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Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?

By Tom Ashford

“Where do you get your ideas from?”

It doesn’t matter if they’ve actually read your book or not; often simply telling someone you’re an author is enough. That question comes up eventually. Not often from another writer, mind. Only those who do not write themselves would ask a question so impossible to answer.

And yet, avoiding the urge to scream “I DON’T KNOW!” or “FROM MY BRAIN!”, we endeavor to come up with an answer that will satisfy the person asking… even when we know that we either can’t, or when the answer is much less interesting than the mystique surrounding a writer’s mind.

Some people think of inspiration and something magical and fleeting – something that will flutter away if not immediately put down on paper. Perhaps they’re right. Others, including me, just see those stories as the inevitable result of an overactive imagination. The impressive part is crafting that imagination into an original story.

We’re all influenced by the world around us, and inspired by the art that’s come before us. It’s true – there are no more original stories. We just have to find a way of telling those already-told stories in a way that’s new and unique to ourselves.

And that got me thinking. What does inspire and influence us? Where do I get my ideas from?

BOOKS

This should be an obvious one. As Stephen King says in his book, On Writing, “read a lot and write a lot.” If you’re not doing this, you’re in trouble already.

Most of us became writers because we loved reading. Or at the very least we enjoyed it enough to think that we might have a shot at doing it too. If you’re doing it just for the money and you don’t even like books then a.) you have no soul, and b.) your books are going to be awful.

The authors of books we enjoy are going to influence our own writing style. It’s pretty much inevitable. I’m personally a massive fan of writers such as Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams and, you guessed it, Stephen King, and I’m under no illusions that you can’t find threads of their styles amongst my words. Of course you can. And not just styles of prose, either. You’ll see themes and ideas too, at least in my earlier work.

It’s not that I want to emulate them exactly. They just had such a profound impact on me that I want to replicate the feeling I got when reading their books in my own writing. Eventually we develop our own unique style (or we should hope to, at least), but the DNA of our inspirations remain.

And some writers just steal ideas and hope the audience don’t notice. (They will.)

REAL LIFE

I was in a hotel in New Orleans once, and the elevator shaft started making some weird, demonic noises whilst I waited for the elevator to arrive. I still got in, of course, ignoring the clear foreshadowing of a painful, gruesome death, and it got me thinking. What if I wrote a story about a hotel possessed by a demon/ creature from another dimension? It seemed likely that story had been done to death already, so I thought some more. What if behind every door in the hotel was a whole other universe – another story, waiting to be told?

I’ve written that story already, so don’t nick it. (It’s called Checking Out, by the way).

That’s an answer I can actually give when people ask me where I get my ideas from. The reality of inspiration is never as interesting as imagination would have you believe, and I can feel myself getting bored having to explain the meandering story of how that particular novel came about. Other options include: the death of a friend, and being in a broken-down car in the middle of a Texas Interstate.

Write about what you know, right?

MOVIES

Movies didn’t exist when novels became popular. Dickens didn’t get to watch Transformers 2 before he sat down to write Great Expectations (thank goodness). I don’t know who Dickens was inspired by, but I’d wager it was either a novelist or a playwright.

We do watch movies, however. There’s little escaping them; the average person is probably far more likely to watch a film or a television series than they are to read a book.

At least, that’s the excuse my friends give me when I ask them if they’ve read mine.

But they are a storytelling medium, and a good one at that. Some of us may turn our noses up at the idea of films being on the same level as books (wait till you see the next item on the list), but somebody has to write the script, just as Shakespeare did.

There’s plot to be influenced by in movies, and there’s certainly a lot of dialogue. Half the struggle writers face is making their dialogue sound both dramatic and natural (even when it would sound ridiculous if spoken aloud in real life) – even the most house-bound introvert can pick up tips on writing good dialogue through enough quality films and TV.

Thinking about it, one of the reasons I love writing stories with twists and surprises so much is because of the impact the movie Memento had on me. The narrative structure was incredible, and every time I re-watched it I noticed something new. That’s had as much an impact on my storytelling style as any book I’ve read.

VIDEO GAMES

Here we go! Come at me!

I remember a writer posting a question, asking which video games, if any, inspired their stories. One person replied by mocking them, which aside from showing their unpleasant nature demonstrated their ignorance of how far video games as a medium have come.

The video game industry is bigger than Hollywood, remember.

But in all seriousness, we’re not talking about Pong or Tetris. There are cinematic games that rival any film in regard to storytelling (and some that can rival even some of the best books, too). Look up the emotional roller-coaster that is The Last of Us if you don’t believe me. Or BioShock, a game so atmospheric, intelligent and imaginative that it pretty much kickstarted the argument of video games being art. Having one of the best twists in any book, film or game ever probably helped, too (it was also heavily influenced by Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, by the way).

It’s also a great way of exploring the art of world-building, from Tolkien-esque fantasy settings in The Witcher to the Philip K Dick-inspired Cyberpunk 2077.

Each to their own, but anything that helps inspire a good story sounds good to me.

MUSIC

This one might not seem so obvious, but I’ve listened to a piece of music – either to its lyrics or to the piece as a whole – and felt inspired to write something, be it a specific emotion in a single moment in time or a whole novel.

One song even gave me the idea for a plot twist in one of my books… but I shan’t tell you which song or book that was.

I suppose the same can be said of any art, really; I’m sure more than one writer has been inspired to pen a story based on the surreal paintings of Dali. They are designed to provoke thought and discussion, after all.

In the end, we all have our own reasons for writing, just as we all have different tastes and interests that both inspire our stories and pepper them with flavour. We all have different authors and filmmakers and pieces of creative brilliance that we wish to emulate or out-do. We can hide it or we can wear it on our sleeves, but that influence is there.

There’s nothing new under the sun… not until we put our own spin on it, at least.

Tom Ashford

Tom Ashford

Tom Ashford is a professional copywriter, author of numerous dark fantasy and sci-fi novels, and the Head of Content at the Self Publishing Formula Blog. His books include the Blackwater trilogy and the Checking Out series.

He lives in London with his wife, in an apartment that doesn’t allow pets. Find out more about Tom here.