On How the Ideas Creep In
Or, steam trains, interwoven threads and charity collection funnels
It’s a tempting question, isn’t it? Where do you get your ideas from? We ask creatives this so often, and the answers that follow can be anything from sensible comments about diligent research to grand sweeping statements about mystical intervention. Once, more than a decade ago, I attended a talk with the late science fiction novelist Greg Bear, who answered the question with a tale about tiny little workers shovelling coal into a steam engine at the back of his mind. I liked that image a lot, but only partly because there was something delightfully magical about it. Mainly, I liked it because it gave the sense that the generation of ideas was continuous work, always rumbling on and on beneath the surface.
Because that’s the thing, isn’t it? Ideas don’t tend to come to us fully formed. Rather, it’s a constant process of looking and listening and processing. A character here, a relationship there, a setting, a situation, a secret. Slowly, very slowly, (sometimes very, very slowly) the jumble of parts fit themselves into different combinations to make a whole. Of course, I’m sure there are writers who dream up entire plots overnight or stumble upon a perfect scenario in the time it takes to make a cup of tea. But personally, I think the whole thing feels more like dropping a coin into one of those charity collection funnels and waiting as it circles around and around and around.
Take the novel I signed with my agent for in the autumn. I’ve mentioned already that I started working on it in 2017. But what I didn’t mention was that some of the strands that are now part of that story originally came to me as part of other stories. Two years earlier, I’d set out to write a novel about a group of female university students whose education was interrupted by the First World War. Over time, that story moved and morphed into a different novel about a marriage and an unexpected inheritance in the aftermath of WW1 and then, finally, into the multiple timeline post-WW2 novel it is today. If anyone else was to look at my notes – or at my hoarder’s paradise of a hard drive – they probably wouldn’t be able to see the joins between the three projects. And yet, to me, they were undisputedly linked, and I had to go through the process of circling them and weaving all the different story strands back and forth until I managed to get them in the right order.
So much of this process of circling and weaving takes place just beneath our consciousness. Little ideas creep in and establish themselves as part of the narrative before we've properly registered they’re there. At some point between the pre-WW1 students and the post-WW1 inheritance, I remember toying with the idea of writing something related to illness, but then dismissing the idea in favour of using my writing time as a total escape. And yet… despite that, I somehow managed to write a novel that was set in a retirement community and a wartime convalescent hospital, which, I’m sure you’ll agree, wasn’t quite as escapist on the health-front as I thought it was.
The novel I’m drafting now started out in the same circling fashion. I’d finally decided that I did want to (consciously!) write about illness and had made a few attempts without anything sticking. On a similar timeline, I’d been musing on another novel involving an on/off relationship and an architectural folly. You’ll probably guess the outcome of this quicker than I did. Without me quite realising what was happening, the collection of incomplete but very separate ideas gradually crept together to make a different whole.
And so where do ideas come from? Everywhere and nowhere, I suppose. But I don’t think that’s the magical part. The magic, surely, is in the way the ideas grow and develop and slowly creep into surprising combinations. To return to Greg Bear's steam engine analogy: the ideas are just the coal. The really interesting part is in the movement of the train.
Since my last newsletter, I’ve enjoyed:
Matrix by Lauren Groff (Such beautiful prose!)
The Mad Women’s Ball by Victoria Man (Such a perfect denouement!)
Things They Lost by Okwiri Oduor (Such incredible magical realism!)
This podcast interview with Delia Ephron, on getting a second chance at life and love in your 70s.
And, for something completely different, a deep dive into the Beanie Babies phenomenon from the podcast You’re Wrong About.
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