The perennial question for an author is ‘Where do your ideas come from?’ Fewer people ask ‘Where do you keep them?’ But that’s the problem with ideas – they rarely come as complete outlines with a full cast and a list of locations. They arrive as glimpses of location, character, dialogue, and situation. And they need to be tended and worked on.
Sometimes you can use them straight away. You get an idea for a plot and within seconds there are characters queuing up to appear in it. You can start drafting straight away. But most times, especially if you’re looking for enough material to fill a novel, you hit a wall and have to file the idea away for another time.
I keep mine in an Idea Farm. It’s a bit like a Body Farm (never buy a house from a forensic pathologist without checking the garden first:) except it’s inside my head, and instead of decomposing bodies, it’s full of old ideas. Some of those ideas ferment and change, and some of them pop up unexpectedly every now and then. But they’re always there – ready and available to be dug up and used should the occasion occur.
One such occasion occurred in early 2000. I’d had an idea filed away for years about using Rupert Sheldrake’s morphic resonance theories in a book. I know several scientists are reaching for the nearest crucifix at this moment, but I love the scientific fringe. It’s a fertile place for the novelist and, given the choice, I want to live in a world where things like morphic resonance can be true. Supernature is far cooler than ordinary nature.
I wasn’t sure how I’d use it though so I’d filed it away in my Idea Farm. Then, in 2000, along came another idea. I’d written a piece of flash fiction about a character being woken up in the middle of a night by another version of himself from a parallel world and I wanted to expand it. And I wanted the story to be different – something no one had ever done before.
Bam! My Idea Farm burst into life. I could see a way of taking morphic resonance and twisting it into something completely different. Something which took my story idea and twisted that too, taking it far beyond my original concept. All I needed was a narrator. And suddenly there he was too. I’d been trying for years to find a story I could write with an obsessive compulsive narrator. It was something I knew I could do easily – I have a few OCD traits – but all writing wisdom says you can’t have a passive protagonist in a successful book. Protagonists have to do stuff to drive the story along. So I’d filed it away. Until that day in 2000 when I saw that not only could I use my OCD narrator, but the story wouldn’t work without him. It was a perfect fit. Three apparently unrelated ideas had come together within a few minutes and morphed into a perfect whole. And the more I fleshed out the story, the tighter the bonds grew. I’d never outlined a story as quickly as that one. Every twist flowed naturally from character and situation.
I called it Resonance. It was the first book to be plucked out of Baen’s electronic slushpile. It may not be one for lovers of hard SF. I’m the first to admit that I took a few liberties with the science. But I did so, knowingly, because the resulting story was so much better. And it was only a little tweak.
It’s been called ‘a modern classic’ and ‘the book which becomes the standard by which SF stories about … are judged.’
Chris Dolley is a NY Times bestselling author living in France with a frightening number of animals. His novelette, What Ho, Automaton! was a finalist for the 2012 WSFA Small Press Award for short fiction. More information about his other work can be found on his BVC bookshelf .
An Unsafe Pair of Hands – a quirky murder mystery set in rural England charting the descent and rise of a detective on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Which will break first? The case, or DCI Shand?
Medium Dead – a fun urban fantasy chronicling the crime fighting adventures of Brenda – a reluctant medium – and Brian – a Vigilante Demon with an impish sense of humour. Think Stephanie Plum with magic and a dash of Carl Hiaasen.
What Ho, Automaton! – Wodehouse Steampunk. Follow the adventures of Reggie Worcester, consulting detective, and his gentleman’s personal gentle-automaton, Reeves. It’s set in an alternative 1903 where an augmented Queen Victoria is still on the throne and automata are a common sight below stairs. Humour, Mystery, Aunts and Zeppelins!
French Fried – the international bestseller – true crime, animals behaving badly and other people’s misfortunes. Imagine A Year in Provence with Miss Marple and Gerald Durrell.
International Kittens of Mystery. If you like a laugh and looking at cute kitten pictures this is the book for you. It’s a glance inside the International Kittens of Mystery – the only organisation on the planet with a plan to deal with a giant ball of wool on a collision course with Earth?
Resonance – “This is one of the most original new science fiction books I have ever read. If it is as big a hit as it deserves, it may well be this book which becomes the standard by which SF stories about … are judged.”