‘Where do you get your ideas?’ This is the most common question that writers are asked. It’s a difficult one to answer, as ideas come from all sorts of places: from magazines and newspapers; in shops and on buses; from people chatting; from travelling; from trying to imagine what would have happened if you had made a different choice in your life; from books; from plays and films; from dreams and daydreams. Ideas are all around you, just waiting to be soaked up. The core idea for a book could stem from something that has happened to you or to someone that you know. Many of my books are based on personal experiences, changed to fit the plot and suit the characters.
I’d suggest that you start to keep a writing notebook right now and to jot down ideas as they pop into your head. Carry it with you at all times, you never know when inspiration might strike!To give you an example of a practical way of finding inspiration I picked up Saturday’s Irish Times Magazine and here are some ideas I gleaned from its pages – these are settings/ideas/characters that might suit a romantic comedy:
- A girl who runs a vintage clothes store and what happens on her buying trips – inspired by an article on a shop in Kilkenny called Shutterbug (brilliant name!). In fact, my latest book, The Shoestring Club is set in a similar shop.
- The life of a young Irish fashion designer and fashion illustrator – great piece on rising stars of the Irish fashion world in the magazine. Some fascinating people with most interesting jobs. And we’ll be dealing with creating big, interesting characters next week.
- There is also a piece about two young Irish women who are working for a gourmet food store in New York – now a story using that background would be brilliant, what a setting!
I also love finding unusual names in magazines and newspapers – in the same magazine there is a model called Danielle Winckworth – what a fantastic surname to borrow for a character.
It’s vital that you chose something that you are passionate about and find fascinating to write about. Your subject must consume you. If it doesn’t, if it’s something that you decided to write about because it sounded like the kind of thing readers/agents/publishers might like, stop right there, the reader will quickly sense this and move on.
It is a bit of a cliché, but it’s often best – when starting out – to write about what you know – that way you’ll be more confident about your subject. Or to focus on something you’ve always wanted to find out more about.
For example I know a little about ballet and I wanted to include a young Irish ballerina when I wrote my teen book (Ask Amy Green: Dancing Daze), so I interviewed two ex-dancers, read lots of books on ballet and ballerinas, watched Romeo and Juliet several times on DVD (the ballet my character was starring in), and travelled to Budapest to attend the ballet there, as the book is partly set in Budapest – i.e. I did my homework! Find out more about how I developed the idea for my latest book, The Songbird’s Cafe: Mollie Cinnamon is Not a Cupcake, here.
Even if you think you know a subject well, research is vital to make your book realistic and authentic. Read all you can about your chosen subject – in my case it was ballet. Take out library books and study them and make notes. Scour newspapers and magazines for interesting articles and keep them in a research folder. Use the internet. Research is particularly important for historical novels and your local library will prove invaluable. I’ve always found talking to someone who does the job I want to write about is the most useful research tool of all, and all kinds of people have happily given me their time – zoo keepers, female politicians, Olympic sailors. Most people love talking about their job (especially if it’s a particularly interesting one). They can provide the tiny details that will make your book authentic and ‘real’.
You will probably find that you use a small fraction of your research in the actual book, but it will give you the confidence to create your book’s world and its characters. Think of it as an iceberg – only the tip shows but without the mass beneath it would sink. Hemingway once said: If a writer knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one ninth of it being above water.
(c) Sarah Webb
Sarah Webb is a best selling author – read our interview with her here about her latest book for children, Mollie Cinnamon is Not a Cupcake (Walker Books)
Sarah also curates the Family and Schools programmes for the Mountains to Sea Festival 18th-22nd March 2015 and this year has invited magical writers David Almond and Frank Cottrell Boyce from England to talk about their award-winning books; plus international storytellers Simone Schuemmelfeder (Germany) and Juliette Saumande (France) to inspire the youngest attendees. She has also dragged bestselling Irish author Derek Landy from his writing cave and cajoled him into speaking at the festival. Horrid Henry and Dennis the Menace and their creators, Francesca Simon and Steven Butler will be at the Pavilion Theatre plus a host of other big names. If you have children they will love it, but if you are writing for children, try to get to as many events a possible to soak up the wisdom of some of the world’s greatest writers.
The focus for the 2015 festival is creativity – getting young people actively participating in reading, writing and illustrating. Sarah says, “Creative children are better able to cope with life’s ups and downs as they are able to express themselves through their writing and art. There are lots of statistics to back this up, but to me it’s obvious: a creative child is a happy child. To celebrate this we have a Let’s Create Day at the LexIcon, where children will showcase the work they have created with our writers, illustrators and poets. This year I want to give every child a chance to have a creative experience at our festival. It is estimated that there are almost two thousand people with
(ASD) Autism Spectrum Disorder living in dlr and I hope our innovative How To Catch a Star Multi-
Sensorial Workshop – with live starfish – will mean that children on the autistic spectrum can enjoy an
unforgettable book experience too.”
To find out more about the fantastic events for children and families at the Mountains to Sea Festival, click here.