Where do story ideas come from?
Updated: Feb 6
As an author, I'm keen to understand where story ideas come from. Writers often admit to not knowing what stimulated that initial spark; some happily accept that the idea was planted in their consciousness by some sort of supernatural entity. Story ideas often spring from objects, places, people and events, but mostly they crop up unexpectedly, their origin remaining a bit of a mystery.
My debut novel, Fledgling, was inspired by David Almond's Skellig, but I've often wondered where the strange story and themes that weave their way through it actually came from. Most authors, when pushed, will talk about the role of the subconscious in the development of their ideas. Many writers believe their childhood experiences are at the root of their story-telling – this being particularly so for those writing for children. Perhaps the act of writing a children's story is more likely to dredge up long-forgotten memories and feelings than writing for older readers. Robert Olen Butler talks about the creative compost we all carry around in our subconscious minds in his brilliant book, From Where You Dream. Every experience we have, every sound or smell we sense, every emotion we feel as a child is mulched down into a fine dust that gets shaken up, rising to the surface, when we're in the creative 'zone'.
My second book, Wren, began with the setting. Unlike Fledgling, there wasn't initially a 'big idea' for what it was all about. I grew up in North Wales and have always loved the view from Anglesey over the Menai Strait towards the mountains of Snowdonia. With the turbulent waters of the strait and the mountainous backdrop, it felt like the perfect setting for a Victorian gothic novel. But I didn't know at the beginning what the story was about. I even started writing it before I knew what was actually going on. And then, in the middle of the night (when my creative mind seems to be at its busiest) the true story of Wren walloped me between the ears with a sledgehammer, and at that moment it genuinely felt like a gift from a celestial being. I don't think my sensible, rational brain, left to its own devices, could have ever come up with anything quite so bizarre.
All good stories feature themes that weave their way through them, giving them meaning, holding the component parts together, providing an emotional resonance to the narrative. I don't know many authors who consciously plan a book's themes when they're writing it. Themes often slip into the story when the author isn't concentrating, when they're busy untangling a giant plot hole or arbitrating a fight between two characters. Themes, like story ideas, also seem to originate in those layers of creative compost. Authors who've experienced challenges in their childhood often find the feelings associated with these memories creeping into their writing. For example, Helen Peters, author of seventeen children's books, grew up in a family that straddled different classes, with one side wealthy and the other from a poorer background. She realised she was subconsciously writing about the class system and the assumptions people make about each other based on judgements on appearance and accent, and often finds that themes of life chances and luck punctuate her writing.
Some stories come as a result of an author daydreaming, asking themselves 'what if'? Louis Stowell says that her Loki books began with the question – what if a Norse god inadvertently found himself in a twelve year old boy's body in a 21st century school (with a hint of Just William thrown in for extra fun)? Some authors use 'if only' as a prompt to stimulate a story idea: 'If only I could shrink to the size of a mouse', for example. My mind is already bubbling over with ideas for the adventures a twelve-year-old mouse-sized me might have!
Fleur Hitchock, author of many fabulous children's books, including her latest, Murder at Snowfall, says: "I think authors are like oysters. Pieces of grit get caught in us, and then after time and spit, these turn into pearls."
Creativity is a strange beast. If you're searching for it, it's unlikely to come knocking. The idea for my most recent book came to me during a weekend away. I saw two large objects (sorry to be so cryptic) on the Friday and by the Monday I had enough of the story in my head to approach my publisher with a half-decent outline. The important thing is that I wasn't looking for an idea - I was just having fun. In this case there were no supernatural forces at play, BUT as I wrote the story, childhood feelings bubbled up to the surface and found their way onto the pages when I wasn't paying attention!
Alex Cotter, author of The Mermaid Call and The House on the Edge, talks of how her past often meshes with present day concerns to create stories that are current yet very much grown from her own personal foundations. This authenticity in her writing means her stories resonate powerfully with young readers.
Sarah Todd Taylor, author of the Alice Eclair, Spy Extraordinaire! series, comments on how mirrors often find their way into her writing, despite her having never made a conscious decision to include them in her stories. The passing of time crops up in my own books – the ticking of a grandfather clock, mealtimes, anxiety about lateness, audible chimes that draw a family into one place. Again, I haven't delved too much into this, and hadn't even noticed it was happening until a friend pointed it out!
It seems that story ideas are all around us, waiting to slip into our heads when we're not expecting them, waking us up in the middle of the night, occasionally unsettling us when they seem to come from nowhere. As writers, it's our job to listen out for them, to grab them when they saunter past or make a note of them if they jolt us into consciousness in the middle of the night. Writers who remain alert to the call of a great story, and can commit to turning it into a thrilling tale with living, breathing characters and a compelling narrative, will write the tales that resonate with readers and endure the longest.
Enormous thanks to my fellow Nosy Crow authors for such a fascinating conversation this morning on the business of ideas and creativity in children's writing!
Lucy Hope is the author of two children's books, Fledgling and Wren, and has a third book coming out in October 2023. All three books are published by multi-award-winning children's publisher, Nosy Crow. Her debut, Fledgling, was nominated for the Carnegie Medal for Writing 2023. In 2019 Lucy graduated from the MA in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University with distinction. She's endlessly fascinated by the process of writing a book, and is excited to share her thoughts on the process of creating a large work of fiction in this new blog!
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