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There are two kinds of writers, in my experience; those writers who have so many ideas that they never finish a novel, and those who stare blankly at the page or screen for days on end chasing the white tail of an idea down a seemingly endless rabbit hole…
The truth is inspiration doesn’t always strike when you want it to, and so it’s sometimes necessary to go looking for ideas. Here are five ways in which you can get ideas for a killer novel.
- Consider the greats; they say there is nothing new under the sun, and in most cases they (the mysterious they) are correct. Writing is one such case. Anyone who loves Disney will no doubt be happy to tell you about the stories behind each of their beloved cartoons. The Lion King was inspired by MacBeth, The Little Mermaid by the folk-tale. Now, I’m not suggesting you plagiarise a novel you love, but think about the basic themes and arcs behind some of the greats and see if you can work with them. Once you begin to take them apart you’ll notice that very often they share conventions, plot devices, and even themes, but that each is done with something unique to the author that makes them stand out.
- Study history; history is simply a collection of stories which have, in some ways, been verified or supported by material or textual sources. These stories can be just as, if not more, fascinating as the average paperback. Consider William MacIlvanney; a Scottish writer of some repute, many of his stories revolve around Scottish mining history and mining communities (see Docherty and The Big Man). A novel I have in the works is set in the time of the highland clearances.
- Brain storm; most of us start out with snippets of ideas. Half-formed dialogue, a disembodied scene, the end of the story. Fully formed ideas rarely, if ever, come along, and if they do they’ll lack complexity and layers. Don’t abandon your fragmented ideas; employ free association to follow them down the proverbial rabbit-hole. This is an activity recognisable to most writers, but if you do it this way you’ll have a record of your train of thought; no forming a killer idea at 3 am only to forget it by the morning here!
- People watch; and maybe evesdrop a little… (I never said that). Real life is so often more wacky and interesting than we ever give it credit for. If you’re not comfortable literally watching strangers from a coffee shop you could buy some of those cheap and nasty “real life” magazines that specialise in sensationalist stories. They might seem distasteful, but they tend to be cheap, and when you’re looking at them as potential thriller/crime/horror stories they start to seem much more plausible…
- Check out prompts; there are plenty of twitter and tumblr accounts which specialise in writing prompts; if you’re really stuck in a pit idea-wise you could do much worse than trawling such sites. You could search for prompts in specific categories (pictures, first sentence prompts, or situation prompts, for example), pick one and run with it, or simply flick through the archives until one sparks something in you.
Once you’ve got an idea to work with the important thing to do is to nail it down as best you can; map out what you’ve got, and try to polish off the smooth edges before you dive into the process of writing. If nothing else, have an idea of your main characters, your basic story arc, as well as a key point or two along the way before you put pen to paper, so to speak.