“Where do ideas come from?” is a question I seem to come across more than any other, and as the point has been raised again, I feel I ought to chip in with some of the things which trigger my synapses into action. The first thing you ought to know, because these disclaimers are important, is that I very rarely see anything another writer has done and think “man, that is an awesome idea… I wonder what I can do with it.” Ideas don’t just drop into my lap fully formed, no matter how rounded a first draft may appear to be – though given my recent outpourings, this may be all too believable for some. No, ideas come together slowly. They are, to use a clumsy and rather ill-fitting metaphor, like jigsaw puzzles which have no complete image to work from, nor any pieces which fit together at first. Stories, which are built off ideas in the same way that houses are built from bricks, tend to need a lot of work to get them into the right shape, so this post really isn’t about writing stories as much as it is about the ideas underpinning those stories.
Any story, whether it be a short story or a novel, has a triangle of requirements necessary to the propulsion of events – think of this in the same way as fire needs oxygen, heat and fuel. First comes characters: Without characters to inhabit the landscape of imagination, story becomes much more difficult to create (not impossible, but a lot harder), so I pull ideas for characters from all over the place. I don’t like uprooting existing characters from one story to serve another, so they tend to arise from “What if” questions, usually asked of real individuals. Amongst the people I have based characters on are Harry Price, R. Chetwynd-Hayes, Valentine Dyall, Margaret Rutherford, Sidney James and Richard O’Brien. They share the common feature of not being overly “pretty” individuals (the ‘Hollywood standard’ bores me no end), and they all have, or had, strong identities which come through in the characters I loosely based off of them.
There are a lot of writers who seek a strong voice for their characters, and I have said (numerous times) that using individuals as templates for fictional characters is not a bad thing. As long as people have been writing, real individuals have served as inspiration. This is not “lazy”, or “cheating”, or any of the other negatives associated with appropriating the strong voice and presence of a person who could benefit the work. When I go through a work to refine the dialogue of a character, I often have a strong impression of how they sound and act, and using the impression (not a parody) of a real person is a great boon to the editing process.
With characters sorted, the second requirement I need to get into a story is place. Location is more difficult, as it assumes the story has form already, when, in fact, very often stories come to me as impressions rather than solid, linear stories. Scenes, adrift of context, need to be put in some form of context as I am working, and there is often the need for more work to be done on location than any other piece of the puzzle. A few of the longer works are, by necessity, already tied to a specific location, but sometimes I like to take locations and work in stories simply so that I can play with the history of a place. This, especially as I am throwing around the building blocks I use to craft my writing, deserves a bit more of an explanation than the characters – who seem to show up, demanding that I find them somewhere to carry out their activities.
I really like Poveglia Island, because… well, for no other reason than it makes for a great story in and of itself. There’s a nice piece of travelogue writing concerning the island, though other versions of the history of the island tend to attract my attention more. It’s as if someone deliberately went out of their way to find the most haunted place on Earth to build an insane asylum, then set loose a mad doctor to do experiments which wouldn’t be out of place in House on Haunted Hill. It is, unfortunately, uninhabited, so tales told of the island require a special kind of crafting to get around the annoying factual element regarding its’ current status.
The third part of the idea triangle is not, as you may have thought, the inciting incident. The motivation for the story may be important, but it lies in a more complex part of the formula than character and location – the third side of my idea triangle is The Item. It doesn’t have to be something which is ‘in play’ during the story – it can be a virus released before the start of the story, or an artifact which draws the characters to it, or it might be something as simple as a shared experience which is elaborated upon. The nebulous nature of the third part is akin to the ‘oxygen’ part of the fire triangle – it is something which needs to be there, but may not be as tangible as the other parts of the equation.
Once ideas for characters, locations and the MacGuffin have been thrown together – often wildly, and with little assurance of sense, things have a habit of coalescing into story. From here on, things tend to get more complex than is easy to describe.