It’s the classic question: “where do you get your ideas from?”. My brother asked me the question the other day, when we were talking about my still-in-progress novel. That’s quite a phrase, isn’t it? Still in progress. It assumes so much, such as that – one day – the document will be complete, the bow drawn finally around the sprawling story. When does still in progress become incomplete, then unfinished, abandoned? There have been literally months since I wrote a word of Ghosts of the Revolution. But, I still feel good about it. It has strong bones. Sometime soon, once I get a little more free time (hahahaha!), I’ll write some more. I have another legacy to work on for the time being, all 4.62kg of her.
Back to the question. To quote the great Alan Moore, there’s always someone who asks such a thing…
“where do you get your ideas from?’ And you know what we do? We sneer. … The reason why we have to do it is pretty straightforward. Firstly, in the dismal and confused sludge of opinion and half-truth that make up all artistic theory and criticism, it is the only question worth asking. Secondly, we don’t know the answer and we are scared that someone will find out.’
I have a bit of an answer. Not much, but a little. I’ll take Ghosts… as an example because, well, it’s the biggest, most ambitious work that I’ve attempted (if not quite there yet). First off, I simply started by writing down things that interest me. Loose ideas, circling, germinating. The list includes both images and concepts, and had (amongst many others) the following ingredients;
Harbin. It’s in northern China, just another city. But a hundred years ago, it was occupied by Russians, building a rail-line in the bandit-infested Manchurian badlands to short-cut their way to the Pacific. A dozen years later, and the city is a hold-out of pro-Tsarist refugees, the ‘Whites’ who lost the Civil War against the ascendant communists. A decade after that, and the city is surrounded by Japanese forces, who are busy crafting a fake Manchurian empire to justify their expansionism. The city is an onion, layers peeling back.
I have, in my possession, a copy of a marriage certificate belonging to a man found in Harbin, claiming to be a British national. I have copies of the correspondence backward and forward between embassies, trying to determine who he was, whether he was indeed who he said he was, and how and why he was there. It sounds like the start of a mystery novel.
I’m reading Ellroy, Hammett and Chandler. Noir, pulp. It’s sex and death, molls and gangsters, private eyes and femme fatales. It’s the thirties, the forties, the fifties. I wonder what Marlowe would look like in a foreign country.
I am reading about robotics, and about how much development came in the early twentieth century. And, how automatons had an era of popularity around the turn of the century (and yes, I have seen Hugo before you ask). I wonder how these would operate in a world that was different from ours, just a little.
I’m on the Dieselpunks website, realising how much I love the aesthetic of that day and age. The images of retrofitted technology on that website and others strikes a chord with me far more than, say, the ‘brown goth’ chic of so much steampunk (and yes, I realise that it’s a stereotype, but it’s one I’m confronted with more often than not).
Next, some Mad Max on the television, some My Chemical Romance pumping through the headphones. It’s post-apocalypse, but the soundtrack is spiky teen aggression and supercharged day-glo. I imagine a motorcycle gang on the Russian tundra, leftovers of the Civil War, left parent-less by famine and strife, ready to create their own civilisation from the shattered ruins of what came before. They are Yesterday’s and Tomorrow’s Children, black-eyed and orphaned.
I am flicking through a Frankenstein comic by Grant Morrison. He describes the concept that water has been found to take on different chemical properties depending on how you label and describe the container it is stored within. What if you labelled the water ‘love’? Or ‘cure’? And then, what about, ‘hate’ or ‘weapon’? Which do you think humans would use more often? (The concept is bogus, apparently, but it’s unbelievably fascinating in that way so much pseudoscience is.)
I have shipping lists, detailing the refugees of a dozen wars. Russians leaving Asia by Chinese ports, bound for Australia and other Commonwealth countries. They list families, individuals, spinsters and widows. Religion: Orthodox, athiest and Old Believer.
I’m watching del Toro’s first Hellboy movie, and I come across the scene where a man is thrown into an quasi-magical explosion. As he hits the edge, his flesh strips away but the body continues to move and react. The skull’s jaw widens, as if to scream.
There’s more than that, unsurprisingly, but I hope this helps in seeing how some ideas start coming together. Essentially, begin with things that interest you, and find new ways to connect them. And, don’t be afraid if most of your jottings end up in the bin. I junked a good three-quarters of what I initially thought I was going to write: or, to put it another way, the story started swiftly outgrowing those concepts I’d begun with. That’s a good thing; it means it’s taking on a life of its own.
Now, a realisation that I made early on was as follows: be prepared to either make yourself an expert, or make shit up. If your story has even a passing resemblance to reality, your instinct should be to research until your eyes bleed. This is also a good thing, to a point. The more you know, the more story ideas will emerge. The fuller and realer your characters will become; the world that they inhabit will have more depth and structure. Think of it like the difference between filming a movie on a cheap set – the buildings only paper-thin – versus filming on location, where the actors and director can get into the trenches and understand the world the characters inhabit. I have pages upon pages bookmarked (both physical tomes and on the internet) detailing wars, street maps, skeletal structures of various animals, cars, clothes, uniforms, biographies, death camps, who was who in various embassies and delegations. The list goes on. But if you’re basing something on reality, there’s always more to know, and someone who will know more than you. The former will drag you down in detail and potentially cause you to lose the spark of whatever tale you wanted to tell, while the latter is a constant bogeyman hanging over your head – in your quest for authenticity, you’ll miss some vital detail and be greeted with howls of condemnation from the reader. So, don’t be afraid to make it up. That’s probablt part of the joy found in writing fantasy or speculative fiction: except in cases where you’re working in a shared (i.e., franchised) universe, things that work however the hell you want them to.
This quickly became an easy decision for me, in that I had already decided to write an alternative history of sorts; the real world, off by a few degrees, changed incrementally at some earlier stage. The background reading I did gave me street names and geography, but I could paint the buildings whatever colour I wanted, and tear down or rebuild anything that didn’t suit my narrative. And if I didn’t know about it in the first place, well, no big loss; the over-informed reader could suspend disbelief on that small point because s/he was already suspending disbelief over a number of other things.
This reminds me, in a roundabout way, of a comic book called S.H.I.E.L.D., which came out a year or two ago and was intended to tell a ‘secret history’ of Marvel Comics’ shared universe. It was a clever enough conceit, weaving in real-life luminaries such as Da Vinci and Isaac Newton into broader conspiracies of a less-than-real world. My enjoyment came tumbling down over the most minor of issues; a double-page spread showed Da Vinci looking over a Renaissance-era Roman cityscape while a giant creature rampaged the Eternal City. And there, smack bang in the mid-ground, was a building that I knew had been built hundreds of years after that era. The frustration I had lingered for pages thereafter. I was frustrated that the artist hadn’t done enough research; it was like he’d taken a picture of the city and drawn over anything he suspected looking too modern, but didn’t notice something that was ‘fake ancient’. My enjoyment of the book faded as the story progressed – more to do with the writing than the artwork – but I can trace my first flicker of disapproval from that image.
I’ll be back next time with some further minor epiphanies on the writing process.But before I go, a quick comment that the thoughts above are not, by any stretch of the imagination, enough to turn you into a best-selling novelist, or even a published author. I’d think that getting a good agent and finishing your book would be the best place to start for that (and not necessarily in that order). These are the baby steps only, as taught by someone only just learning to crawl.