Where ideas come from is one of the most mysterious elements of writing a novel. Here are examples from P.D. James; and from my thrillers.
I once heard the great novelist P.D. James speak at Downing College, Cambridge. ‘Where do you get the idea for a new novel from?’ someone asked her.
‘It often starts with a landscape,’ P.D. James replied, ‘or a place. I remember visiting Suffolk on a dull winter’s day and seeing the great hulk of the Sizewell A nuclear power station, squatting at the water’s edge in the flat landscape like a malevolent toad. I thought, I must write a novel about this.‘
The result was the 1989 detective novel, Devices and Desires.
Palladium: the origins
In 2011 I visited Istanbul. At the time I was British Ambassador in Kyiv, Ukraine. Gulls swooped over the Bosphorus; the great dome of the Aya Sophia caught the sun; the throb of giant tankers echoed from waterfront yalis. Great ocean steamers lined the strait.
I thought: I must write a thriller set here.
In 2012 I moved to Istanbul, as British Consul-General. I saw the 15th century Bodrum Mosque, built in the 10thC as a Greek church, the Myrelaion.
Think that’s old? The Myrelaion was built on top of a 5thC rotunda, converted into a cistern several centuries later. Back in 2015, incredibly, it was used as a shopping arcade.
In 2012 Istanbul was booming, with building sites everywhere. Huge skyscrapers were constructed from deep pits.
I also visited the Valide Han, an ancient trading house whose domed roof gives a spectacular view over the city.
What, I thought, if an archaeologist racing to excavate a site ahead of the construction of a new skyscraper dug up an ancient relic that played into contemporary fears? Perhaps the novel might flash back to historic events? What if people believed the relic protected the city from harm? What catastrophe might threaten?
With the help of friends in Istanbul, I came up with a terrific idea for a cataclysmic threat. This in turn owes something to a previous job of mine, as the Director of Overseas Territories – but since that involves a key twist in the plot, I shall not refer to it here.
I then set out to weave all of these elements into a novel. The result was Palladium, which features the Myrelaion and its cistern; the Theodosian Walls of Istanbul; the Bosphorus; the Aya Sophia; the Valide Han; a building site; ocean liners; and much, much more of Istanbul.
Where do ideas come from? In the case of Palladium, it it all came back to those first, magnificent views of one of the most beautiful cities on earth – the sense of place of which P.D. James spoke.
Eternal Life: the first inkling
My speculative thriller Eternal Life had a different genesis.
Back in the 1970s and 1980s I read a lot of science fiction and what we today call speculative fiction. Books like Brave New World, 1984, Fahrenheit 451 and A Clockwork Orange all presented commentary on today’s world as nightmarish visions of alternative futures. In movies and stories astronauts travelling through space were cryogenically frozen and woken years later at their destination; or returned to earth to find everyone else had aged by centuries while they remained young. I even watched Woody Allen’s 1973 movie Sleeper, set in a future world where everyone has a biometric identity.
As a child I had lived in Africa and in Europe and had seen the immense inequality between countries. I longed to write an allegorical story about extremes of wealth and poverty growing ever greater, and how that might change society. But how to build it all together, with a compelling plot?
Before mobile phones were invented
One evening in Vienna I agreed to meet my girlfriend, Nicky, to see a movie. I had recently suffered humiliation when a friend told me that, because of my habitual lateness, he always invited me to events half-an-hour earlier than the other guests. The shock therapy had a salutary effect; I arrived way too early for my date.
Not surprisingly, Nicky was not there.
I had nothing to read. Mobile phones had not yet been invented. The thought of sitting idle for an unknown period of time filled me with horror. What about my planned new novel, I thought?
Perhaps I could use the time to devise the plot.
Where ideas come from: Eternal Life
What if, I thought, in a future, hyper-capitalist world, it became possible to sell your own life expectancy, or buy someone else’s? How would that affect politics, international relations and individual lives? The exploitative ultra-wealthy in rich countries would surely try to buy up cheap the lifetimes of poorer nations. Governments would block such trade, to prevent exports of their most valuable commodity, and to keep down prices to what poor-country leaders could afford. Some countries might prohibit the new technology, turning politics upside down. Others might nationalise it. That in turn would lead to a tsunami of novel crime, nationally and internationally.
Four years earlier I had completed a seven-week hitchhiking odyssey around the United States, taking in Santa Monica. I had been invited to the villa of a film star in Malibu, overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
Suppose my hero was a detective based in Santa Monica, investigating the theft of someone’s lifetime?
I always carried a pen and paper with me. I started making notes.
By the time Nicky arrived, I had the plot of what would eventually become my speculative thriller, “Eternal Life”, all mapped out.
I published it in 2021.
Where ideas come from: my conclusion
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the conundrum of where ideas come from. I once attended a writing course on the Greek island of Skyros where the – excellent – tutor urged us all to lie on the floor and think of ideas for a story. My mind at once went blank.
What works for me is to keep thinking while you’re doing other things; and wait for inspiration to strike. It may be a place; something you see; a book; something someone says; or simply a thought that pops into your head. Anyone can get great ideas this way. The key thing is to make a note of your idea right away. Keep a notebook, or a list, or a document on your phone or your computer, for all the ideas you have for articles, blogs, short stories or novels. Then, when you’re ready, get cracking on your new project.
For lots more tips on how to write, see my writing tips category.
Photo of P.D. James: By Benutzer:Smalltown Boy (Diskussion) – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32138211