Writers of fiction are often asked where they get their ideas from. Most of us would answer, ‘anywhere and everywhere’. That’s true, of course, but it’s not a very satisfying response. And what the flipping heck do we mean by it?
All you need to start a story is a small and glowing spark: a photo of people you’ve never met, an old portrait, a snatch of conversation heard on the bus, an odd phrase seen in a text (or a Tweet!), a particular smell, or even an unusual sneeze! The main thing is that you shouldn’t know too much about your spark to begin with. I think the best ideas come from something very small. If the idea starts off too busy, too fully formed, then it’s probably already a story, and it’s probably someone else’s! If you only have a spark of an idea to begin with, then you’ll blow on it with the power of your own imagination and grow it your way. Of course, some sparks just go out even when you blow on them. But don’t despair, they just weren’t the right sparks!
Another way in to story, is through memory – our memories are definitely all our own so we can’t be accused of pinching them. But the trouble with memories is that they are the stuff of real life,and rarely make satisfying stories in themselves. They need to change. So I wanted to tell you about a picture book story I’ve written. Milly and the Mermaids was inspired by a memory, but it evolved into something very different from the original.
It all started like this: When I was five I went to South Africa with my family. It made for an amazing and memorable summer. Here I am making my mark in those white, white sands.
We were on a beach in Durban one boiling hot day and I had two ice creams. Then I wanted a third, and when my parents refused I made a massive fuss and we all fell out. My dad went for a walk and I sat and fumed on the sand. A bit later he reappeared, smiling, and holding something out to me. I thought for one glorious moment that it was an ice cream. But it wasn’t. It was only a stupid seashell.
Here it is.
Do you see how my childish eyes and wishful imagination could have mistaken it for an ice cream cone? I was very put out to find that it was only a seashell, I can tell you. I chucked it in the sand, we went back to our hotel in bad moods, and the next day I woke up and was sick sick sick with horrendous sun stroke. I didn’t want an ending quite like that in my book for young readers!
Milly, the little girl in the story, doesn’t long for ice cream as I did. She longs for mermaids. She’s desperate to see one. She’s at the seaside but whatever she does, she can’t seem to find a mermaid to play with. When her dad brings her a shell, it isn’t brown and white like mine, but green and blue, like a mermaid tail, and for a moment she believes it is a real mermaid her dad is carrying to her. Her disappointment is just like mine was, and she throws the shell in the sand. Fortunately her dad has the good sense to keep the shell. They take it home with them and Milly finds that the shell has much much more to it than meets the eye.
Milly meets her mermaid at last, and that’s her happy ending. I had a happy ending, too, in a way. Because even though I ONLY had two ice creams, AND got told off, AND got sunstroke, years and years later I still own this beautiful shell from a South African beach.
PS This blog first appeared over at the very tremendous Girls Heart Books.