Monday, 14 February 2011

Where Ideas Come From

One of the most common questions writers are asked is “Where do you get your ideas from?” As a writer I can understand why someone being asked this question for the gazillionth time might leak out a groan. On the other hand I can also understand why a reader might ask.

The brain is a like a receptor for ideas you just need to tune it in... and whisper it – with enough practise, anyone can do it.

Remember the last time you bought a new car. Before the moment you got behind the wheel of your new car you rarely saw that particular brand. Perhaps, that was one of the reasons you liked it? However, now that you’ve got on, you see them every frickin’ where.

There aren’t suddenly more of them on the road. You haven’t started a new fashion, dude. It’s just that your awareness has been switched on. Your receptor has been alerted and is working on that particular issue.

It’s the same with ideas.

I went through a writing challenge with a writing buddy a few years back. I moaned to him that I hadn’t written a poem for yonks. He set me a challenge. I was to send him a fresh new poem every day by midnight.
Aye, right, says I. I’ve got a life. How about 1 a week? Naw, says he (in a Canadian accent – on account of the fact he comes from Canadia) how about 2 per week. Awright, says I (in a Scottish accent on account of I come from Scottishland.) And all of this by email! Amazing!

That set off one of the richest writing periods of my life. For 9 months I wrote 2 poems per week and emailed them to MK (on account of that’s his initials). Midnight Wednesday and Midnight Sunday were the deadlines and it was not a rare occurrence that I’d be chewing on my pencil at nine-thirty pm on a Wednesday, wondering just what the fuck I was going to write about. The expletive is necessary because that’s just what I was thinking.


... something always turned up. I saw a poem EVERYWHERE. Other writers’ writing would set off a chain reaction of thought – a couple in a cafe – an old man hunched over a newspaper in a library – the sound of kids laughing outside my window... the sound of kids crying outside my window... for much of that nine months I went about in a creative daze and the world was my muse. Sounds a bit wanky, but that’s the way it was.

Until work got a bit horrible and drove any thought of being creative from my mind. 

And the jolly nice thing was that most of the poems wot I wrote in the period were jolly good. Even if I say so myself. Most of them even got published. So there.

Then crime writing kinda took over and my receptors were dialled in to the darker side of the human mind.

One day, a number of years back, I was on a London train making my way to a poetry event run by the afore-mentioned MK. The carriage I was in was full. We’re talking arms pinned by your side; someone else’s bad breath fouling your ear space kinda full. To my left, by the door was a group of American tourists. Four girls in their early-twenties; shiny with an un-lived life and pink with promise. They were completely un-mindful of anyone else, totally locked in to the importance of their own existence. One of them said something. Another shouted, “Shut up!” They all giggled.

A man to their side edged closer. Leading with his groin. He was tall, gaunt, face angled in shadows and he studied the girls as if they were the meat and he was holding the knife and fork. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a look on another person’s face. There was no sign of humanity. These girls were things. Porn, with their clothes still on.

My mind started racing. This man would hurt these girls as thoughtlessly as I might throw a chocolate wrapper into a bin. I wanted to warn them. But how? I couldn’t reach them. I was seriously penned in. And what if I alerted them and this was all part of an over-active imagination? Camera phones weren’t as prevalent then as they are now, or I would have taken his picture and sent it to the Met with the tagline – don’t know who he is but he’s got to be guilty of something.

He fixed his gaze on the loudest girl. She had long, black shiny hair, her skin looked freshly poured. His look wasn’t sexual. There was no hint of a leer. It was even more predatory than that. I couldn’t wait until the next stop. The plan I hit on was that if none of them got off I would pretend I was leaving, then do a big dramatic tut as I realised I was making a mistake and then stepping back into the train I would position myself between the man and the girls.

No mess. No fuss.

The train reached the next stop. The mad rush of passengers on and off began. I made my move... to  find the girls had stayed on and the man had vanished.

Did I imagine it? Was this man some sort of predator or a projection of a mind set to seek out the dark side?
Who knows, but it’s going to make a good scene in a future book.

So, where do YOU get your ideas from?


  1. You've pinned it down, Michael. Observation is an under-acknowledged aspect of writing. But not just 'Oh, he's wearing a green tie which doesn't go with his ginger hair' - no, the sort of observation that involves you, makes you ask why and what if. I always remember seeing a guy sitting on his blanket in Union Street, Aberdeen, with his polystyrene cup of small change on the pavement in front of him. A plane flew over. He looked up at it - and checked his watch. Incongruous. I imagined him thinking 'Hmmm, the 11.40 to Stavanger's a bit late today.'

  2. sometimes i make up whole stories about people i am with on the bus or subway. sometimes whole stories come to me in dreams. i try to write them down before i forget. it's funny, while you were telling your tale of the scary guy staring at the girls, i was thinking that he was thinking how annoying americans are, lol

  3. Thea, afterwords I thought maybe that was the case - but at the time? His expression, to my eye was just too sinister.

    I try making up stories about strangers when I'm out and about with the wee fella. He thinks I'm crazy.

  4. That picture almost killed me :)

    Where do I get my ideas from? Directly from my brain, I'm one of those people who usually don't seek outer inspiration.

  5. Excellent post Michael.
    Everything around us is potentially an inspiration.

  6. Like you, Michael, I often get ideas when watching or listening to (okay, eavesdropping on) other people.

    On the other hand, my imagination tends to run away with me sometimes. Like when the car pulls into traffic right behind me after I pull out from a parking garage - at night. Or when both hands are lugging suitcases as I huff and puff my way down a hotel hallroom and realize that the doorways to each room are set back and anyone could be lurking just out of sight...

    I have a real propensity for what-iffing. Like most writers.

  7. Dezmond - every time I look at that seal I laugh out loud.

    Cheers, Ricky.

    Linda, those two words "What if..." are the writer's engine. Life must be a continual trauma for you with that kind of imagination. Can you switch it off?

  8. The trauma in my life comes from people, real people, NOT my imagination! Now if I could only find a way to turn the people "off..."

  9. Interesting. I was just re-reading your poetry last week and re-thinking my favorite. I believe it was the one tacked to the inside back cover. The one about the wee lad. I have a blog going up on this subject this week.

  10. It will be interested to read what you come up with, Martie