“Where do you get your ideas?” is probably the most asked question a writer is ever going to hear. And it’s a completely understandable one. How did Stephen King come up with Christine, a homicidal car that kills its owners? How did JK Rowling come up with Harry Potter, a kid who goes to a school for wizards? How did Stan Lee come up with Spider-Man, Bob Kane come up with Batman, Shuster and Siegel come up with Superman?
And, more importantly, how did they take those ideas and turn them into a story?
Ideas are everywhere, and ideas are- generally speaking- nothing special. Everyone has them. Quite often, when it comes to writing, people have the SAME idea, at the same time. Why do you think Hollywood comes out with two volcano movies in the same season, or two giant asteroid movies, or two earthquake movies? Ideas float around, just waiting to be plucked from the air and developed into something special- and it’s this development that decides how good it’s going to be.
I could have thought of Skulduggery Pleasant, after all, and set it in a world OF talking skeletons, where everything is magic and the fantasy overtakes the reality. Who knows, it might even have been good- but it wouldn’t have been the Skulduggery we all know today.
So the important thing, the really important thing, is what you do with the idea once you have it.
BUT- that’s not what I’m going to be talking about today. I’m here to talk about the ideas themselves, and where they come from.
Clive Barker once described the inside of his head as an attic. And in this attic, the walls are covered with posters. These are posters of every movie he’s ever seen, every book and comic he’s ever read, every song he’s ever heard. There are posters from history, from legend, from fairyales and from dreams. There are posters from his own life, his own experiences. His attic is FILLED with these posters, and they’re plastered on top of each other and beside each other, layer upon layer upon layer.
And here and there, some of the posters get torn, and frayed. Posters get ripped. And when that happens, he gets to see part of the poster underneath, and a little of the poster underneath that. And so suddenly he’s looking at a book he once read when he was twelve on top of a movie he’s just seen, combined with a dream he once had about a song he once heard.
And THAT is where ideas come from.
Different elements of different things combine to make something new. Skulduggery Pleasant is not the first walking skeleton in fiction, after all. Off the top of my head, there is Ghost Rider, Jack Skellington, Death (from the Terry Pratchett novels), and a character from a video game called Grim Fandango. I was aware of all of these things when Skulduggery came to me, but the idea of him didn’t come from ANY of these things. The idea of him came from his name, which told me who and what he was. The name Skulduggery Pleasant told me he was a skeleton detective- I didn’t come up with a skeleton detective and then look around for a name.
Of course, the books have a lot more ideas in them than good old Skulduggery, and some of them I even know EXACTLY where the idea came from. Serpine’s hand, for example, came from the Nick Cave song “Red Right Hand”, one of the coolest songs ever written. Other ideas come into existence out of sheer necessity.
Valkyrie’s reflection, for example. I started writing the book, way back in 2005, and the reflection wasn’t a part of it. I was writing a story about a 12 year old girl who sneaks out of her house and ditches school in order to spend time with a skeleton and find out who killed her uncle. She was getting into trouble in school, and she was having arguments with her parents. Every time she returned home, they’d have another argument- and that’s not what I wanted at all.
I wanted her home life to be warm, and fun, and funny. I wanted her parents to be crazy in love, and a little bit crazy. But I could write about none of that, because they were all spending their time arguing.
So I got to roughly halfway through, and I realised this wasn’t working. I needed to do something. The first thing I did was to have this story all happen during the summer holidays, when Valkyrie wouldn’t have to go to school. This cut down on SOME of the arguments, but not all. I needed something else, something bigger. I needed her parents to NOT miss her when she was gone. I needed a stand-in, perhaps, I needed a... a reflection.
The moment I thought of her reflection taking over her life when she was gone, my problems were over. Now she could be gone for days on end, and no one would know. I came up with the rule that she absorbs the reflection’s memories because I didn’t want her to miss out on school-work, and also because it was an entirely logical move to make.
Not only did the reflection solve a load of problems, it also offered up LOADS of story opportunities. It changed the course of the series, as you have all seen. The reflection is changing- it is growing. I know plenty of you have your own theories about what will happen to the reflection and I totally understand why you would think that. So far, you’re all WRONG, but I totally understand why you’d come to that conclusion...
Now, when you get to the sixth book in a series, coming up with ideas is totally different to writing the FIRST book. Most of the elements are already there- they already exist. But you still need new ones.
Such as the whole Death Bringer thing. I’ve had that in mind for YEARS, and over that time, it’s changed. The more I wrote about Necromancers, the more I examined their powers, the deeper I got into their philosophy, the more I changed who and what the Death Bringer was. I needed certain things to happen to certain people in certain ways, and the ideas flowed from that.
Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention. If you truly NEED something, you WILL find a creative way to do it.
The honest truth is, there is no satisfactory answer to the most popular author question ever- and I don’t think there needs to be. People ask me it all the time, like they’re waiting to hear the secret, like once they KNOW where the good ideas come from, they’ll be able to write that amazing book they know they’re capable of.
But the idea isn’t the important thing. The important thing is the work, and the effort, and how you take that simple little idea and turn it into something special. And all THAT will only happen when you actually sit down and write the thing.