How Do Writers Come Up with Ideas?
Whenever somebody creates something, out of nothing, whether that be an artist, musician or writer, the most common question they will be asked is ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’
Experienced and famous creatives, will have been asked this question so often, that this cliché would be greeted with some inward eye-rolling, before answering with something along the lines of, ‘Oh, it just comes to me.’
I’m new to the marketing games we self-published authors we have to play. However, when I was first asked, ‘Where do I get my ideas from?’ Initially, I was delighted – someone was interested in my writing – great! I wasn’t famous, I had time to give this simple question a thoroughly thought out and insightful answer, but I struggled to come up with anything to add to the answer above.
But it did make me think.
In those frustrating hours in the dead of night, when I should be getting a good night sleep ahead of a hard day’s work that waited for me. All my mind wanted to do was figure out the pathways back to the first seeds of an idea.
The trouble was, whereas before, I had an answer that was too brief, maybe, even a little glib, now I had an answer that I could never use in polite company because it was far too long, and would have given the poor questioner the impression that they were talking to a man on the edge of madness.
I wanted to do something to make the lost night’s sleep worthwhile, so I thought I would write it down. I went into this believing that ideas were created in the here and now – the thunderbolt, or light bulb moment. What I discovered, for me, at least, was different. My ideas were in a pool of long-forgotten moments, that were always there, they were just waiting for me to fish them out.
The first fish I caught was a trout.
The idea I chose to explore was a mysterious thread through the New Reform series of books of the number 142. I published the first novel in August of 2019, and yet this idea went back to December 2011. Not only was this, eight years, before publication, but three years before I even considered writing a novel at all.
I was a big fan of Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band. Also, I devoured music biographies, and was utterly engrossed by the memoir by the drummer of the band – he was so much more than just the drummer – Through the Eyes of Magic by John Drumbo French.
A lot of music biographies leave me cold, once they move into the I’m now a big star phase – you know, the groupies, the drugs, the trashing of hotel rooms and ‘Oh, did I tell you how I met, Tony Blair, Nelson Mandela, Kofi Annan (delete where applicable), but this was different. With John French’s memoir, I had found the Dead Sea Scrolls of music writing.
The 864 pages of smallish print went into infinite detail of not only the cult conditions he was enduring, but also, the inspiration, and the construction of every single track the band made. I read music biographies to find nuggets of inspiration, with this book I hit the motherlode.
I was already absorbed in the book, but then on page 805 I came upon the track notes to My Human Gets Me Blues from the legendary Trout Mask Replica album. I’m not a musician trained in musical notation, but I was intrigued by his description of the musical interplay between the musicians at 1:24 minutes into the track.
He described how the band members were all playing in different time signatures, but how they intricately locked to give the impression of being on a roundabout, with the slower rhythms at the centre and the faster ones flying around the outer circles.
I realise that this is 1:24 and not 1:42, but events seem to lead up to an idea.
I played the track repeatedly, in much the same way as I used to try and view those old Magic Eye pictures, where if you looked long enough, kinda sideways, an image would appear in 3D, as if you were looking through the eyes of magic – you did see what I did there?
Over and over, I played the track but then the section just after this, at about 1:42 – this would eventually embed itself in my brain at exactly 1:42 – fiction is not fact – fact!
This 1:42 lyric stated: You were afraid you’d be the Devil’s Red Wife.
I thought, ‘Who on Earth is the Devil’s Red Wife?’
I picked up my diary and decided I needed to do some research. Even the internet back in 2011 had very little, so I began digging more in-depth, and the obsession was forming. I found something about an eastern European folk tale about an old woman gazing upon a pair of red shoes, in a shop window, when Satan offered her a bargain. If she could break up a young couple who were obviously so in love with each other, then he would buy her the red shoes. She went to work and succeeded in splitting up the lovebirds. But the ease in which she did it, made even the Dark Lord himself afraid of this old woman.
My thought was, ‘How did Don Van Vliet, a musician from near the Mojave Desert have this kind of knowledge?’ My mind was utterly blown!
142 was now a number my mind was seeking out in every variation. It was a made-up obsession to test out my subconscious and unconscious mind. I started to notice the number in some bizarre places.
I decided that this was my art number and began to put it into stuff I was working on. The strapline for my YouTube channel became, what you lose on the roundabouts, you gain on 142 swings to the left.
I got into YouTubing by accident – always seems to happen to me. My youngest daughter had her very first gig at the Spread Eagle open-mic night in Hereford. My wife had taken her camera and camcorder along to film this for the family when she decided she couldn’t do both. She passed the camcorder to me. I was, like, ‘Where’s the power on button? How do I use the zoom?’ Over the next five years, I filmed over 200 local bands with 1300+ videos with nearly 300,000 views.
During this period, I conducted a series of interviews for the my channel called, On the Record. I wanted to capture all the different professionals, musicians, enthusiasts and audience supporters. The people who make it happen and help it to thrive.
One of these interviews was with James Gwynne, a singer-songwriter and local promoter. He mentioned how he loved the YouTube channels that promoted quiet acoustic music within an overall theme. He discussed a channel called the Mahogany Sessions, and I said that we should try and do the same and collaborate on the 142 Sessions. I would be the filmmaker, and he could arrange the performers and the venue.
The 142 Sessions would have visual references within this working-class pub, the darts would score 142 on the dartboard, the clock would be stopped at 1:42, and the performers would take a book – there for decorative purposes, probably from a car boot sale – and read aloud whatever was on page 142, before performing two original songs of their choice.
The only exception to the original songs, was where I tasked my daughter with learning My Human Gets Me Blues and that the only time I wanted her to turn to face the camera was when she sang the line, you were afraid you’d be the Devil’s Red Wife.
BBC Introducing gave the show a lot of coverage, with an interview with myself, and many of the acts had their songs played.
That was 2014, and it seemed a natural end for the dalliance with 142. Becky became disillusioned with trying to break into the music scene. My third camcorder was on its last legs, and I just about gave up the filmmaking.
I needed something new to get stuck into. I re-visited the dark poetry I wrote between the ages of 17 and 23. I thought that decoding them of their deeply personal, private and deliberately obscure words, would keep me occupied for a while – there was lots of this stuff. I gave up poetry after the final book had worked through the confusion and grief of my father’s suicide.
I was in a good place – I can deal with this now, after all, I’m a different man nowadays.
I recalled why I wrote poetry back then. I equated this with my sportiness back then. I played football and trained hard. I could make the sprint across the pitch, and walk back forever – no problem, but ask me to run long-distances – no chance. Poetry was a sprint, novels were long-distance.
The old poetry stirred up the old waters, and new fish began to appear, and then I had an epiphany, I could write a novel if I thought of them as being a series of sprints, rather than a marathon.
It goes without saying, that one of the threads had to be on the theme of 142. This is not a plot spoiler, it’s merely the seasoning, but it does run through the whole series of the New Reform Quartet.
You’d have guessed that a character called the Red Wife would be in the book – and you’d be right. However, she didn’t come to me until I’d written two thirds of the first book. This demonstrated to me, that my mind was closed off to her, until she was fully formed enough for it to send her up to the surface.
If you were talking to me in a kitchen, at what point would you have made your excuses and left? Answers, on a postcard…
If you’d have stayed this far – maybe you were avoiding somebody in the living room – then I’m guessing by now that you’d want me to come to some kind of conclusion, about where writers get their ideas from?
Well, I think that other well-known writer’s advice cliché comes into play, write what you know and what you know better than anything is yourself.
I don’t go to the blank page and hope for ideas for creative writing because the blank page has nothing inspiring on it. The best ideas are probably in my past, but I wasn’t paying attention.
I believe, the ideas pool of the mind is unfathomably deep, I now peer into the water, and wait for something to surface. When it does, I pop it into my net, and if I think I’ve caught it before, and thrown it back in, I take another look, as it might have grown since then.