The Townhouse of Ideas

What If…?

As a writer, one of the few questions I hate to hear is: “Where do you get your ideas?”

The problem is that the question’s much too broad. If you asked me where I got the ideas for the stories in my book The Talking Cure, I could tell you. If you asked me what inspired my book Song to the Siren, I could give you a fifteen-minute lecture about Shirley Jackson, “Turn of the Screw,” Oliver Onions’ “The Beckoning Fair One,” and so on.

But the broadness of the question makes it sound like there’s an idea store where I purchase my ideas. If only!

I could tell you that ideas come from Jung’s “Collective Unconscious,” where all ideas are supposedly stored, but I can’t tell you how to get there, as I don’t exactly know myself.

I could tell you that ideas just come to me, but that sounds like a cop-out, like I’m holding out on you.

I could say “I don’t know,” but that’s both true and false.

I can tell you that I have my radar up for ideas all of the time.

–I see a movie? I might think, “Oh, look, that’s different. Maybe if I took the idea and did this instead…?”

–I read a book? I might think, “I like the tone and atmosphere of this book. How can I take this tone and atmosphere and change it to suit my needs?”

–I see a picture of a mythological being, I might think, “Hey, no one’s written about that monster (as far as I’m aware)… Wonder if I did my research and…?”

My mind is always looking for that idea that sparks other ideas in my head.

I do a ton of research concerning my books, but it’s research that I enjoy. For instance, I probably wouldn’t write a novel about Revolutionary France, since I’m not all that interested in French history. But if I read a blog about paganism in Ireland, I might think, “Hey, that’s interesting. Let’s look up the myths mentioned here.”

But when it comes down to it, my story ideas come from the 4 questions I always ask myself:

1/ What if…?

For instance, what if there were zombies on a space station?

2/ What hasn’t been done before?

For instance, I wrote a story where Ophelia was pixelated by the fairies because… well, you’d have to read the story.

3/ If it has been done before, how can I do things differently?

For instance, most authors write stories about imaginary friends that turn out to be demons or ghosts. Wonder if the imaginary friend is a protective being instead of evil, but then…

4/ Why do I have to write this story?

Not enough authors ask themselves this question. They just say, “A writer writes,” then they write the story, even if it’s been done to death. “A writer writes, I have this idea, so I have to write it.”

If I don’t feel I’m the person to write the story, I let it go.

I came up with a cozy teatime mystery once, but I thought, “Nah, I hate those sorts of things. They’re all the same.” So, I let the idea go.

It’s okay to let an idea go if it doesn’t make you enthusiastic about writing the story…

…because if the story really wants to be written by you, it will come back.

For instance, I had an idea for a short sequel story to Jane Eyre. It was going to be called “A Year and A Day.” But I thought, “Anyone could write this story. It’s not all that original.” So, I let the idea go.

But I gotta tell you, that story followed me around like a puppy. I told it to go away—it wouldn’t go away.

So, finally, I cracked open Jane Eyre, and I realized, “The only reason I didn’t want to write this story was that I didn’t have a good ending. But what if…”

I wrote that story in about an hour, because it needed to be told. And it needed to be told by me.

There is nothing like the excitement of having a story say: “You and me! Come on, write me NOW! Yeah, right now!”

You’ll know if you’re meant to write a story, because if you are, you get really excited about writing it.


Does that answer the question? Because I don’t really have a better answer than that.