It’s a question all authors face.
So what’s your answer? That they flow into your head from some stream of consciousness, or the ether? Or plucked from a fast-fading dream? Or from a magic box that only you have the key to? Or do you shrug your shoulders because it’s too hard to think of the right words.
You could offer an explanation like my favourite author, Neil Gaiman did…
“In the beginning, I used to tell people the not very funny answers, the flip ones: ‘From the Idea-of-the-Month Club,’ I’d say, or ‘From a little ideas shop in Bognor Regis,’ ‘From a dusty old book full of ideas in my basement…’ until I got sick of being flippant and told the truth. ‘I make them up. Out of my head.“
But people didn’t like that answer – as though he was holding some secret knowledge back from them, keeping it all for himself. For acclaimed authors like Gaiman, those who seek the knowledge usually want his magic bullet so they can do what he does.
For me it’s usually people I know or kids I talk to at schools who ask that question. So its easy to ‘spill the beans’ to them. I use some of the stories I’ve written as examples, so it makes more sense.
What sparks off chains of events and the characters that become my stories?
For Secrets of Eromanga it was the unknown, unnamed Australian dinosaur that left the evidence of its flight for life in the 95 million-year-old rocks of Lark Quarry Dinosaur Stampede near Winton combined with my passion for fossil hunting.
McAlpine & Macbeth began with the glimpse of a fast-fading dream I had – a girl from the past and the kick-boxing cockatiel she called Macbeth (I kid you not). That dream morphed into the adventures of a 15-year-old on the run during the Depression with her friend and mentor, a Shakespearean-quoting cockatiel, Macbeth.
Two words fell into my head one day … ‘octopus boy’ – I haven’t got a clue where they came from. That idea became an eco-adventure, The Octopus ODDyssey.
Decibelle sparked into life in my imagination during an Adult Literacy class I taught part-time and a student spelled ‘decibel’ as he heard it. An image of a fantastical creature refused to leave my head – I jotted down the notes on a scrap of paper I still have … female, feisty, definitely Australian, very loud voice and an outsider to the rest of her clan of sprite-like creatures. But Decibelle is neither fairy nor sprite – she’s a tintookie, a mythological Australian ‘small being from the sand hills’. Yes, Decibelle’s come a long way since that first spelling error.
Ideas come from anywhere, every minute of the day, daydreaming or focussed; people, images and places. You catch them with your senses, your brain, your imagination, your experience of life. You build on them, word by word, paragraph by paragraph, scaffolding, constructing, questioning, demolishing and re-building until they are tangible and new … a story.
PS Three of the above stories are on reams of paper at the moment doing the rounds of publishers. But Kate and Macbeth, Decibelle and Finn Jackson and his mates are so real in their author’s head she sometimes forgets this small, insignificant detail.
Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book – 2009 Newberry Medal winner