The Origin Of An Idea, Part 3: Research and Serendipity

So I got over the hump. Pity I got Noro virus. Just another hurdle that was going to put me out of action for a couple of days. There’s nothing quite so wretched as that span of time when you know you’re going to hurl but you just got to wait it out. It was taunting me, keeping me dangling on the verge, hour after hour…..

Anyhow, it’s thankfully in the past. I’m moving on with a nice solid couple of days aggressively editing part 2. Nearly there. Only five more parts to go!

Meanwhile, whilst reflecting on what I was trying to say last time, I remembered a prime example of something that had slipped into my subconscious and found expression years later. When I was a child I, at some point, saw some episodes of Ulysses 31 (a sci-fi/fantasy retelling of the Odyssey for those that missed it or are too young to remember). I can say with certainty that this took root in my imagination, and unconsciously I would replicate the little floating islands of the cosmic Olympus as a dumping ground for all the spare ideas that I couldn’t work into my main projects.

Thus did the idea itself became a recepticle, the cauldron into which I could throw ingredients. What came out has so far included one Nanowrimo project that’s waiting to be turned into a series, the project I’m working on now and also a little something else that’s waiting in the wings to be fully realised.

So, in this last part lets just talk a little about where else we might come across ideas that we can throw into our cauldron. I’ll present two: one is down to your own volition, the other not so much.

Research: This can be done at any time under your own steam. Even if you’re just looking things up on Wikipedia, it’s never wasted because it will give your voice more authority. Whatever fiction we’re writing, we’re bound to find books that can help, from psychology and cultural thinking to descriptions of equipment and practices. For fantasy I’ve found that there is a wealth of information to be had delving into anthropology. It doesn’t have to be heavy going either. One of the first books I ever read in the field was The Forest People (Colin Turnbull) about the pygmies he lived with, told in a very straight forward, narrative style. Other topics I found useful (and are common to fantasy) were theories about kingship, sorcery and myths, as well as attitudes towards life, destiny, marriage, death and children.

On the other hand you might be writing a Game of Throne’s clone and all you need is a text book about medieval clothes and weapons.

Serendipity: Some of the best ideas can come to you out of nowhere. Perhaps you were chilling with friends, eating cheese and biscuits when you noticed that one of the cheeses was called Brillat Savarin. Commenting on what a great name it would be for a villain you married it up with someone who had a mysterious reputation like Keyser Soze, a great criminal underlord.

Or maybe you were flicking through the channels of someone elses tv and came across a programme about paranormal activity that had a Russian music box in it and married up the cliche with the idea that perhaps the Russian psychic warfare division had manufactured hundreds of them and sent them to the USA as part of a systematic attempt to destablise the country.

Anything might trigger you off, and as always, my advise would to always, always make a note of it, even if you can’t use it straight away. Pop them all in a box and when you’re running dry or you want to start something new you could pull out three, four, maybe five ideas and see how you can connect them up. Do a bit of research off the back of it, see what else might come up. Roll it all together and keep turning that kaleidoscope.

And sometimes you come across little research projects randomly that can do great things for the imagination. The video below was just in the Youtube recommendations and the sheer scale of what it shows made my brain hurt, a little like doing mental weights.

The only limit, after all, is how much we can conceive, and that’s a boundary that we should always be trying to push.

The Origin Of An Idea, Part 2: Inspiration, Execution And A New Synthesis

Another week rolls around and this time I’ve been getting over that hump a little more every day, reliving some of those early moments in my own work that make me smile or give me a tiny ego boost. As I move through it I am also well aware of just what has inspired many of the ideas, characters and situations, and by a strange coincidence I came across one that was in an old comic book I found stashed away. Somehow the busty thief had been the inspiration for one of my own characters.

Yet where does one draw the line of plagiarism? Is it alright to use an idea that you found elsewhere? This is a thorny issue for sure, and it perhaps applies to many of the arts. Certainly in the realms of music there is a great debate about who copies who, who is inspired by who, about whether you can claim something as your own if you sample etc.

And just as a musician will be an avid listener of music, so too are writers avid readers. I can claim to have read a huge amount of sci-fi and fantasy, as well as a lot of non-fiction – politics, anthropology, science etc. Out of all of that I reaped many, many ideas that stuck with me, that I liked and thought about, situations in novels that touched me or thrilled me, characters and settings that could be explored in so many different ways there isn’t enough time in one life.

I would argue that at some point we all reach a form of critical mass, where everything that we’ve absorbed goes into the melting pot of our imaginations. There’s so much in there it all becomes indistinguishable from its original source, and as you write it comes out via the filter of you as a person, thus rendering it in your own voice. You are the lens that casts what came before into a new light: you create a synthesis which transcends any one thing of itself. This is what I refer to in the title as execution. How you execute the story, how you take all that was familiar, used up and done before and make it special. Take as an example Pulp Fiction, a movie that contains plenty of familiar characters from the pulp world of crime stories. I found this little snippet on Wikipedia:

Tarantino explains that the idea “was basically to take like the oldest chestnuts that you’ve ever seen when it comes to crime stories—the oldest stories in the book…. You know, ‘Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace’s Wife’—the oldest story about…the guy’s gotta go out with the big man’s wife and don’t touch her. You know, you’ve seen the story a zillion times.”[8] “I’m using old forms of storytelling and then purposely having them run awry”, he says. “Part of the trick is to take these movie characters, these genre characters and these genre situations and actually apply them to some of real life’s rules and see how they unravel.”[55] In at least one case, boxer Butch Coolidge, Tarantino had in mind a specific character from a classic Hollywood crime story: “I wanted him to be basically like Ralph Meeker as Mike Hammer in Aldrich‘s Kiss Me Deadly [1955]. I wanted him to be a bully and a jerk”.[25]

What makes this movie so great was its execution – the unforgettable dialogue and the manner in which the movie was put together, the way the threads intertwine with each other. It takes what’s been done before (hitmen, crime bosses, a boxer reneging on thrown fight etc) and creates a new synthesis that transcends the original ideas into something special. Hopefully this is what we can achieve as writers, taking ideas that appeal to us, that inspire us or stick in our minds and forge them into something new and special.

 

The Origin Of An Idea, Part 1: Dreams

Do you ever lie down to sleep and suddenly you find your brain turning something over and over, and you get that idea that you either say you’ll write down in the morning or else drag yourself up by lamplight and scribble a note out. Chances are that if you wait until morning you’ll forget, so another hackneyed writers tip – always keep a pad of paper and pencil by the bed.

Of course it isn’t just the approach of sleep that can have this effect because an idea can strike at any moment. So for the next couple of weeks I’ll probably just ramble about this phenomenon in a variety of forms, starting with some strange brain activity when we do finally fall asleep: dreams.

Many years ago now I dreamt that I was holding a book with a picture and a yellow banner much in the style of the original fantasy masterworks layout. The cover depicted an anthropomorphic figure with a bird’s head, grasping a spear and riding upon the back of a giant. And the best thing? The book was written by me. This prompted the writing of a very short piece about two of these bird people who are fishing for a special kind of fish that changes colour when the blow an underwater whistle.

Not long after I started a new job working in a postroom. With flurries of activity and then stretches of time waiting for the next load of work I used my spare time to turn this original idea in a whole book that then became the beginning of a trilogy, and now resides in literally dozens and dozens of notes and computer files. It is an absolutely enormous body of work, containing a unique world and with at least three different cultures, a fantastical history and origin myth, and its own philosophy that draws upon multiple influences. At some point I hope I can finish this (although my current rate of work perhaps taunts me otherwise).

Anyhow, the point of all this is not to blow my own trumpet (although it may sound like that) but to highlight that one small idea, one small thought or dream could be the starting point for something so much vaster. It only takes a little seed, after all, to grow a whole tree.

So, with pencil and paper by the bed, you’ll alwats be ready for the morning 😉