Where do you get your ideas from?
I can’t believe there is any children’s author who has not has this question asked during a school visit! It’s one of the oldest of old chestnuts.
Well, where do we get them from?
From our own experiences, obviously, from reading something which lights that tiny spark, from looking at a picture, from smelling a particular smell, having a sudden glimpse of something unusual that prompts you to ask ‘I wonder how/why/when?’
Ideas come from everywhere.
In a long writing career, I’ve never gone looking for ideas. They have always found me and the best ones are those that simply won’t go away. They sit there, unformed, niggling around somewhere in your subconscious until the niggle becomes so insistent that you have to pay attention to it, get it out and look at it, think whether somewhere within it is a story. And because it has grabbed you, and not let you alone, chances are that idea can develop into something worth telling.
This explains why my books are so diverse. I can only write about what interests or intrigues me. And often the subjects concern young people in really difficult situations, sometimes in an historical context but more often dealing with issues that confront them in the here and now.
‘Look around you,’ I say when I’m talking to children. ‘Use your eyes. Observe. Question why something is as it is, what has made it like that? Or why is that person behaving in that way? What is his or her background? What’s happened to make them like that?’
And then I tell them how some of my stories started. What was the trigger point?
One of the most powerful trigger points was an experience I had on the London Underground. It was rush hour and there were crowds of people hurrying down a narrow tunnel onto the platform. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a young man huddled in a corner with a notice beside him which read ‘Hungry and Homeless’. I caught his eye. He was about the same age as my older son and I felt a real connection as I was swept onwards by the press of people. I struggled to get a note out of my purse and tried to fight my way back to him. But I never made it and the expression on his face haunted me for months. So much so that he became a starting point for a trilogy ‘Troubled Waters’ about several generations of a family and the circumstances that had led to the modern day protagonist being in such a predicament.
Another moment came when I read an article about young non-radical British Muslims who felt that their views were not being heard. It was a long time before I let that idea bear fruit, mainly because as a non-Muslim, I was afraid of getting it wrong. But unexpectedly some doors opened up to me and I was invited to join young Muslim women at their club in my local town.
Well! Talk about having preconceptions banged on the head. This group of teenagers were feisty and sporty (the first time I met them, they had been kickboxing!) and there was nothing shrinking or oppressed about them. And, most importantly, they were keen to have their views put across and to work with me on the story I wanted to write; they even read the manuscript for me to make sure I’d not made any cultural blunders. The book ‘Mixing It’ was the result.
More recently, a chance visit to the Shipwreck Museum in Fremantle, Western Australia, completely blew me away. I had no idea that there had been European sailors, soldiers and passengers marooned on the coast of Western Australia more than a century before Captain Cook arrived on the other side of the country. And, intriguingly, no-one knows what happened to survivors of these shipwrecks though DNA evidence suggests that they integrated with local coastal Aboriginal people. My story ‘The Blue Eyed Aborigine’ came out of that visit and there’s another book on the subject ‘Forgotten Footprints’ coming out shortly.
Then there was the friend whose Mum was going dotty and it led me to think what might happen if she was a grannie left in charge of a child. How would that child react? How would he cope? (the story ‘Loose Connections’ came out of that). And reading about the horrific child abuse in Rotherham led to my most recent book ‘The Mark’. Grim subjects, both, but I hope I’ve handled them sensitively; oh and there’s a lot of humour in both.
So, what’s the next idea? Just knocking about in the back if my head, this one, this one, but reading about an undercover policeman who had a long relationship with an unsuspecting woman led me to wonder what might have happened if there was a child involved. How would that pan out once the father had been exposed?
A friend said to me the other day ‘Are you still writing?’
Well, yes. It’s these ideas, you see. They won’t leave me alone.
So I expect I’ll die in harness!