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Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

The author’s least favourite question

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

‘Where do you get your ideas?’ It’s a favourite question to fling at authors, some of whom can fling back ready answers. For Hilary Mantel, for example, it seems obvious that ideas flow from back-room historical figures like Thomas Cromwell or Camille Desmoulins; one trigger for Don DeLillo is current events — his Falling Man followed the events of 9/11; Judith Kerr’s childhood inspired When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. Whether you’ve an answer to fling or not, most authors hate the question. Firstly, it’s intrusive and personal. For me, and I know this may seem a little extreme, it feels much like a stranger asking me to strip. Secondly, many of us find it impossible to answer without sounding either vague or evasive.

Few authors have just one source for ideas. My first novel was sparked by two lines in a twelfth-century chronicle; my second was suggested by my publisher (he who pays the piper …); an ancestor whose head went walkabout after he was hanged, drawn and quartered inspired my fourth novel; Chaucer as occasional spy my eighth; a set of piano variations my tenth. My eleventh? Blank. Thus, perhaps rather late in the day, I’m flinging at myself the very question I dislike from others. Where do my ideas come from? Also, having arrived, why are some sticky as flypaper whilst others, which seem equally good, refuse to stick at all? Given that ideas are authors’ stock in trade, when you’re struggling to find one, ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ suddenly seems not just A question but THE question.

Ideas are well-described as germs, as in the ‘germ of an idea’ — with luck proliferating into the full-blown infection needed for the long haul of a novel. My ideas, though, float in as clouds, each with a small solid nucleus – often one scene – and I don’t think I’m alone. I’ve often wondered, for example, if the nucleus of Ian McEwan’s 1997 novel Enduring Love was the image of four men struggling to pin down a hot-air balloon. Certainly the nucleus of my Perfect Fire trilogy was the 1244 bonfire of Cathars, in which over two hundred souls ‘gladly’, so we’re told, burned (in both senses of the word) for their faith at Montségur, a scene so searing that long after the books were finished I could still see, smell, taste, hear and touch it. Though the nucleus scene can appear anywhere in the novel it inspires, it’s often the kick-off or the final whistle. But what if there’s no scene to put anywhere? What if you’re stuck in a nucleus-free zone?

Being clean out of ideas isn’t the same as procrastination. To procrastinate you must actually have an idea. To the idea-free writer, procrastination seems like heaven, not least because procrastinators do get going in the end, driven on by contracts or nagging agents. The blocked writer has no such whip. We don’t stare at an expectant screen; we slink about looking shifty and hunted, our fear horribly visceral because – and here’s the nub – there’s no law, either natural or man-made, which obliges another idea to arrive, so there’s no reason why idea-less-ness should ever end. I can’t be the only writer who, in the stilly reaches of the night, has persuaded herself that, like eggs in women, we’re born with a certain quota and when they’re used up, that’s it. We will have ideas, of course, but they’ll be passing fancies lacking real substance. In other words, an idea-free state might not be a Lazarine moment of suspension before miraculous resurrection from the imaginatively dead. We might be writerly dodos: extinct, the end, goodbye.

Is there any way to tell? I mean, does the brain of a dodo-writer look different from the brain of a non-dodo writer? Not as silly a question as it might sound if you remember the photograph accompanying the announcement of the death in July 2017 of Professor Marian Diamond, one of the founders of modern neuroscience. In the photograph, the professor is holding a human brain in her hands, delicately revealing its intricacies with beringed fingers, nails beautifully, and redly, varnished. These same fingers, so I learned from her obituary, probed preserved slices of Einstein’s brain. It was she, however, not Einstein, who discovered that cultural and social stimulation – an ‘enriched environment’ – causes physical modifications to the microarchitecture of the cerebral cortex. In other words, if you nurture your brain, it changes. Forgive the oversimplification of a non-scientist, but if it changes, surely new connections can be made and connections, as every writer knows, are the tinder and flint of ideas. It seems, then, that a neuroscientist might be able to distinguish the dodo-writer from the writer on pause. If our brains are static, or indeed dead, we may be extinct. If, though, within our brains there are signs of ‘intrinsic excitability’ – neurons generating ‘action potentials’ – somewhere, at some time, it must be at least possible that those neurons will let fly over the blocking wall and ignite an idea of substance.

But what to do whilst we wait? Some authors travel, and their travels generate more than ideas for particular novels. I envy Virginia Woolf who, on a trip to Italy when she was only twenty-six, found herself formulating her whole creative philosophy. ‘As for writing,’ she wrote in her diary, ‘I want to express beauty…achieve in the end, some kind of whole made of shivering fragments’; ‘+ discover real things beneath the show’. Other authors spend their waiting time mining their own experiences for a peg on which to hang a tale. ‘A fiction writer’s life is his treasure, his ore, his savings account, his jungle gym,’ declared John Updike, and so jealously guarded his own ‘savings account’ that when he learned somebody was to write his biography, he cut them off at the knees by writing it himself, thus both locking the door against thieves and finding a new project for himself. Lucky old Updike.

He was right of course that your own life is often your best hope of an idea, and even if an idea doesn’t emerge, the catharsis generated by а bit of Proustian digging may, comfortably or uncomfortably, fill the void. And you could hit the jackpot: Of Human Bondage (1915) not only freed Somerset Maugham from the ‘pains and unhappy recollections that had tormented me’, so far as I know it has never been out of print.

There’s another reason for turning inwards and mining your own life: unless your siblings are also authors, it’s unlikely you’ll find the book over which you’ve sweated blood crashing into another about the exact same thing. What author didn’t experience guilty schadenfreude at the news that both Colm Tóibín in The Master and David Lodge in Author, Author had chosen to write about Henry James, or when James Frey’s The Final Testament of the Holy Bible and John Niven’s The Second Coming, both novels imagining Christ returning to modern day New York, went head to head. The media makes much of such coincidences, but I’m wondering why they don’t happen more often. After all, if over a million new titles are published or self-published each year in the US alone, it’s pretty unlikely there are a million completely different ideas.

Notwithstanding the threat of subject collision, just imagining the number of books published each year is enough to drive most ideas away. Even if the spark is lit, the book written and hitting the shelves, the chances of finding any reader beyond your agent and publisher seem slim. Then again, the number affords a little relief. I mean, it could be that in 2019, being idea-free and therefore out of the literary maelstrom is actually a bonus and it’s the imaginatively fecund who should be sweating. After all, writers waiting for the next idea are still writers whereas writers without readers join a very miserable club. So next time somebody asks where I get my ideas from, I’ll say I’ve no idea – what’s life without a pun – and fling this question back: in the current glut of books, if the germ of an idea does infect me, should I encourage it, or head straight for the antibiotics?

Katharine Grant is the author of Sedition; as K.M. Grant, her books include the de Granville Trilogy, Perfect Fire Trilogy and How the Hangman Lost His Heart, loosely based on the execution of her five-times great-uncle Colonel Francis Towneley for his part in the 1745 Jacobite rebellion.

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