• Jane O'Reilly

Where do you get your ideas from?


This question is a bit of a standing joke amongst authors, something we're asked by readers but which none of us can really answer. I have to admit, I've only ever been asked it once, by someone at a book club I visited to talk about Blue Shift. I'm not sure the answer I gave was either a. very good or b. the one the person who asked me was looking for because I waffled on about what had pushed me to write that book, not where the idea had come from.

The problem with this question is that there a million answers, just as there are no answers at all. I can tell you where a snippet of an idea came from, the first flash that started the wheels turning inside my head, but that idea was not a book. It was not even 1% of a book. It was more of a seed, if a book is a 100 year old tree that has been pollarded at least a dozen times. You might hear authors talk about how books come to them fully formed, a flash of genius in the middle of the night, that they can plot a 6 book epic series in their head on the train on the way to work on a Monday morning.

I am not one of those writers. My ideas are like Revels. Sometimes you get an orange one but the rest of the time you get all the other stuff. And sometimes you think it's orange but it's coffee and then you're disappointed for the rest of the day. I wish my ideas were more like Crème eggs, complete and fully formed but sadly my brain does not work that way.

The idea for Blue Shift started with an A-level exam paper. A couple of times a year I plough my way through several hundred such papers (because it's a job I can do at home that I've been able to fit around children and illness and because writing does not provide a predictable or regular income and I like to buy knitting patterns). A few years ago, one paper came with a booklet of scientific articles that the candidates were supposed to read and answer questions on. You know the sort of thing. One of the articles was about naked mole rats, a very strange creature that spends its entire life living underground and chewing tunnels out of the dirt. They've evolved to be able to survive in these conditions, so their eyes no longer function because sight provides no advantage, but their teeth have basically turned into shovels. In order to stop them swallowing soil, their teeth stick out through the skin of their upper lip so they can dig with their mouth closed, yet despite having what is effectively an constant unhealed wound, they don't get infections. That's all very fascinating, I hear you say. But how did you get from a bald rat to an epic space opera?

The article went on to talk about possible human applications of the ability of mole rats to dodge infection, primarily for people who need prosthetic limbs. At the moment, if you lose an arm or a leg, you have to wear a removable appliance. It is possible to graft a prosthetic leg onto bone, but the wound will predictably become infected at the point where the leg and flesh meet. (If you've read Blue Shift, you might be starting to see the idea take shape). So that got me thinking. Is this how things will be in the future? Taking useful genes from other species and splicing them into our own DNA to give us these particular abilities? I got the idea of a genetically modified woman with prosthetics which enable her to work off planet. (Yes I did grow up watching The Bionic Woman and I had a Six Million Dollar man doll and cyborgs are COOL).

Jane Doom and the Cyborg started with a tweet where someone posted that autocorrect always changed their name and gave examples. Jane Doom was on the list and immediately conjured up an image of a tough, independent, planet hopping woman, like Lara Croft in space.

Ideas can come from anywhere. A film. A book (which is why, if you want to write, you have to read and read and read). A snippet of conversation. A piece of music. Sometimes you get an idea, sometimes a character, sometimes a setting. The ideas which stick, which you remember, which you keep coming back to, are the ones that have legs. If you're an aspiring author worrying that you can't pull an entire book out of your head in one go, don't worry. Plot is how you build from an idea to create story. Play around with your idea, whatever it is. Add to it a single piece at a time. It's a lego set in your head. And remember that writing is a marathon, not a sprint.


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