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Ideas: Where do they come from?

There’s something about old photographs I just love. I could lose hours wandering through google, looking at photos of couples and families long gone. The moment, forever frozen in time. Photography, particularly those from Victorian England, set my imagination ablaze. I find myself looking at the ghostly images of other days, other eras, and my mind begins to wander. What where they thinking? What stories did they have to tell? Where they happy, sad, indifferent to the experience?

I’m a fan of writing prompts. I tend to find my ideas spontaneously burst into life from the most random of places. My current work in progress was born from an article I read a while ago. It was about the discovery of an ancient temple location in the far northern reaches of Scotland. The article referred to how horrendous the weather is, and pondered the question “How was this Temple and it’s surrounding city created – and able to thrive – in a place which would have been next to impossible to live in?”

The archeologists who were excavating the site had included photographs and computer generated maps of the lay out of the temple complex and the surrounding city. It was so vast, in an area that seemed to be all snow and ice and heartache. As I read the article I saw an image in my mind. A young red haired Priestess, standing atop the temple, watching the ocean while snow fell around her.

That particular image converged with another, of a city wreathed in mist and a golden dome. Outside the mists snow and storms howled, while behind the mist a flourishing community enjoyed a bountiful existence, surrounded by love, joy and the usual political goings-on of a Temple at the edge of the world, a power in, and of, itself.

I gather a lot of my inspiration from random articles, photographs, even snippets of conversation overheard on the train. My gay romance novel Calden Cove, was born from a combination of two things: a memory of my first job, and a group of young super market workers sitting in a park laughing. As I walked past them I saw in my mind a secluded beach, a two man tent and two characters lying naked on the beach, allowing the summer sun to dry the salt water on their bodies.

I once was asked by a friend of mine how I found inspiration to write. Where did the story ideas come from? How come I got story ideas while others never did? I never really knew the answer because it seemed natural to me. What seemed unnatural to me was the idea that everyone on earth didn’t walk around finding novel, film and short story ideas whenever they turned the corner.

To me, generating the idea isn’t hard. It’s almost like breathing. Last night when I was watching TV – I’m currently going through a marathon of American TV Show The Closer – I had an image of a bookcase, behind which lay a panic room or secret storage area. In the room was a man, tied to a chair and beaten for the combination of the safe. As I examined him I saw a wedding ring on his finger, and that spawned the image of a wife, waiting impatiently at the front door dressed to attend an official function. As she left, closing the door behind her, I realised that he was, at the moment she left, being tied up in the sound proof room.

A whole story seemed to form in my mind and the TV show I was watching faded into the background and the idea began to take shape.

My biggest stumbling block to writing is the ideas. I’ve always blamed writers block, or being scattered for why 90 per cent of my writing is never completed. It’s really not. It’s the distraction of a new idea here, a new idea there. I’ll be working away and all of sudden even my own work will shoot to the side and I’ll find myself doodling down character names and storylines. I’ve got the attention span of a blow fly, because everywhere I turn is an idea I “need” to explore.

Darkened North is a novel I aim to finish, but even that isn’t immune to the lure of  a new idea. I’m finding the hardest battle I’m facing to get those words on paper is the new ideas that come along on their own. If I can’t figure out how to include them in the new novel, I’m off to put them down and play with them, to see if I can tease anything of value out of them for the future.

I once read a book by an American author/film maker called Writing Fast. One concept I took from it was the B.I.N. The Big Ideas Notebook. It’s a document that lives on my desktop. I try to prevent the constant interruptions by jotting the idea down in the B.I.N before it becomes too distracting. That way, it’s there for when I want to explore it later.

Snippets of story lines, names, locations, lines of dialogue. I used to use the technique when I was working at my last company. When my ideas had merit and my recommendations where listened to. I’ve stopped using it at my current job as frankly, anything I say that is different from what has been churned out for the past four years isn’t required.

For all the self awareness, I will always struggle against the lack of need for story prompts. That’s a good thing, and I’m sure there are people out there who would happily swap struggles. I’ve never understood how some people can “run out of ideas.” Frankly I only wish I could focus on one idea at a time, as opposed to wrestling with too many. I wonder what it would be like to focus.

If you suffer from too many ideas, use the B.I.N technique. Just be aware that going into the B.I.N is akin to entering an alternative universe, or to pinch a phrase from Terry Pratchett, L-Space. Time warps, your Muse fires up, and you find yourself thinking you can write 17 projects at once easily. Trust me, you can’t.

And if anyone has a technique to help focus on one project at a time, feel free to let me know. Darkened North needs to be finished, and any help I can get is greatly appreciated.


  1. I too love looking at old photographs and find myself trying to imagine what they were thinking about, their hopes and dreams, what their day involved. For my novel, I’ve sometimes enjoyed the research as much as the writing. Good luck with focusing. 😊

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