The Ideas Library

This is a picture that my wife, Helen, took of one of my favourite walks.

the-ridge

It’s a place called The Ridge’ and features this inspiring walk through a tunnel of Beech trees. It represents an ancient glacial deposit from the last Ice Age and, as such, has an air of mystery about it. Not least because in the Autumn you can often see fairy rings produced by toadstools to the side of the main path. There’s also a host of wildlife if you stay still and quiet, including red squirrels (now endangered in England), nuthatches, woodpeckers and the occasional deer.

To the north, on a clear day, you can see right over to Scotland with an exotic landmark called ‘Christianbury Crag’ forming a dimple on the horizon.

I’ve opened the article with this subject because it is one of the main activities that sets me up for a good morning’s writing. I’ve written about the value of a walk to authors before in another blog, so I won’t dwell any further on it here. Suffice it to say, it’s easier to come up with ideas when your head is in a good place and there are many diverse ways in which this can be done.

But what if you’re just not in the mood or lack inspiration? Here’s where I hope I can help you with the following seven golden nuggets:

 

  1. Ideas are ten a penny. Anyone can have them.

This may surprise some of you, because the received wisdom is that writers have access to a door from heaven, or a channel to the realm of dreams and great ideas; or maybe you think that you simply have to be born with the ability? Well, let’s debunk this one straight away. Below are two tag/plot lines from two famous stories. See if you can guess which book they describe. I’ll give you a clue, they’re both horror stories:

A man, his wife and their son are locked away in a hotel over winter with the duty of keeping it maintained through this time. The hotel is haunted, however. This eventually drives the man crazy and he tries to kill his family. They are saved by the supernatural abilities of the boy, and a fellow psychic cook who works at the hotel.

Or, how about this one? A girl is possessed by the devil. A priest is called and a long ordeal ensues where he does battle with the evil spirit. He finally casts the devil out but loses his life in the process.

How did you do? Do you recognise the plots from Stephen King’s ‘The Shining’ and William Peter Blatty’s ‘The Exorcist?’

The basic ideas are simple. They hadn’t been done before in quite that manner, but the thing that made the book’s and their subsequent films classic were the way the writers weaved the horror in to the strands of the plot through amazing description, dialogue and scene setting.

So I would maintain that you can reduce any great story into something that sounds very mundane. In other words, don’t get too hung up on having something totally original.

 

  1. Feed your imagination

All writers are readers first. They are also observers. John le Carre is often quoted with this pithy saying:

john-le-carre

You’re probably stoking your imaginations with fuel already. Watching films, eavesdropping on conversations, watching the world go by from a coffee shop window, writing down quotes. The writer simply pays more attention to the things he or she sees, and sees the potential for a story within it. Which brings me to my next point …

  1. Write everything down

 I carry my iphone everywhere and am constantly adding ideas in a number of banks (see point four below). The beauty of this is that I carry my phone wherever I go, and it’s by my bedside as an alarm clock, so if I wake up in the middle of the night, in that semi-lucid state where great thoughts are generated, then I reach for the notes app. You can, of course, use a traditional notepad. One thing’s for sure. If you don’t write it down, you’re sure to forget it.

  1. Keep lists in the following categories:
  •  First lines. See my blog here for further detail, but the opening sentence of a book is crucial. Does it have the gravity to draw a reader in? Here are a few I jotted down. As yet, I don’t know the stories they will develop into. Maybe they never will, but the seed is there:

‘Is there something you want to tell me son?’

The story I’m about to tell you is a lie.

Half the names on the list he held were already crossed off.

  • Story titles. These are also paramount. I usually know the title of the story long before I write the first line. To me a title has to be compelling, original and simple. How about these:

Cathedral of Blood

The Garden of Poison Minds

Synchro-dog

Can you already see a scene or a character suggesting itself? Carry out some thought experiments. Write down the best ones.

  • Character names. The name has to suit the person and I often draw upon my lists if nothing suggests itself immediately. My Scrivener program has a great name generator where you can mix and match nationalities, gender, first and second name etc. Write down the names that stand out to you, and here’s a tip: if a picture of that person immediately appears at the mention of their name – then it’s a good name!
  • Plot ideas in one sentence. Maybe you’ve watched a film and thought, ‘What if the writer had done x instead of y, wouldn’t that be a good story?’ One idea (not my own) was settled on by a horror writer when he thought about what vampires would do for victims in the event of a zombie apocalypse! Think about what if? Then give it a twist. For example:

What if a cyclops gave birth to twins? Then – both know the day they will die, one accepts it, the other tries to avoid it.

Or, the idea that sparked my ‘Prophecy and Pork Chops’ story: What if the 4 horsemen of the apocalypse were dreading the end of the world? Then – they actively triy to thwart the devil and the beast’s plans because they are quite happy with their lives as they are.

Each of these raises questions in the mind, upon which can be built plot, characters and setting.

  • Collect inspiring lines and phrases from books you read and lyrics you listen to. OK, these aren’t totally original, but the use of a succinct or emotion packed string of words can be the springboard for an idea. For example, I read in one of John Connoly’s books the three words ‘Phrenology of Sin.’ I didn’t know what Phrenology was until I looked it up. It means ‘a psychological theory or analytical method based on the belief that certain mental faculties and character traits are indicated by configurations of the skull.’ Now, how cool a concept is that? Might it be possible for an individual, either by scientific means or supernatural, to predict or gauge a suspect’s skull configuration and aid in police enquiries? There are many possibilities with this story line.

There’s a blues artist I love called Marcus Bonfanti. In the final line of one of his choruses, he sings ‘If they’re coming for me then they’re coming for you.’ What scene does this conjure up? What sort of desperate individual might say such a thing?

  1. Study pictures that inspire you.

 I do this via Pinterest and have links to over 9.5K pins. Some of my favourite boards are by horror artists or surrealists. Here are links to some of my favourites:

Arnaud de Vallois

Zdzislaw Beksinski 

Seth Siro Anton

Daniel Danger 

Wayne Barlowe

I’ve probably shared this before, but the following image from Wayne Barlowe’s work inspired the novella called ‘The Creche’ which appears in my anthology of stories: ‘Beasts, Brutes and Abominations.’

wayne-barlowe
  1. Force yourself to try out some prompts and writing exercises

 You don’t have to wait for inspiration to hit you, you can summon it at will. ‘Surely not?’ you say. But I’m serious. If you sit down at your desk (or stand at it if you’re Ernest Hemingway) and nothing’s coming, then try a prompt. Chuck Wendig runs one of these most weeks on his website, and it inspired two stories for me in the last twelve months. A third came from the Scribophile ‘Horror’ group monthly competition. There are literally hundreds of prompts on Pinterest boards.The key is to time yourself and force the writing. For example, try this exercise:

Write down these prompts:-

The starting premise – An eighteen year old with id gets asked by a fifteen year old outside a supermarket to buy them a crate of lager (In the US that would be twenty-one year old.)

Why?

And?

And?

So?

And?

But?

So?

But?

  1. Draw upon your idea library whenever you are ready to start a new project – and stick with it.

I must have enough ideas already written down to keep me busy for the rest of my life, and I still keep getting more. The important thing is not to dabble once you’ve started something. Let the story unfold as you write it, or plan an outline if it looks like it’s turning into a larger work. Then, as Chuck Wendig says ‘Finish your shit!’

Next time: The 3 golden rules of writing to master.

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