In my experience, there are two or three distinct ways that you get an idea for a novel. Firstly, you can sit down to write a novel, and decide what you want to write about until something comes together in your head, which I did with Out of Time. The possible second way is to dream it. This has happened with a friend of mine who dreamt the idea for her current novel when she was staying at my house ( 🙂 ) I have never dreamt up the entire idea for a novel, but I did dream the setting for a chapter of my children’s novel, The Light of Drombar.
But while both of the above can produce great novels, I think that for most writers, the most exciting way is the one that is sparked off, quite spontaneously and unexpectedly, by an experience, or a discovery, or an overheard conversation, or a news item. It is that little ‘ping’ that goes off in your head, taking what you have heard or seen into a new realm of ideas. I love that exciting little buzz when in one split second an idea is born. Sometimes, it immediately springs to mind into an idea for a novel, but more often it will sit in your head for months, swirling around, mixing itself up with the thoughts and themes that happen to be in your head at that particular time until characters start to present themselves and start demanding to be given life and a part to play.
With each spark of idea, whether it is through experience, a dream, or a conscious thought process, you have to add the question: ‘What if…?’ It is the ‘what if…?’ that every writer’s brain uses to take a single idea and expand it into an imagined narrative.
I am currently working on a novel based in early Victorian theatre. The idea for this novel came about many years ago when I was carrying out some research for a project in my Open University degree. I was writing a dissertation on local Victorian entertainments, and I came across a bundle of letters, held at the Northamptonshire Record Office, written from members of a traveling theatre company to a local solicitor in the early Victorian period. The letters gave a wonderful insight into the lives of the actors who played the theatre circuits of the 1830s and 40s. One actor in particular, Henry Hartley, wrote long and detailed letters in a friendly and jovial manner, whilst revealing his frustrations at not being able to find a career in the London theatres.
After I finished my degree, those letters continued to fascinate me, and gradually the idea for a novel came out of them. Henry Hartley and the company he played with would be a large part of the novel, but the main character was to be ficticious, a young naive woman, tired of her mundane life as a shoemaker’s daughter, would run away from home to join this theatre company, and have many adventures. Isobel Brite was born, and once she had appeared in my head, she would not let me go. Although the novel has been put on a back burner a couple of times, I am now determined to finish it this year, and I am aiming to have it out by autumn.
As a writer, you have to constantly be open to ideas, to have a kind of constant antennae that will pick up on something that could be the spark of a new story. We have to be constantly asking ‘what if…?’ to extend that idea into something that would be interesting to read, and mix it all up with our own interests, values and beliefs to create something that creates a strong theme or message within the story. In my example above, my first idea was to write something set in early Victorian theatre using the characters from the letters. It was in tune with my interests in theatre and history. My ‘what if…?’ was: ‘What if a young naive girl was thrown into that boisterous setting?’ And mixed with my beliefs around following instinct and doing what you love, no matter what the difficulties, the story gradually built itself to create a character who would grow from a naive girl into a strong woman determined to survive against all the odds.
Whatever your way of getting an idea for a novel, it has to be something that has meaning and interest for you personally, otherwise there is no point. You will not enjoy writing it, and people will probably not enjoy reading it!