
I can picture someone listening to those death notices every morning for years, then one day hearing the name of someone he knew years ago. It would be the lead-in to a story about the thing that broke them apart, maybe a secret that he’s lived with for a long time and can finally let go of now that the person’s died.
I can imagine a story about a soft-spoken man and how his life changed when something happened that finally forced him to shout. How it felt when the words, usually soft and constrained, burst out of his mouth, and how he was never soft-spoken again after that.
You’ll notice that both of these ideas are half-formed. They may not even be any good – it’s too early to know. But in any case, I scribbled them down on a piece of paper, and when we got home I transferred them to an ideas file I keep on my computer.
(Yes, I know there’s a more 21st-century way of doing this, involving smart phones and apps and syncing with clouds, but these days I’m becoming increasingly aware of how deeply I was shaped by the 20th century. Give me a choice between a ‘killer app’ and a pencil, and nine times out of ten I’ll choose the pencil.)
Anyway, that’s where most of my ideas have come from. If you read enough author interviews, you’ll see similar stories. Here’s one example from Tracy Chevalier:
Usually it’s something visual that sparks an idea. For The Virgin Blue it was a color; for Girl with a Pearl Earring a painting; for Falling Angels a cemetery and its atmosphere; for The Lady and the Unicorn a set of medieval tapestries. When something strikes me it’s like a spark in my head that ignites, and I know immediately that there’s something there that can make a novel.
So writers don’t generate ideas. The ideas are there already, all around us. I don’t even believe that writers are more observant than other people. I think everyone notices these free-floating potential story ideas all the time, but most people just think a thought or make a quick remark and then move on with their lives. What makes writers different is that they record the ideas, think them through fully (some may say obsess over them), and then devote an irrational amount of time to developing the ideas into something complete.
So if you want to write and are stuck for ideas, here’s my advice: don’t stare at the blinking cursor for four hours, gulping coffee and cursing your lack of creativity. Shut the computer down, put your boots on, and go for a walk. Just don’t forget to take your pencil with you.
Update: this post has been featured on the Third Sunday Blog Carnival, and in The ultimate guide to generating and cultivating story ideas.