Mar 15, 2012

Inspiration: Where do Ideas Come From? by @SanjidaOConnell

Dr Sanjida O’Connell is a writer based in Bristol in the UK. She’s had four works of non-fiction and four novels published: Theory of Mind, Angel Bird (by Black Swan), The Naked Name of Love, and Sugar Island (John Murray), which is coming out today. 

Courtesy of Sanjida O'Connell
At the readings, book launches and workshops I give I always get asked the same question: Where do you get your ideas from? 

People in the writing industry often make fun of this question but it’s no laughing matter when you’re sitting in front of your computer with a blank screen. I guess what readers really mean is: ‘Goodness, how did you get the idea for that story?’ Faced with an 80,000-word book and a living, breathing novelist, it’s hard to see the germ of the original inspiration -- and where your novel might have come from is often an interesting tale in itself.

I personally find inspiration from other strands of my life. Until recently I used to juggle several careers: science journalism, a column on ethical fashion, non-fiction book writing, producing and directing science documentaries and presenting wildlife programmes for the BBC. As well as writing novels. So my life was bursting with stories and information that spilled into ideas that could potentially make a novel. For instance, Sugar Island, my latest novel, was inspired by a diary I discovered, written by an English actress, Fanny Kemble. She met and married a charming Southern gentleman in 1834, only to find out he was the owner of slave plantation. I came across her story whilst researching a non-fiction book I wrote, called Sugar: The Grass that Changed the World.

Even if you’re 'normal' and have one job (or, as I am now, are a stay-at-home parent) you’ll no doubt have multiple strands to your life, so rather than wait for inspiration to strike when you’re actually sitting at your desk, jot down ideas from stories your friends have told you, incidents at work, articles you read in the papers, documentaries you see on TV, conversations you’ve overheard in your local café. I keep a notebook in my bag, plus one by my bed (and a little torch so I don’t wake my husband up!), another for odd things my daughter does and one for quotes from writers (one day it would be nice to go digital and join them all up). I also have a folder called, unoriginally, Novel Ideas, in which I put clippings that interest me.

Reading widely helps. One of my friends bought me a non-fiction book from a charity shop about pirates. I immediately thought it could be the basis of a novel. Browsing in sections of the library, or Amazon, asking for recommendations from other people or reading unusual magazines can lead to discovering topics and subjects you wouldn’t normally come across in your everyday life.

I also write down lists of things that I’m interested in and then see how I can join them up to make a story. For instance, my first novel, Theory of Mind, is a romance featuring robots, people with Asperger’s and chimpanzees; Angel Bird is a murder that covers magpies, angels, free will, destiny and genetics!

I find walking is a good way to mull over ideas and see if they’re going to go anywhere. Will your original inspiration bear the weight of a fully fledged plot? Can you stretch it to 80,000-plus words? Do you want to spend the next year or several years of your life working on it (my third novel, The Naked Name of Love took ten years from inspiration to publication; luckily I’m still interested in God and evolution)? The pirate story was a fantastic one-liner but I just couldn’t make it blossom into a full-blown novel without turning myself into the kind of writer that I am not.

Or you could take Start Your Novel’s free seed ideas and nurture one of them.


Dr O'Connell's latest novel, Sugar Island, is out in paperback on 15 March, published by John Murray.
On tour in America in 1859, Emily Harris, a young English actress, meets and marries the charming Charles Earl Brook. But Charles has kept a terrible secret: he is a slave-owner. Forced to accompany her husband south, Emily's attempts to help the slaves put her in great danger. And when civil war breaks out, she realises she stands to lose everything she has ever loved.

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