This is a question I’m asked surprisingly often. I’ll meet somebody new; eventually they ask me what I do with myself all day, and before they know it, I’m spouting nonsense about robots, giants, ghosts, talking trees and mutant bin-people. At that point, they seem to feel compelled to ask, ‘Where do you get your ideas?’
Maybe it’s because I gravitate towards the weirder genres. Even when I set a story in the present day, the characters tend to be misfits, outcasts and oddballs. Weirdness – difference – excites and intrigues me.
So today, I’m going to discuss five of the ways I collect fodder for the narratograph.
Dreams are an absolute boon to creatives. Plenty of famous works of art and literature were inspired by the creator’s dreams, including Dali’s ‘Persistence of Memory’, the poetry of Edgar Allen Poe, and ‘Yesterday’ by the Beatles. The random, uncontrollable nature of dreams can lead you to make connections you couldn’t make while you were awake. Your brain puts elements together in ways that wouldn’t occur to the conscious mind.
It was in a dream that I first saw the characters who eventually became Rik and Phaedra. They were hiding with some other teenagers in a wooden hut in a desert, a bit like a birdwatcher’s hide. Then they were walking through a market at dusk among red lanterns. They talked a bit, looked around… and that was it. It wasn’t a particularly eventful dream, but the characters stuck in my head enough that I was able to get up and draw them in the morning.
Myth, legend, folklore, fairytale – they’re a bottomless trove of ideas that writers and artists may steal from as they please. Gods, heroes, monsters and MacGuffins abound in these ancient stories, and it can be particularly delightful to discover a unique interpretation of a story you thought you knew. One that springs to mind for me was a well-written retelling of Red Riding Hood, wherein the girl finds the wolf in Grandma’s house and chops off its paw in what she thinks is self-defence, only for the beast to transform screaming in agony into her grandmother, who’s a werewolf. Neil Gaiman dips into this well often, and does it with great skill.
I’ve returned to mythology time and again for fantasy inspiration. One of my shorter plays, ‘Witches’, tied together legends of seductresses from around the world as ‘evidence’ that witches were real. My novel The Celestial Kris takes plenty of inspiration from Bornean folklore: giants, shapeshifters animal-like protector spirits and a range of other tales I’ve tweaked to suit the story. I’d love to do a Mesopotamian fantasy one day – Ishtar, the goddess pictured above, is a hell of a character.
If I have one complaint about mythology and folklore as a source of inspiration, it’s that too many creators mine the same veins over and over again. The Ancient Greek pantheon, Perrault’s fairytales, Scandinavian monsters and the King Arthur legend have been run into the ground. Vampires, zombies and dragons have lately been overused as well, but a truly masterful storyteller could still pull off any of these ideas.
3. Science articles
My first play, The Glass Street Ghost, sprang entirely from this concept:
Sounds below 20 Hertz (infrasound) aren’t consciously detected by our brains, but still cause the human eardrum to vibrate. Because this low-frequency rumble is made by dangerous things in nature – including volcanoes, landslides, earthquakes and tiger growls – we often feel scared or uneasy when we encounter these sounds. At 18 or 19 Hertz, infrasound can cause the human eyeball to vibrate slightly, causing phantom grey blurs in one’s peripheral vision. This is one explanation for ghost sightings. More here. Horror films often employ infrasound on the soundtrack to unsettle the audience.
I wrote Ghost when I was seventeen for the school play (although I’ve revised it since!). I was thinking about infrasound on a long walk and I had this idea of a skeptic and a believer fighting it out over whether or not their local haunted house had an actual ghost in it, or whether it could be explained away by infrasound. Later I added a mediator character, who refused to draw conclusions before she had the facts.
I’ve gathered lots of other plot points and little tidbits from science articles over the years. National Geographic is my favourite source because it covers a wide range of topics: space exploration, marine biology, social studies, psychology. Having a reasonable knowledge of science also helps writers avoid stupid myths and pitfalls like that persistent bit of nonsense about only using 10% of your brain (it’s more like 10% at a time; brains are highly specialised, with different regions for different tasks. Having the whole lot active at once is essentially having a massive seizure.)
I’m not a music person, but occasionally a song or instrumental piece will hit me with a story or an image. ‘Never Let Me Go’ is one of those songs. From the first time I heard it, this song fired my imagination. I pictured a young woman – nude, but in a free and comfortable way – literally embracing a water spirit. Sasuri, one of my heroines from The Celestial Kris, is both the woman and the spirit in that vision. She can control water and always returns to the sea for succour. Even the line ‘a sinner like me’ in that song made its way into Sasuri’s character: not only is she a lesbian, but she’s got a crush on a giantess, in a society that regards giants as monsters.
Another piece of music I really love is this one, for Anomalies. It didn’t actually give me any new ideas, except that it sums up the spirit of Rik and Phaedra’s friendship and the adventure aspects of the trilogy in general.
5. Life itself is research – or, I’m spying on absolutely everyone
No one is safe.
Writers are watching you all the time. On the train. At the supermarket. In the park. Your friends. Your loved ones. Your coworkers. If they’re creative, they’re looking for ideas, and if you exist in their life in any way whatsoever, you could be a character waiting to happen.
I once sat opposite a man on the train – a big, burly guy with a pink mohawk, leather jacket and massive boots. He was completely engrossed in his book. It was a kids’ reference book about classical myths, and he was on the page about Herakles. ‘There’s a character,’ said I to myself, filing him away for later.
Raelene, from my sci-fi musical Treasure (it’s a musical now, thanks to some talented friends of mine), came about this way from watching helicopter parents. It makes me sad to see kids who aren’t allowed to climb trees or pick up seed pods off the ground. Raelene is a predicted helicopter mum of the future, whose fifteen-year-old daughter is totally under her control.
So ideas are the easy part. They’re everywhere. They’re the people you meet and the places you visit. Ideas are inescapable, and no two people will write the same thing based on the same inspiration.
But execution, now… that’s a different beast.