Where do ideas for novels come from?

April 4th, 2012

Sitting in the Little Blue Hut – where I am currently Writer in Residence, courtesy of Creative Canterbury - I see lots of stories walk, jog or cycle past. What about the lovers down by the shoreline in the rain? Looking out to sea, with their arms around each other’s waists, they make a romantic silhouette under their umbrella. Are they making a decision that will change their lives forever? And what about the old man, on the steps of another beach hut, talking to his huge, shaggy dog? They seem so happy together but she has no tail, so has she been abused in the past?

This week’s virtual visitor to the Little Blue Hut is Elizabeth Buchan, and we’re talking about where we get ideas for novels. Elizabeth Buchan’s novel, Daughters, has been in the UK Top 50 (all books) since it was launched. ‘I wish I really knew where ideas come from – it’s impossible to bottle the formula, but, as a writer, you enter into a state of conscious search.’

Amongst sources of inspiration, she cites ‘a phrase on the radio, in a book or in a newsaper. I knew that I had Revenge of the Middle Aged Woman under my belt when I stumbled on the Spanish aphorism in an old calendar: ‘Living well is the best revenge.’ ’ I note that Elizabeth does say ‘a phrase’ rather than a whole story – I think most of us would agree with George Bernard Shaw who, on being told a tale by a friend on the grounds that he’d be able to use it in a book, stopped him after the first sentence. ‘That’s all I need to know. Let me imagine the rest.’

‘Daughters’ came about when Elizabeth was discussing Jane Austen’s Mrs Bennett with a friend, ‘and it suddenly struck me that I sympathised with her longing to see her daughters settled. She is a silly woman but her instinct was one that most parents will recognise.’

There are various theories about plots – that there are only seven (or thirteen or thirty-nine, depending on who you read). Some say that all plots can be found in Shakespeare’s plays, and that everything since is a variation on those themes. I was consciously aware that my book The Inheritance, about three women inheriting their father’s estate, was a ‘King Lear plot’ (as is Jane Smiley’s One Thousand Acres), but as I’ve never read King Lear, I don’t feel it copies it in any way.

Sometimes ideas for novels (as well as for features in magazines and newspapers) come about when you suddenly find that you are having the same conversation several times over with completely different people: my Sisters In Law came about after a Christmas where three different friends had all complained that their main problem over the festive period had been their sisters-in-law.

Elizabeth Buchan says that ‘sometimes the process doesn’t work. I wrote one novel called The Book Of Hours, based around the hunt for a missing medieval manuscript. I was completely besotted by the subject, but the book didn’t work. It wasn’t helped by the fact that I was writing it when my mother was dying, and, apart from the emotional distress, I was spending my time driving up and down the motorway to look after her.’ I think we’ve all had a book (or more than one!) that ‘didn’t work’, so I think it’s hugely helpful when someone like Elizabeth, who has written many best-sellers over the years, reminds us that it isn’t the end of the world when this happens. She just dusted herself down and went onto write the very successful ‘Separate Beds’.

Mind you, I’ve got little six Spanish ashtrays, which my parents bought in the Seville in the 1950s. Each one has an aphorism. Could they be the basis of a series of novels? One is ‘El melon y la mujer son malos de conocer (a melon and a wife are both difficult to understand’). No, I am not sure that a book about a misunderstood melon would quite set the London Book Fair on fire. But do have a go.

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