How do you know what to write about? Storytelling and listening

Continuing the ‘questions about writing’ series, probably the most popular query is ‘where do you get your ideas from?’

While I love writing novels and short stories, I’m also an academic writer, and I write articles for journals and on line health publications as well as day to day in my job in safety. Writing fiction pieces is quite different to writing non-fiction, but, for me, the idea process is similar.

I’m a great believer in gestation of ideas. This is like general thinking, but more organised! It can’t be forced, and to some extent means paying more attention to the world around you for an extended period of time. I find myself most receptive to ideas when I am travelling. I used to wonder why this was, but it’s obvious, really, it’s a time when my mind isn’t particularly focused on one thing or another; it’s when I have time to daydream. Some people report a flash of ideas when they are in the shower or half asleep. It seems that our most receptive times are when we are carrying out conditioned actions in the background and we don’t have to plan.

Apart from making notes on my phone or tablet, and taking photographs of relevant locations and areas, I listen. Here’s a list of what I might listen to:

– conversations on buses and trains
– people talking on their mobile phones
– arguments in shops (often contain personal situations to defend argument)
– people talking about newspaper articles
– background noises – alarms, sirens, bird – all of these might spark an idea
– obituaries
– citations

Listening is a skill that takes time to develop properly. Listening properly  means hearing someones story without interjecting your own opinions or views. In a conversation, people are often only half listening because they are planning what they will say next or how they feel. Really hearing what someone says means giving them a space to speak and considering what they say without internalising their meaning and asking yourself how it affects you or your viewpoint. People’s conversations tend to contain the peaks and the troughs of their experience, and we skim these to get the gist of the story and fill in the rest from our experience. Listening carefully will reveal a fuller story, perhaps quite different from how you assumed it would turn out as you haven’t used your own experience to complete it.

For every fifty ideas, I might only choose one to develop. For non-fiction, this would be something that resonates with my expertise and I know is a hot topic. For fiction, it would be an idea that wakes me up in the night, fighting for my attention.

For every ten or so novel ideas that I develop, only one will make it past three chapters. My laptop hard drive is littered with abandoned projects of around three chapters. I know, after around ten thousand words, if I have the fire to make this into a story, if I care about the characters or the concept enough. For articles and non-fiction, the development of an idea may take more than a year, while I research it or find a new approach. The book I published about identity construction took two year to write, but much longer to research. Short stories often develop from a flash of inspiration, sometimes even a word, but can take months, maybe years, to finally take their complete form.

I’ve heard that authors should write what they know, and I completely agree with this. However, I think that ‘what you know’ is the whole capacity of your imagination, so starting with an idea that is burning to be developed and researching it is a learning curve in itself.

Stories are everywhere; they are your own and other people’s lives. Listen properly, it makes life much more interesting!