The writing question that I’m asked most frequently is ‘where do you get your ideas from?’
The fairly honest reply of ‘Half the time, I don’t know’ doesn’t seem satisfactory to the questioner. But it’s true that my mind just wanders around on its own, sometimes (which probably accounts for my glazed look) and suddenly a character is coming to life or I realise that I’d like to write about a certain issue. And, for a novel, this works fine. I begin to think in terms of establishing what my heroine’s quest is or how her character traits will impact upon those of the hero’s and the book is beginning to take shape.
The other half of the time, when my mind hasn’t gone walkabout and supplied me with material, I have to actively look for ideas to grasp. And the ideas process for short stories is different. Because I write for magazines, I have to write stories with a point, not open ended slice of life stuff. So, if I can decide what my point is, I’m half way towards writing the story. As I’ve told many a workshop, problem pages are a great source of material because they provide both conflict (the problem) and resolution (the agony aunt’s reply). If you can’t write a story around that, you’re not trying.
Also – and to finally get the point of the photograph at the head of this post – I listen to other people and what they find remarkable. I was walking to a local shop when I came up behind a couple exclaiming over the tree. As I drew level, the lady turned to me and said, ‘Isn’t that beautiful? It lights up the whole street.’ It was a huge coincidence because that garden used to be my garden, about 20 years ago. ‘I planted it,’ I said.
Out of this came a story where a lady returned to her home town after a couple of decades, having lost her husband and her job and struggling to find any purpose in life. Passing her old house with a blossom-laden tree in the garden, somebody makes the same remark to her as was made to me, and she wanders on thinking that she had once had some purpose to her life, even if were just to make the world a more beautiful place.
The remark is the pivotal moment. She becomes open to the idea that something she does might affect the world at large.
So she goes home and plants another tree. (You guessed that bit, didn’t you?)
What is remarkable about a situation, the point I’m trying to make and where the pivotal moment comes from are crucial to the structure of my stories. When I can extract those things from my thoughts, I get that little twinge of excitement that tells me that I’ve ‘got’ an idea.