It’s a tough one to answer, partly because I don’t think about the process very much and also because there isn’t just one place where ideas are floating around and we writers gather with our butterfly nets and haul them in. At least, I’m saying there is no such place, if there is let me know, it will make things a whole lot easier.
I think one thing you can say about ideas is that they evolve. So you might start out just with the wish to write on a particular topic which interests you for example, and by thinking through the possibilities of that topic you arrive at length at something, which when you have it down on the page, looks very much like an idea.
The real question I suppose isn’t where writers get their ideas from but how they develop them. All of us have passing notions all the time don’t we? When we read something or watch tv for example, perhaps they occur to us because of our work or a hobby – talking to a friend, overhearing something on the bus. There are all sorts of stimuli which give all of us ideas which we could, should we wish, spin into fiction.
The difference with writers is that we do have a home for these ideas. Sometimes I write them down, jot them in a notebook, not because I need them right at that moment but because I might do in the future. Other times I don’t record them anywhere but still find them lodged in the back of my mind somewhere, ready to pop up when I’m thinking through the possibilities for a book or story.
But it’s important to say that these ideas don’t arrive fully formed, you have the seed of something and you have to be a good gardener, make it grow. For me this means two things, writing and reading. I often start off writing before I have the idea for a book fully formed and I will read around the topic too. I will find books and articles on whatever subjects lend themselves to what I am working on. With Song of the Sea God this meant some very strange reading around ancient religions, rituals, sacrifices and so on. The book I am currently working on involves murder so I’ve developed an interest in those sorts of articles.
I’m guessing very many writers wouldn’t like their internet search history made public, it makes us look a lot more weird, and a lot more interesting than most of us are.
So you have whatever started you off – and it could be a curious topic or an interesting character or an evocative setting, and then round that you spin your story, you turn up more interesting ideas around your original one, find new directions for your story to take. This development stage is mostly at the front end of writing something of course, but for me at least, it continues throughout the work. I’m still uncovering new ideas as I write and discarding them or working them in. However much planning I do, and I do some, this is still a significant part of the process.
So that’s how it works for me. No simple one line answer I’m afraid, but then, when you are dealing with such a complex thing as the human imagination it never will be simple.
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