Interviews with authors are a great source of interesting writing ideas – both ideas about writing and ideas for stories themselves. Talking and thinking about writing is a great way to get new ideas flowing. Read 10 interesting ideas from The Guardian‘s ‘The New Review Q&A’ series:
1. Observe and question
Many interesting writing ideas begin with simple questions and observations. ‘What would happen if…?’ or ‘Why is this thing there?’
In Lisa O’ Kelly’s interview with author Dave Eggers, the author discusses inspirations for his novel The Parade (2019), about two foreigners who must face their roles in a nation’s politics and peace. He says:
Back in 2006, I was in [what is now] South Sudan with Valentino Achak Deng [the refugee whose life story Eggers told in What Is the What] and we were near Aweil, driving on some pretty rough dirt roads, when we came upon a giant six-lane highway being built, connecting Aweil to Khartoum. We were surprised to see it was being built by a Swedish company. That stuck in my mind a bit, the oddity of this Scandinavian crew building a road in a post-conflict zone – a road that might some day be used to facilitate military incursions.
After that, whenever I saw foreign contractors in post-conflict zones, I was fascinated by their role and what kind of awareness or sense of responsibility they might have toward the implications of their projects.Dave Eggers, interviewed by Lisa O’Kelly in ‘Dave Eggers: ‘Being around young people is the balm to all psychic wounds’, available here.
Eggers’ story shows the value of questioning and maintaining curiosity as a writer.
What might the implications of a seemingly innocuous or benevolent act (such as building a road) be beyond the original intention? Fiction asks and answers such questions of cause and effect.
2. Experience all you can
We often read pithy sayings such as ‘write what you know’ that suggest you have to experience everything you turn into fiction.
Yes, and no. Research goes a long way. Experience helps too.
Nigerian-born author Helen Oyeyemi baked all kinds of gingerbread recipes (including Emily Dickinson’s) researching her book about an inherited family gingerbread recipe. Yet she also describes diverse, interesting lived experiences in her background, such as ‘dating’ different cities. When asked where she has lived, she says:
In Berlin, Paris, Budapest. Now I know what a privilege it was to have the passport [that allowed me to do that]. Maybe I’m one of the last of a generation to be able to live in Europe. I had such a lovely time dating different cities before moving to the Czech Republic.Helen Oyeyemi, interviewed by Arifa Akbar in ‘Helen Oyeyemi: ‘I had such a lovely time dating different cities’. Available here.
Even if you’re unable to date different cities, have flirtations where you can. The more varied places and people we experience, the more we have to draw on in storytelling.
3. Go at your own pace
Some writers rehash their work constantly, taking years over a manuscript.
Others, as Stephen King says, write a book ‘in a weekend’ (which is probably an understatement).
King conveys the subjective nature of how long a book takes to write. It’s a reminder to go at your own pace. When asked about how prolific he is and whether he envies authors who take years between releases:
Some writers take years; James Patterson takes a weekend. Every writer is different. I feel that a first draft should take about four months, but that’s me. And I go over my work obsessively. Here’s another thing – creative life is absurdly short. I want to cram in as much as I can.Stephen King, interviewed by Xan Brooks in ‘Stephen King: ‘I have outlived most of my critics. It gives me great pleasure’, available here.
4. Use story craft to deliver your views
Authors are often questioned about where they find interesting writing ideas or what beliefs they hold. When asked whether she considers herself mainly a ‘feminist writer’, Meg Wolitzer (author of The Wife, The Uncoupling and other novels) says:
Someone once asked the great writer Grace Paley if she wrote like a woman. Grace said: “If a horse could write a book it would write like a horse; I’m a woman so I write like a woman.” And I feel I’m a feminist so I write like a feminist. But I am interested primarily in following and exploring the stories of people who feel like real people, as opposed to writing a polemic. In this book, those stories happen to be about female power, making meaning in the world, mentorship, misogyny, a lot of things that remain compelling to me.Meg Wolitzer, interviewed by Lisa O’Kelly in ‘I feel I’m a feminist, so I write like a feminist’, available here.
Wolitzer’s words touch on an important juggling act: Balancing writing true to your passions or beliefs with telling a good story that shows through character, connection, and story development. This makes ideas more accessible, in a way, than pushing a thinly disguised message via political screed.
5. Write where you can
British comic author Jonathan Coe describes how he manages to write with a full family life:
I’m lucky enough to have friends who live in the countryside and I often borrow their houses to write in. I’ll go away for four or five days at a time and I can write 3,000 words a day easily in that situation.Jonathan Coe, interviewed by Lisa O’Kelly in ‘Jonathan Coe: ‘The British sense of humour is part of our problems’, available here.
You might not have country-dwelling friends you can avail for a writing retreat. Yet find a space – a public or college library, even a bench somewhere still, notepad and pen in hand – and write in any stolen moment you can.
6. Understand characters’ motives
Italian author and journalist Roberto Saviano wrote a novel out of his experiences researching organised crime in Naples, including the phenomenon of child mafia leaders.
When asked what the child mafia leaders’ motivations are, he says:
None of them are doing it out of hunger. They’re pushed by a complicated reality where it’s almost impossible to make money legally: there are no decent jobs, unless a relative recommends you. So those with ambition are drawn to crime, even though they know they’re going to die: “If you die at 90, you die old news. If you die at 20, you die a legend.” Most of the kids the characters in the novel are based on are dead.Roberto Saviano, interviewed by Kathryn Bromwich in ‘Roberto Saviano: ‘I saw my first corpse in secondary school. It didn’t shock me’. Available here.
Saviano’s deep understanding of what drives these minors who are also gang leaders enables him to craft a deeper sense of their brief lives.
[Develop characters and their motivations in easy, prompted steps in our story dashboard and outlining tool.]
7. Draw inspiration from your environment
In an interview touching on contemporary world politics, author of Trainspotting Irvine Welsh describes developments in contemporary politics and the way technology fuels debate and confrontation:
The new narrative is globalists and nativists trying to wrest control from each other. I think that’s what politics is now essentially. And it’s technologically led, which makes it much worse – and much more accelerated – than in the past. It sometimes feels like we’re sliding into fascism by stealth.Irvine Welsh, interviewed by Sean O’Hagan in ‘Irvine Welsh: ‘I thought Trainspotting would be a cult book, but not generation-defining’. Available here.
Welsh’s awareness of current events reminds us it’s useful to keep aware of current developments – culturally, politically – as they fuel our ideas and imaginations.
8. Add your representation
‘Representation’ is one of the interesting writing ideas that often come up in a world that is fully globalized and where diversity matters.
When you write, you have the power to contribute your viewpoint and experience. To ‘represent’, to others, who come from similar backgrounds or experiences, that attaining their goals and dreams is possible too.
Jason Reynolds describes the power of representation, when asked about giving talks at schools and juvenile detention centres:
One side is about staying engaged, so I can be truthful about the things I’m writing about: you’ve got to know them in order to show them. But it’s also about making sure that they know that they can be me. Because they can’t be what they can’t see.Jason Reynolds, interviewed by Tim Lewis in ‘Jason Reynolds: ‘What’s unusual about my story is that I became a writer’. Available here.
9. Explore images that haunt you
Author Fatima Farheen Mirza whose debut A Place for Us (2018) explores tensions in a Muslim family living in California describes how the interesting story idea came to her:
The first image came to me when I was 18. It was of a family gathered at the wedding of their eldest daughter and, as they’re about to take the family photograph, their son, Amar, cannot be found. The entire novel was written as a way for me to understand this moment. What were the dynamics in this family? What caused this fracturing [with Amar]?Fatima Farheen Mirza, interviewed by Killian Fox in ‘Fatima Farheen Mirza: ‘I’d just stepped out of the subway when Sarah Jessica Parker called…’. Available here.
Fatima Farheen Mirza’s description reminds us of how profitable it can be to explore the images and scenes that come to mind, interrupting our thoughts.
10. Write through discomfort
Many aspiring authors fall into the trap of writing what they feel they should write, rather than taking risks. Or being ‘too’ personal. When asked about the embarrassment of writing about wetting herself in a supermarket line, poet Hera Lindsay Bird says:
I’m always too embarrassed to include things, but I write them down thinking I will never publish them and then after about a day they don’t embarrass me any more. It’s the cheapest kind of therapy.Hera Lindsay Bird, interviewed by Lisa Allardice, in ‘Poet Hera Lindsay Bird: ‘I forget about the sex in my book until I read it aloud’. Available here.
Bird touches on the great liberation of allowing yourself to write even where it gets ‘too personal’ or ’embarassing’. This, after all, is often where humour and relatability lie.