Three conversations, three writers.

One old friend, one new friend and one brand new acquaintance.

The question came up, as it does.

What are you writing?


Brand New Acquaintance sketched a nascent idea which had me bouncing in my seat. New Friend, best known for non-fiction, went into detail about his brilliant fiction premise. Old Friend, with every reason to keep her work under wraps, shared her plans and filled me with excitement.

“Write it! Write it NOW!”

I’ve interviewed a lot of people and usually avoid the obvious, unanswerable question. But I still wanted to ask all three…


Where do your ideas come from?


Looking through my recent reading, the stimulus for the story is sometimes clear.

The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith, recently filmed as Carol, sprang from a personal experience. In her Afterword, Highsmith explains how she extended, extrapolated and invented an entire novel based on one moment in a department store.

A story rises from the springs of creation, from the pure will to be; it tells itself; it takes its own course, finds its own way, its own words; and the writer’s job is to be its medium. – Ursula Le Guin


Helen Fitzgerald’s Viral is based on a news story, an insight into the human impact of public shame. Her curiosity for the darker stories and impact on human interactions is the basis of much of her work.  I interviewed Helen, where she describes being allured to ‘a wonky mind’.

Ideas of every kind are constantly galloping toward us, constantly pass through us, constantly trying to get our attention. – Elizabeth Gilbert


Thematic links, such as musical moments in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes, or suicide in Nick Hornby’s A Long Way Down create meaning via the structure. Exploring a politicial issue creates furious not-quite-fiction such as John le Carré’s The Constant Gardener or so many works by Henning Mankell.

You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it. You get ideas when you ask yourself simple questions. The most important of the questions is just, What if…? – Neil Gaiman

feb snow 3

Ideas can come from anywhere. Stephen King says he dreamed the basic plot for Misery. While I’ve often used an atmosphere of a dream, I’ve rarely managed to work Roquefort-for-supper surrealism into a plot. Apart from this peculiar short – not for the faint of heart. The Reservation

If I knew where the good songs came from, I’d go there more often. It’s a mysterious condition. It’s much like the life of a Catholic nun. You’re married to a mystery. – Leonard Cohen

Writerly friends answered the question with varying degrees of precision. I understand. An idea is just that. An idea. Not a story, not a novel, not a TV series. An idea is only the start. Example: in 2005, I had a brilliant idea for a kind of glove for picking up wombats but do you think I can get a patent?

Ideas are seeds, to be shaped, tended, nurtured and pruned. A good idea is a good start. But then the work begins. Because the world is full of shrivelled, undeveloped ideas such as The Wombat Glove.

Frances di Plino once asked me where my own ideas came from. For once, I was honest.

Dreams, Grazia magazine, intangible atmosphere, three blokes in a Bristol Post Office, deepest fears, London Review of Books, reflections in a puddle, Brecon High School’s library, overheard conversations, Aphex Twin, the personality of a city, Eddie Izzard, past conditionals, John Knapp Fisher, long journeys, and Celtic gravestones.- JJ Marsh

It’s a question writers get asked all the time and as many answers exist as there are stories. But of all I have read, this one may be my favourite.


I get all my ideas in Switzerland near the Forka Pass. There is a little town called Gletch, and two thousand feet up above Gletch there is a smaller hamlet called Über Gletch. I go there on the fourth of August every summer to get my cuckoo clock fixed. While the cuckoo is in the hospital, I wander around and talk to the people in the streets. They are very strange people, and I get my ideas from them. – Dr Seuss

Update: David Lynch on ‘The Other Room’.

    1 Response to "Where Do Ideas Come From?"

    • Jeanie

      Love this, Jill. For me, out of interest, it is definitely an intangible atmosphere that stems from a very strong filmic scene in my mind. Where this scene came from, I don’t know. Perhaps a dream, perhaps real visual scene I have seen in my childhood… Indeed it is a mystery. I know John Marsden gets dozens of newspapers from tiny country towns sent to him and scrapbooks the weird country stories. Nice.

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