Friday, 22 April 2011

Where do your ideas come from?

Edge author Dave Cousins considers why he is drawn to write edgy fiction. 

Where do your ideas come from? is probably the most common question asked of writers, and one that many will struggle to answer. Not me. I know exactly where my stories originate: a metal box on my desk called the Word Tin. It contains all the words I need, stamped into small strips of metal, like dog-tags. To build a story, I simply delve into the box, pull out a handful of words and put them in the right order – easy. 

The Word Tin: Where the words come from
I’m joking, of course – though the tin is real, and I have once or twice tried the technique. (It produced some interesting if not exactly publishable results.) But where do ideas for stories come from? How do we choose which stories to tell? Does choice even come into it? I certainly don’t sit down and think. ‘Right! Now I’m going to write some edgy fiction.’ Why don’t I tell stories about boy wizards or teenage spies – vampires even? I’m a big fan of Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines series and will happily spend an evening reading about Neutrino-toting fairies, but when I sit down to write, that’s not what appears on the page.

The late great (and edgy) Robert Cormier
For me, Robert Cormier summed it up perfectly when he said, ‘to work for me, an idea must be attached to an emotion, something that upsets, dazzles or angers me and sends me to the typewriter’. The spark that sent me to my notebook to scribble the start of the story that became 15 Days without a Head, came from something I witnessed in a pub one afternoon. A very drunk woman arguing with a stranger at the next table – much to the embarrassment of her sons. It made me wonder what life was like for those two boys, what would happen when they got home. 

It takes time to write and revise a novel, and I find that if the characters and their story don’t mean anything to me, they won’t sustain my interest through the months of writing. If you care, it also brings with it a sense of responsibility, a desire to do justice to the characters and their story, which can be a great motivation – especially in those dark hours encountered with every novel, where the story won’t come and you find yourself reaching for the Word Tin! 

Last week, Bryony talked about edgy fiction dealing with unsettling, uncomfortable ideas. Look at all the Edge story synopses and you’ll find a wide range of tales that have one thing in common: they all deal with realities that are hard to face, things we would rather not think about: knife crime, child abduction, prejudice and torture, abandonment, deception and coercion. 

But these are the subjects that excite and unsettle me, that gnaw away at my subconscious, disturb my daydreams and keep me awake at night – the things that drive me to the typewriter. 

15 Days without a Head by Dave Cousins, is out in January 2012, published by Oxford University Press.


  1. I quite agree with this reason to write and would add that I write because I have something to say. I can't just generate a story because it might do well, or hit the market on the nose. I have to write about something I feel utterly passionate about. Its that passion which drives me to carry on when the long hard road of drafting a novel winds on and on.

  2. This is so true. I think a concept is important, something that a reader can grab hold of, but it will only take a writer so far. What we need is that reason to hold a mirror up to ourselves, to delve into our own thoughts, emotions and reactions. Because this stuff is as painful for us as it is for the reader - and that's what makes it so vital.

  3. I love your quote from Robert Cormier! What sent me to the typewriter was a flyer that went round the local schools warning that the driver of a big flashy car had tried to snatch children after school. It made me think. As a parent it made me scared. But what about the child who has been abducted? That was my starting point for The Long Weekend.
    The Word Tin is a great idea, Dave, and brilliant for creative writing workshops in schools! I may have to go in search of a tin...