A question that often gets asked when people learn that I‘m an author is “Where do you get your ideas from?” It’s a good question, but also an awkward one. It implies that ideas are difficult to come by, but in my experience that is not the case. Ideas are everywhere, liberally sprinkled into my brain by the Ideas Fairy on a constant basis.
I can imagine worlds and characters and plots, but I can’t imagine what it is like to go through life without having lots of ideas. Everything is an inspiration.
Ideas are not the problem. The difficulty comes when I have to decide what to do with them. Characters, scenes, lines of dialogue spring to mind at the most inopportune moments. Sometimes they need to be written down, sometimes they need to be left to percolate and mature, seeking the correct venue for expression.
Glimpses of stories-to-be, of worlds unexplored and scenes to be written, are one of the biggest dangers for me, distracting me from whatever work is one hand.
The trick with ideas is not coming up with them, it is coming up with the right ideas at the right time. The majority of my work – Black Library – requires ideas-on-demand. The bare bones of a story or novel – who, what and where – can be relatively straightforward. What requires creativity is how to present the ideas, blend them together into a narrative and release their nascent potential.
With that in mind here are a few ways I get ideas.
That Looks Cool
When I started out, my ideas process was heavily focussed on the visual. It still is to a certain extent, but tempered with more experience of narrative and drama. Usually a scene or a thing or place will come to mind, jolted into being by something I read in a history book or see on the news or witness as I’m out and about.
I suppose that a lot of this has to do with my background working on miniatures with Games Workshop. My teenage years and early professional life have been geared towards striking visuals, whether a stunning character type, fantastic vista or an image of strange worlds and battles. The attraction of sci-fi and fantasy is being able to explore the otherworldly in terms of the visual, painting pictures with words that set free the reader’s imagination.
A particular view, perhaps ordinary or perhaps amazing, can make the gears start to turn. An old tower, a person in the street, a photo of somewhere you’ve never been can all settle into the mind and start to grow. You might be inspired by a particularly impressive beard, or see a cloud formation that puts you in mind of an ethereal starship. Whatever it is, go with it. Follow the visual impetus to its conclusion and start to populate the scene with people, start to flesh out the character with personality.
At this point you are brainstorming in a group of one, and the same principles apply. Don’t examine the image too closely yet. Don’t think about how something might work, but just embrace the visual aspects, noting your emotional response as much as the details itself. Are you scared or elated, anxious or excited? Does the person frighten you or seem friendly? Take a snapshot in your mind and then return to it later, exaggerating features, adding blemishes and flourishes, twisting the reality to become something more, something hyper-real.
I am, at heart, something of a frustrated artist. At school I planned to become an illustrator but lacking the necessary skills and the desire to spend several more years in education to learn them, I turned to writing instead. It is something that, when i have more time in the future perhaps, I would like to revisit. The problem is, having worked with some of the best artists and illustrators around, my meagre efforts are shown for what they are and the ideas cannot be properly realised by my fumbling artistic efforts.
That leaves the written word. Sometimes prose can convey beauty and terror in a way no other medium can, but often once a visual idea is rendered into words it becomes mundane, prosaic. I am now in the place where I try to convey the sense of a place or person and leave the rest to the reader, rather than trying to labour on the description, sucking the life out of the image. Unlike film-making, illustration, comics and other visual media, writing allows me to deliberately leave the details to the imagination of the reader. I’ve become less concerned with conveying the particular visual in my head, and instead hope that the reader conjures up the scene for themselves that gives them a similar response, whether awesome and grandiose, or squalid and mean.
Another important part of the ideas process is lines of dialogue. A scene, even a whole book, can sometimes live or die by that one killer line that hooks int he reader or gives them the narrative satisfaction they have been craving.
Of late this has been the bulk of my ideas because I’ve been working on short stories and scripts destined to become audio dramas. Someone very recently quoted a favourite line from Raven’s Flight on my Facebook page – “Do you really think I need a bodyguard?” – and it is that sort of response that gives me great reward as a writer.
The dialogue may be a pithy one-liner like the one just quoted, or a long oratory that sums up the entire character or narrative. Reading Theoden’s speech before Pelennor Fields – and listening to the heart-stirring rendition in the LOTR films – chokes me up every time.
Dialogue is the means by which the characters talk to us, and though much of it has a mundane purpose, it has the power to make us laugh, cry, be fearful or triumphant. If I come up with what I consider to be a ‘killer line’, the narrative process then becomes a matter of finding the venue for it to be said. A whole plot can end up revolving around the delivery of that line, its utterance being the beginning or culmination of the story.
Twists and revelations are the bread and butter of dramatic fiction, whether plot- or character-based. The turning point of a narrative is quite often tied up with a seismic shift in the outlook of the character or their situation.
These ideas usually germinate as ‘what if?’ scenarios. What if a space marine absolutely has to team up with an ork to complete his mission? What if the antagonist our character has been striving against all of this time turns out to be an ally? What if, counter to narrative determinism, our character runs out of bullets at the crucial time or doesn’t have the money to jump in the cab?
Revelation is about the break from the norm, messing with the reader’s expectations. In order for a revelatory idea to work the status quo has to be firmly established previously. The job is about presenting the revelation in such a way that it fills natural while not being signposted throughout the story.
Revelation is more than just about a twist ending or narrative bait-and-switch. It needs to reveal something about the characters and/ or the world that inhabit that profoundly affects the expectations that have already been created in the reader. It must elicit a strong response, positively or negatively, in order to become more than just a gimmick. With a bit of luck, it might even have the reader questioning what else they know, about the story or the real world.
Answering the Questions
Writing in a shared universe brings its own source of ideas. Many come from extant background material – the entire Space Marine Battles range, for example – but it is also as much about the things that have not yet been written or illustrated. Delving into unexplored parts of the mythos is one of the reasons I love writing for Black Library.
Often a trigger for an idea will be a question or discussion on a forum. Someone might innocently ask “Do Eldar wear socks?” and there is no obvious answer. Writing a story or novel gives me the opportunity to address those sorts of questions.
Okay, maybe not about Eldar socks.
But there are huge gaps in the established backgrounds, simply because some questions aren’t suitable for answering in products designed to support a tabletop wargame – they are too domestic or cultural or otherwise irrelevant to the business of waging giant battles – or simply because the universes are so big there is not room to address every issue in minute detail.
These questions might just form part of the background hubbub of a novel, mentioned in passing to add colour to a scene or plot point. They can also be the propellant for a large part of the narrative. It all depends on the nature and scope of the question. Big questions need big answers. What would happen if the Imperium attacked an Eldar craftworld? That’s a big question, and forms the climax to my Eldar Path books. What were the Dark Angels doing during the Horus Heresy? A truly massive question requiring many books to answer. Was Malekith evil all along? Let’s see if we can make readers decide for themselves.
There are also the questions that come from within. What drives a woman to kill her husband? How would a tale unfold if the lead character was blind? Does predestination exist? Does magic cause as much harm as it does good? When you start answering questions like this, you have a theme for your story, and a theme is the most important part, even if nobody else isever aware of it. Without a theme, without a purpose, a story is just a bunch of things happening.
The Ideas Fairy Cometh
The inspiration for ideas is all around us if we have our eyes and ears open to the Ideas Fairy. She comes and goes on a whim, but she never leaves for good.
For those who want to do some writing of their own but think that somehow the right ideas never come, just remember the topics I’ve covered here. Think about the visuals of the characters and the setting and how that influences the story – what exotic places do you want to take the reader? What jaw-dropping lines of dialogue will amuse and astound the reader? What revelations will you unveil to challenge their emotions and intellect? What questions, about your characters, their universe and the real world, do you hope to explore and perhaps even answer?