This post is based on notes I wrote for my talk at the HULF Talk on Research and Inspiration at the end of September, but due to (as ever) trying to fit in more talks and readings than were feasible in the time allowed, I kept this bit back! So here it is for the first time now.
In the first part of my talk, I described where I get my ideas from, and gave a list of suggestions for aspiring authors who might be struggling to know what to write about. It’s a question that often comes up among novice writers.
Once I’ve come up with story ideas, or at least starting points for stories, they need to mature. Therefore I keep an ideas book in which I jot all my ideas down. Sometimes it will be a single line or phrase that’s triggered my imagination, or it might be a detail for a novel or short story that I already have planned. I keep separate ideas books for specific projects too.
Then I leave each idea simmering away, sometimes for years, until it’s fermented enough to turn into a short story or novel, leaving my unconscious to work on it.
I don’t believe in writers’ block, other than in cases where you try to write a story too soon, and the thing won’t come because it’s not ready.
Originality and Novelty
But must all ideas be new? Must they be things that only I have ever thought of?
That would really narrow down a writer’s possibilities! Fortunately, I don’t think they do have to be entirely new, because every author’s take on an idea is different. They see an idea through the prism of their character and their lived experience. It’s common at writers’ workshops to be given an object or a set of of words as writing prompts, yet every piece of resulting prose or poem is always very different. In the same way, if you asked six artists to draw a specific object, each picture would be unique.
It’s also evidenced by the entries I’ve co-judged on several occasions with organiser John Holland for the Stroud Short Stories spoken word event, in which we have to choose ten stories from over 100 entries to be performed at a live event. We recently announced the list of the ten stories we chose for this autumn’s event, which is on the theme of love and obsession. It was fascinating to see how very different each story was. Submissions ranged from laugh-out-loud humour to tear-jerkers, from happy-ever-afters to apocalypse.
Tickets are now on sale for the event, which takes place on Sunday 5th November – so if you’d like to come along and see the differences demonstrated, book your tickets here.
Originality and Theft
I’ve also just come across a fabulous book about art and theft written before the advent of AI in its current form. Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon explains the contribution existing ideas and art contribute to new work. Kleon and licenses you to seize what you love and build on it. Do read it – it’s quick and easy and he runs an interesting newsletter too. It’s very empowering, because it justifies what may have felt, wrongly, like a guilty secret.
Originality and Research
But why not just write what you know?
When you get to a certain age, doesn’t your life experience give you enough raw material? Wouldn’t that be easier than researching what you don’t know?
Well, yes – and my starting point in my writing is always what I know – the human condition, as lived by me, eg over thirty years of living in a Cotswold village and thirteen years of working at a boarding school. At some point, I plan to write about an as yet untapped part of my past, when I worked as a PR in the 1990s. I also plan to write stories with older female protagonists, having drawn largely on my younger life so far.
But research allows you to deepen a story and also to write about what you know less well, or what you don’t know but would like to. That’s an exciting experience as a writer. Over the last couple of years, I’ve enjoyed researching a story set not in the Cotswolds but in Mousehole, and I’ve learned so much about local legend, topography, history and all sorts.
This brings me to a buzzphrase that sometimes arises when people research topics is “cultural appropriation”. Although I have a small amount of Cornish blood via my great-grandmother, when I started my Mousehole project, I felt slightly uncomfortable. Did I really have the right to write about Cornwall. Then I decided, yes, I do – provided the central character and viewpoint is of an outsider. Although I try hard to get my facts right, I don’t pretend to be an expert or have the authority of a native. I don’t think Cornish nationalists will be after my blood.
My research in Cornwall has taken the form of staying in the cottage where my story is set, spending a lot of time wandering about absorbing the atmosphere, reading masses of history books, visiting the places that will be pivotal in the story, like the monument to the village’s last native speaker of Cornish.
Yes, I could have stayed at my desk and consulted Google and Wikipedia, but that’s barely scratching the surface and doesn’t allow you the full sensory experience of the place. It also only tells you whatever people have put online in the first place. Everything there is secondhand, and a significant amount of information online is likely to be inaccurate. But desk research can be a good starting place, especially if you click through to the links at the foot of Wikipedia to the original source materials.
If you’re a writer nervous of taking their first leap into fiction, and you crave licence to lay claim to an idea and make it your own, I suggest you read the kind of books that will give permission to lay claim to an idea and get writing. These include craft books such as Julia Cameron’s The Right to Write and Stephen King’s On Writing. The two books that made the biggest different to me were, very early on, Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer and more recently Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing.
Meanwhile, my thirteenth novel, Driven to Murder, to be published by Boldwood Books in January 2024, taps into my lived experience – not of murder, you’ll be relieved to know, but for Sophie Sayers‘ experience of learning to drive when the village bus service is under threat of withdrawal – a threat that, coincidentally, arose in my real-life village as I was writing the book. It’s surprising how often a story you think you’ve just made up turns out to have at least an element of truth.
I’d love to hear your examples of fact proving larger than fiction. Do leave a comment if you’d like to share an example that’s happened to you.
In Other News
Fellow mystery author Kat Ailes and I will be in conversation about where we get our ideas, how to come up with an original angle for crime novels, and much more, on Sunday 12th November at Stroud Book Festival. We met for the first time last week and chatted for two hours about what we’d discuss in our one-hour talk, so you’re guaranteed a lively event!