Congratulations to Sophie Jonas-Hill for this delightful post, which won third prize in the This Itch of Writing 500th Postiversary Competition. Sophie wins a two-night writers' retreat at Retreats for You in Sheepwash, North Devon, where full board and friendly writerly company come as standard, and total silence and lunch-on-a-tray are offered with equal generosity.
What I loved about this post is that it takes a classic question which we're all very familiar with, and finds a way to express it freshly, and practically. And I always love connections between different kinds of creativity: so often they illuminate each other.
Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?
In my earlier life I made jewellery and wedding dresses, and in the quest for sales would take over-priced stands at exhibitions. Whatever the theme – weddings, jewellery, knitting (yes, knitting) – without fail every tenth person would ask:
‘Where d’you get your ideas from?’
Now I’m attempting to be a writer, this is still the question I’m most commonly asked by writers and non-writers alike, so I’ve decided to reveal all:
The answer is … I don’t know.
Oh, all right. What I mean is that I might be able to trace the seed of an idea retrospectively, but it’s not possible to collect a handful of such seeds and know which will flower. What I can do is outline some the things I use which have worked for me, and might work for you.
Not plagiarism but standing on the shoulders of giants. We’ve all read books, watched films or heard real life stories that strike a chord, so use them. Take from them themes, scenes, colours, moods and see what you can do with them. Merge opposite ideas, experiment, mix flesh with fowl and when you’ve done, it will be something of your own.
2) Listen to Radio 4 and the World Service.
Especially programs such as ‘From Our Own Correspondent’, Melvin Brag’s ‘In Our Time’ and any series which covers subjects you’ve never heard of before. It’s amazing what odd little gems they throw up, and if like me you live an interior life, it’s a window on a world. TV programs work less well; I think it’s because I’m a writer and radio is all about the words.
Walking should be a compulsory part of every creative writing course. You need to break the tyranny of the blank page and a steady pace over familiar ground will turn off that nagging ‘left brain’ and let things sneak in around the edges. I record ideas on my phone, so people think I’m talking to friends and not a nutter.
4) Be interested.
Everything is the end of a piece of string, pull it and see where it goes. Any idea can hunted down and researched so once you find you’re being drawn to something no matter how small, follow it. Use Pinterest and real world scrapbooks to keep your findings and never worry about where you’re going. You’ll get there.
5) Write what you know.
A hackneyed phrase often miss-represented; it does not mean write only about direct experience. A good novel stands and falls on its characters and how they react to the world you’ve put them in, and that comes from you. We’ve all been sad, we’ve all been happy in a thousand ways, so when your character is feeling those emotions, dig into your soul and know you’ve been there too.
Research – walk – talk, in a nut shell!
(Or hard work, I’m afraid!)
Sophie Jonas-Hill started writing when she was five, but her more serious work began at 39 when an idea for her first book fell un-bidden into her lap on January evening. Four books later and she's had one near miss; a full manuscript request received a fulsome and positive rejection, after the help and support she received at the 2012 Festival of Writing at York University, organized by the Writers Workshop. She was also long listed for the Bridport prize, which she's entered this year also and is currently working on a novel set in Wiemar Germany and waiting to try her novel set in occupied Paris at York this September.