Lesson Three: Where We Find Ideas

The question writers are always asked...

In the last couple of weeks, I have been working on a TV treatment with another writer pal. It’s particularly nice because I usually work alone (except for the authors who I ghost), and so it’s a luxury to have somebody to share and swap creative ideas with. 

The story that we are working on is based on fact but, for the purposes of drama, we are adding in some fictional elements. As a journalist I have always been answerable to facts, and that extended to my ghosting work, so I struggled so much when I started writing fiction, because I always had that annoying little thought nagging away at me: Is anyone really buying this? Do they believe this happened? 

I decided, for a novel that I have just finished writing, to try and mix the two together – fact and fiction, and this worked so well for me. For many writers the line between research and procrastination can be a thin one, a tightrope walk perhaps. But by the time I’d finished my research, I was itching to get going (I have to wait until the story comes all the way down my arms, until the tips of my fingers tingle and then, I’m off). 

Making fiction from fact, was a little like having a washing line and pegging new clothes to it. It was an enjoyable process, and provided a safety net too. I could believe people were buying it, because I knew there was a grain of truth in the story I was telling. The characters who once existed, were not the protagonists of the plot, but their existence shored up these people I invented, as well as the setting.

The man who provided the inspiration for me for that novel was a Turkish writer who is little known in this part of the world and his work has never been translated into English. His name is Cevat Şakir Kabaağaçlı and I took lines that I’d read in his books and seeded them into conversations with my protagonists. I loved it. And it is similar with this TV treatment that we are working on at the moment. In fact, having some facts floating around in the background, far from pins you down to reality, and actually allows our imaginations to run wild somehow – or at least that’s how I felt. It provides inspiration, yet not a fence for thoughts and ideas and, really, play.

Anyone who hangs out with kids often enough will know that their imaginations know no bounds. It might be a story they’re telling us with their Barbies, or when they’re thinking on their feet, getting themselves out of trouble, chocolate smeared all over their chops. When did we as adults stop playing? When did we allow our imagination to be curtailed by real life? As a writer of fiction, my work is my play. How nice to just sit all day making up people, worlds, settings, situations, conversations? But there is no reason why any of us can’t weave this into our day-to-day, not just for the purposes of writing, but just because creativity begets creativity and that will filter into all areas of our life. And let’s face it, after the last 18 months we’ve all had, don’t you think we deserve a little play? 

I was chatting to a friend the other day about running some writing workshops for her. I told her of one workshop I teach which is all about how we find ideas. I like to get people together, with a whole bunch of old newspapers and a pile of scissors, and cut out stories, headlines, words, pictures, and then we sit and make up stories from them. How far can we push this? Who are the characters behind them? What happened after the story ended on the page? It’s a great little exercise, it makes us laugh, it makes us excited, it stretches our brains in all sorts of different directions, it makes us chip in and add something else to someone’s story, and more often than not, people take those characters home and do something with them: a poem; a short story; a novel. It is also often a chance for people to share stories of their own, things that happened to them, mix all that up with a few characters you’ve made up, and there you go, you have a plot. 

Telling stories is how humans have connected since time began. I’m planning on running some more of those workshops so drop me a line if you fancy joining in and having a play, and if not, try that little exercise I mentioned yourself, though I think it’s best with buddies. 


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