Where do ideas for novels come from?

My novel is finished, for now at least. So, what next? Another novel, of course. But what kind of novel? And about what? While I’ve been thinking about this (and trying not to think about it) the whole question of where ideas for novels come from has been intriguing me.

According to Colm Tóibín, ‘the first sentence of the book comes to you unbidden, unexpectedly, as rhythm and rarely changes.’ After that, comes ‘the work.’

Ian McEwan’s ideas, ‘pop out of nowhere really.’ He tries to make himself available to inspiration by maintaining a state of ‘useful passivity.’

Rose Tremain similarly advises writers to ‘follow the Yogi Masters’ philosophy of Alert Passivity – staying quietly tuned to how everything unfolds day by day and where the truth of things resides.’  

Elena Ferrante says, ‘One never knows where a story comes from; it’s the product of a variety of suggestions that, together with others that you are not aware of and never will be, excite your mind (from the Los Angeles Times 2018).

Anna Burns knew what she was going to write after ‘Milkman’ because, she says, the book ‘gave itself to me, like almost all of it, and then it kind of said, “Back later.”’ (New York Times 2019).

Bernardine Evaristo talks of ‘an ever-growing morass of ideas’ which she has to ‘write down as notes, knowing I will return to explore them further.’ (the stories we tell, Arvon Oct 2019)

It appears, then, that writers, at least at the literary end of fiction, often struggle to define exactly how ideas come to them. They seem to form in a nebulous way, through an infusion of conscious and subconscious thought, experience and memory, with some trigger in the present. It’s a strange alchemy.

Right now, events across the world have taken over and, to me at least, waiting for random inspiration to descend seems largely inadequate and irrelevant. I hope that, whatever I write in the future, these events will have some impact on the novel to come, for those ideas that pop out of nowhere, also pop out of the world around us.

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One Response to Where do ideas for novels come from?

  1. Richard MacKay says:

    I remember you quite well because it was your post some time ago that inspired me to create a site on WordPress and also to write and publish my books. Events here in Alabama have been swirling as protests continue over the murder of George Floyd. Can you link me to your author’s page or your publisher? I have an author’s page at Amazon under my name, Richard MacKay. Thank you.

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