Where Do Story Ideas Come From?

2 Nov

At a barbecue over the summer, the teenage daughter of a friend of mine asked me where authors get their ideas from.  I’ve been mulling this over off and on ever since.  I’m not sure about other writers, but I think most of my stories have their roots in my everyday life. Something will happen to me, I’ll see something or I’ll read something and it’ll get  me wondering ‘What if…’. Some times the ‘What if…’ will be relatively straight-forward, other times they’ll lead me in a completely unpredicted and unexpected direction.  For For Those In Peril On The Sea, the basic premise came to me when I was on a research vessel about two hundred miles from the nearest land. This was far out enough that there were no mobile phone signals, and the sea was so rough (the wind was blowing force eleven for those of you who know about such things – for those of you who don’t the scale goes up to twelve, which is hurricane force), we couldn’t use the satellite phone or even get decent reception on either the satellite TV or any of the radios. When I went out on deck, there was nothing but rolling sea as far as the eye could see and it struck me that we could be the only humans left in the world and we’d never know, not all the way out there. That night as I lay in my cabin trying to sleep, I began to wonder what would happen if it turned out this was true.  I started to think about what would happen when we got back to shore and we might find there.  Obviously, when we got back, we found everything as just as we’d left it, but the idea remained with me and eventually worked itself into something that I thought would make an interesting book, and one that I felt deserved to be written.

I think this is where working as a marine biologist for the last twenty years really helps me with my writing. It has given me the opportunity to travel the world and see a lot of bits of it that people don’t usually get to see. In particular, seeing the land from the sea often gives you a fresh perspective on things that you cannot get when you’re standing on it.  It’s like being able to step outside of the world for a while and look back at it as if from a distance. I’ve often wondered whether the feeling astronauts get when looking back at Earth is a similar (if much more intense) version of how I feel when I see distant land across an expanse of sea.

The five or six years I spent living (off and on) in the Bahamas was (and still is) a great source of ‘What if…’ material as it was the kind of place where many strange things happened.  We regularly saw water spouts, experienced epic thunder storms that made it sound as if the sky was being ripped apart above your head and in the late summer there was always the ever-present threat of hurricanes.  Some of these experiences (mostly about the places I visited and the hurricanes I lived through), served as great building blocks for backdrops and set pieces in For Those In Peril On The Sea, while others have worked their way into various short stories that I have stashed away.  One of the oddest ones I haven’t used yet was when I was asked to look after a live sea turtle for a couple of days and then take it into court to be used as evidence. I agreed, thinking this would be something small that could be kept in the bath or a kids’ paddling pool.  Boy was I wrong.  When I got to the police station, I found a three-foot long sea and very angry reptile that did it’s best to tear a chunk out of my arm each time I tried to pick it up.

Sailing, in general, is a great source of ‘What if..’ situations. Not just what happens to you, but also the stories you hear about what’s happened to others. I grew up just too late to witness the first solo round the world race myself and had to settle for reading about it later (if you want to find out more, I’d heartily recommend a book called A Voyage For Madmen), but I grew up hearing people talk about someone ‘Doing a Crowhurst’ and the rumours about what really happened to him were rife (if you don’t know about this read the book, it’s an amazing story – It’s all so weird that if you pitched it to an agent or an editor, they’d say it was too unbelievable!). Then there are the stories told amongst sailors of people surviving months drifting in life rafts, boats found drifting at sea, sails fully set and no one onboard, of submarines coming up under unsuspecting yachts, sinking them in seconds. And being Scottish, there’s always the story of the lighthouse keepers on Flannan Isle. They disappeared one day, leaving their dinner still lying on the table as if they’d just stepped out for a second. That was in 1900 and no one has found any trace of them since. With stories like this floating around, it’s hard not to be inspired to think about what you would do if you were one of the people in these stories, and so the idea for a piece is born.

While others may be able to conjure up whole new worlds in their minds or while they sleep, for me there always has to be a spark of some kind from the real world. If you are like me, then you need to do all you can to make sure that you encounter just the right one.  Travelling helps a lot, but so does listening to people. Pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone and into new situations will bring new source and inspirations.  So will talking to people you wouldn’t normally talk to.  Keep your eyes open and look rather than burying your head in your Kindle.  Sit and watch people passing by, you never know what you’ll see that will help get the ball rolling.

It was while doing this last one that I got the inspiration for the opening scenes of the sequel to For Those In Peril On The Sea (that I’m working on at the moment). For weeks, I’d been struggling to think of a way of writing something that fell in the same world but that wasn’t just a carbon copy of the original. I was starting to think that a sequel wouldn’t be possible without me repeating myself too much when it happened. I was sitting on the steps of a concert hall looking down Glasgow’s busiest shopping street on a Saturday afternoon.  From that vantage point, I could see a solid mass of people filling every inch of the mile long street. They were moving slowly, swaying back and forth, jostling for position. Then it occurred to me that from that distance, they didn’t seem like people, they seemed more like the infected from For Those In Peril On The Sea, shambling around, shambling towards me. That was the spark I needed and I started playing ‘What if…’  What if they were infected? What would happen? How would I get away? Where would I go?  What would I do next?  I still don’t have everything clear in my head yet, but I’m having fun working it all out.


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From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in the UK. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more.

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