Vashti Farrer's websiteWhere Do You Get Your Ideas? Part 1

Vashti Farrer

Over the years, I've been asked "Where do you get your ideas?" more than any other question, and the answer is always the same - ideas are all around us, we only have to be receptive to them. 

No two artists painting the same still life will produce identical pictures. Each will bring his unique vision to his canvas and the same can be said of writers. The sources are common to all and the germ of an idea processed through the writer's imagination, will deliver a unique story. For instance, Carson McCullers's The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and Patrick White's Riders in the Chariotare both about four lonely outcasts in small country communities, yet they are totally different books. 

However, a word of warning. Yann Martel's Booker winning novel, Life of Pi, dealt with a man trapped in a boat with a tiger. Martel acknowledgedMoacry Scilar's novella Max and the Cats which included chapters about a man sharing a dinghy with a jaguar. Scilar remained miffed until his book was repackaged with an endorsement from Martel on the cover. Put it this way - the Holocaust is a legitimate "source" for writers, but someone else's novel about the Holocaust is not.  

It's often said there are only six plotsand all fiction comes from one of  them, but that only means writers keep coming back to the same basic human emotions of love, hate, anger, fear, and major themes such as life and death. If a short story competition required stories to have a theme of Death, plots could still include: murder, manslaughter, accidents, natural disasters, war, terminal illness, Buddhist style death, and even bereavement - that's at least eight variations on the theme and there must be many more. 

The movie Clueless was an adaptation of Jane Austen's Emma  and Bridget Jones's Diary was based on Pride and Prejudice. The film, The Piano, was partly based on Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights and it's thought the novel Robinson Crusoe was based on a buccaneer named Alexander Selkirk who was marooned on Juan Fernandez island in 1703.   

Dreams have provided a wonderful source. Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein both came from nightmares their authors endured. Stevenson dreamt of the first time Dr Jekyll became Mr Hyde and woke up, declaring it a "fine bogey tale". Fortunately for us, he stayed up to write it. Imagine if he'd gone back to bed and forgotten all about it! Mary Shelley dreamt the scene where the scientist, Victor Frankenstein, was confronted by the monster he'd created. But it's thought other influences were also at work. When a volcano in Indonesia, Mt Tambora, erupted in 1815, the resulting fallout was so widespread it produced a dark summers, when the sun hardly shone over Europe. Geneva in 1816 was especially wet, and Mary, with her husband, the poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron and a friend, Dr Polidori, amused themselves trying to write horror stories. The men soon gave up, but Mary persevered, finally creating Frankenstein. 

But some psychologists have suggested another subconscious motive. Percy Bysshe Shelley was the foremost Romantic poet and Frankenstein contains the ultimate anti-hero, so perhaps, Mary was inadvertently rebelling against the Romantic movement and in particular, to Romantic heroes? We'll never know, but authors do take snippets here and fragments there to create multi-faceted works, so it's possible. 

Dreams have also produced such TV characters as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and certainly turtle commandos with Italian artists' names, Leonardo, Michelangelo,Donatello and Raphael, are the stuff of dreams.

The law has provided many opportunities.Joseph Conrad's Lord Jimwas based on the wreck of the Jeddah, a ship which sailed from Singapore in 1880 only to sink with hundreds of Muslim pilgrims drowned. Two other shipwrecks probably also influenced him, the Birkenhead in 1852, where the line, 'Women and children first!' originated, and the legal case R. v. Dudley and Stephens, about a shipwreck that involved cannibalism, in which the judge ruled: 'Necessity, other than self-defence, is no defence in English law,' that more or less sums up Lord Jim.  The case was heard in 1884 and Lord Jim was published in 1900. I can't believe that Conrad wasn't aware of such a sensational case. 

Conrad's The Secret Agent was inspired by an anarchist's attempt to blow up Greenwich Observatory and it, in turn, inspired Graham Greene and John le Carré's spy novels. Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness became the basis for the film Apocalypse Now. 

Under 19th century lawit was a capital offence for a convict with a conditional rather than an absolute pardon, to return to England and this became the theme of Charles Dickens's Great Expectations. 

In that novel, Miss Havisham, is supposedly based on Eliza Donnithorne of Donnithorne House, 36 King Street, Newtown. She was jilted on her wedding day in 1856, and never left the house thereafter until carried out in her coffin in 1886 to be buried in St Stephen's graveyard, Newtown. Dickens never came to Australia, but journalists who wrote for his magazine Household Words (including Marcus Clarke) did, and he knew a number of other people in Australia, including Caroline Chisholm, who lived near Donnithorne House, in the 1860s, so he may well have heard of Eliza from these or other sources. 

Historical periods can also trigger ideas for characters or sub-plots. Think of the French Revolution and Madame Défarge of Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities, or Narziss and Goldmund by Hermann Hesse, set in the Middle Ages, when plague swept through Europe and cows wandered mournfully about with no one to milk them. 

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a mathematics don at Christ Church, Oxford, wrote Euclid and his Modern Rivals. He played cards, chess and croquet, and indulged in the English ritual of afternoon tea, and as the author Lewis Carroll, he wrote Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass. 

Some books are written asparodies. Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, for instance, was a satire of Mrs Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho(1794) and Erica Jong's Fanny parodied Fanny Hill, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, written by John Cleland while serving a term in the Debtor's Prison in 1748. 

In  1728, John Gay wrote The Beggar's Opera in which his hero, Macheath, a highwayman, is arrested and thrown into prison where he is helped to escape by the gaoler's daughter. In Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows,1908,his anti-hero, Toad, is arrested for speeding, thrown into prison, and helped to escape by the gaoler's daughter. Later, Bertold Brecht wrote The Threepenny Opera, a modern version of The Beggar's Opera,set in Germany between the Wars. 

Fairy tales have provided an on-going source of ideas.Charlotte Bronte'sJane Eyre is an elaborate re-telling of Cinderella, where a poor girl with no prospects apart from her virtue and a kind heart, finally marries the man of her dreams. 

Jane Eyrein turn inspiredDaphne du Maurier's Rebecca and Jean Rhys's The Wide Sargasso Sea.Neither of these plagiarises the original, but both have dour, stern, forbidding heroes and timid, shy, virtuous, heroines. Both are set in large, spooky houses and each has a mad woman upstairs, Mrs Rochester in Jane Eyre, and Mrs Danvers in Rebecca and in the end both houses go up in smoke. Jean Rhys's novel has the added twist of being written from Mrs Rochester's point of view. 

The fairy tale of Snow White and Rose Red, when placed in a Yugoslav setting, became Bianca and Roja and Phantom of the Opera is reminiscent of  Beauty and the Beast with a dash of Faust.  

Psychiatric diseases are another source. Don Quixote issupposedly based on a real person suffering from schizophrenia with delusions of grandeur and certainly the scenes inside the prison ring uncomfortably true of treatment metered out to the mentally ill at that time. Dostoevsky's novel  The Idiotis a 19th century version of Don Quixote. 

As for spooky themes, Henry James heard a ghost story from E.W. Benson, then the Archbishop of Canterbury, which later became The Turn of the Screw. 

Then there are phobias. In his autobiography, Anthony Burgess claimed he and George Orwell both knew a man with a phobia about rats. Burgess said Orwell's character of Smith in the novel 1984 wasn't original but based on this man. Smith was a character tortured when a caged rat was held up to his face. But so what? All writers base characters on aspects of real people they've met and Burgess was probably jealous he didn't think of it first. (Jealous too that Orwell was a better writer?) 

The Canterbury Talesand The Decameron are both short story collections. In one, a group of pilgrims en route to Canterbury tell stories to while away the time, and in the other, people fleeing from the Plague indulge in story-telling. The artificial framework is merely to bring stories together. The device was also used in Greta Garbo's film Grand Hotel and in the movie Paris, Je T'Aime

Objects themselves can trigger ideas. Think of Guy de Maupassant's short story, The Necklace, in which a woman borrows a very expensive necklace to wear to an important function and loses it. She replaces it, but has to spend ten years working off the loan. When the debt is finally paid she tells the owner, only to be informed the necklace was paste and the original never leaves the woman's house. 

Or what about a mirror in a room and successive generations of a family look into it at key moments in their lives, such as before proposing marriage, going to war, a woman about to give birth, so the mirror becomes a "character". I thought this up years ago, but did nothing with it and was annoyed when I picked up a TV guide and read a blurb for a Russian film on the same topic! That's the annoying part of getting ideas. 

Buildings and houseshave also inspired authors,especially Daphne du Maurier. Her Jamaica Inn still exists,so do the churches atLanteglos and Tywardreath featured in her books. For many years she rented a house called Menabilly, which became the basis for Manderlay in Rebecca, and for The King's General andMy Cousin Rachel.The idea forThe King's Generalcame from the house. When it was renovated in 1824, a buttress wall was demolished, only to reveal a staircase leading to a small room in which was found the skeleton of a young man dressed as a cavalier and beside him an empty trencher (bowl) on the floor. The owner had the young man buried with full honours in the churchyard at Tywardreath and gave orders to his architect for the room to be blocked off forever. 

A century later, du Maurier researched the house and its owners through local records, family papers, cemetery transcripts and parish registers. The House on the Strand,published in 1964, was based on another house du Maurier lived in at nearby Kilmarth. The previous owner had been a scientist and had a laboratory in the basement. A local man told du Maurier the foundations of the original house dated from the 14th century and that in 1327 it was owned by Roger Kylmerth. So Kilmarth, the house, became the basis of the novel, with the title coming from another house she rented, that had been mentioned in the Domesday Book. That was Tiwardrai, meaning 'house on the strand'. 

Sources for ideas are endless and varied and all around us. Many are easily accessible, but others will require much dedicated research to get the most out of them.

Remember it doesn't count as plagiarism when two writers use the same raw material, so long as they use it differently so that what they produce is uniquely theirs. 

Copyright Vashti Farrer


The Busy Writer's One-Hour Plot

The Busy Writer's One-Hour Character

Book of Checklists

The Busy Writer's Self-Editing Toolbox

The Busy Writer's KickStart Program

Write a Book Fast