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Where the ideas come from

A few months ago I was invited to submit to an anthology, with a pretty simple brief - a science fiction story with a military feel, if possible working in a reference to the number ten.

Easy-peasy, said I. No problems. And then I wrote a story called 'The Story of the Ten' which appears in Newcon Press's 10th anniversary collection, Crises and Conflicts (

The story is between a mother and her son, and is almost fairytale in its telling. The setting is a military one, but neither character interacts closely with it. And yet, that's where my mind took that brief to.

I wish I could say this was a solitary event. I was then given a remit for Woodbridge's Press anthology, Expolorations (coming at the end of August.) I did manage the central theme of a wormhole (yay, go me!) but the deviation into Roman mythology, an obscure Irish stone figure and the central tenets of belief not science was unexpected.

This week, on my hols, I visited a castle in Donegal and knew I had the setting for my next Ulster-set story. Again, though, it wasn't the traditional aspects of it that caused my imagination to stir (this happens every holiday, a new story idea, and it's not helpful - some people have the To Be Read pile from hell, I have the Find Time To Write list instead). No, it was a lake lapping right up to the causeway and a lily pond, gated and closed off. What lay in them? What closed that pond off? What had happened there?

Imagination is a funny thing. To me, what I come up with doesn't feel original. I bemoaned that fact to my writing group once, who assured me no one else had come up with aliens vs Belfast, that they knew of (I think Ian McDonald may have once, though). To me, the story has no twists and turns, because what happens makes sense to me. To others, however, the story could take different paths than I follow - and I suspect this is true of most writers vs readers.

That the story I was worried lacked originality managed a number of reviews along the lines of 'blessed with an entirely original storyline', 'quite a unique book' and 'sensible in its weirdness' (my favourite review comment ever), took me aback.It left me wondering where that fountain of imagination comes from.

What makes me see a lake and a hidden (dark, I'm afraid, this story will be a twisty, curvy, scary thing) secret, and another see a mountain and a quest? What is it that makes me come up with walls that smother people, as in Inish Carraig? Where on Earth did that come from? Yet, it's been said to me, several times, that the walls are one of the enduring images of the book.

In fact, in the hope of getting to the core of where ideas come from, let's look at the walls in Inish Carraig. For those who haven't read the book, this is the description of the walls of the prison:

"He touched one of the walls and his finger sank to the end of his nail, the hard metal chancing form into something solid and pliable.... He'd have thumped his head on the wall, except the thought of the metal filling his nose and throat made him shudder." (Inish Carraig, 2015, Jo Zebedee)

What I needed from the walls was:

A sense of danger. We know, don't we, that John's going to face the feeling of the metal filling his nose and throat?

A plot device. John will find things out about the prison because of the pliable nature of the walls.
Something alien. Inish Carraig is light SF and set in our recognisable world. I had to snatch the chances to insert alienness into it.

A darkness, that touches all our fears. Frankly, I like my books with their dark edges (you might have noticed!). I like to know fear as well as happiness from a book. To get that darkness, a writer needs to come up with something that makes the reader uncomfortable. And alien walls that threaten to capture someone does exactly that.

So, to me, dough-like freaky walls make sense. They tick the boxes I need - why on Earth wouldn't I have them? And yet, to another mind, faced with the same list of to-do things, a different solution would be found.

Which makes me feel that some of this creation is about theme. Only the last point in my list is writer driven. The others are plot reasons, or needed. But there didn't need to be a darkness that feeds on fears. That part was down to me and my imagination, and where I like to go.

I don't think I've come up with any answers here. I don't think there are any answers. My imagination comes from me asking questions about my world and what I see. What if you were really the chosen one? What if you faced aliens on modern Earth? What if you heard fairies talking to you? What if you had a lily pond so dangerous, or tragic, it had to be closed off and locked away? What if it was beside a cold, desolate lake, buried in the mountains?

They're all what-ifs that my imagination starts working with - where it goes to next, what answers it creates... that's the part I can't answer. Whatever drives it, whatever sees a mother telling a story to her son in the shadow of military coercion, I can't touch. I just hope it keeps on coming up with answers to the questions they ask, and that my answers continue to be original.


Anya Kimlin said…
My imagination is a three year old child residing in my mind. Who did that? Why? But how? And why did that happen?

Often my most "original" ideas are the ones that I know exactly where they came from and I've tweaked for my own purposes.

Angus became a bird after watching He-Man ;)