Sparks to Make Flame: On the Ideas Behind Fiction

November 8, 2013 | 1 book mentioned 8 7 min read

Once every season, at the end of her hibernation, the contemporary fiction writer (Midlistia microadvanceiata) emerges from her burrow. For years she has lived underground alone, in sweatpants, eating whatever she can scrounge and drinking nothing but the tears of her own crushed ambitions, and as she blinks her way into the light she clutches her newest novel to her breast. The circle of creativity is now complete. It is time for this infant book (made from clay, broken fingernails, coffee grounds, and her own hair) to take its first tentative steps into the world, into the harsh light of publicity. For the lucky ones, this means writers’ festivals.

I love writers’ festivals. I feel privileged to be sitting on stage in the company of my betters, facing that rarest, most perfect of creatures: the reader. If I were a poet, I’d write an ode.

Oh, reader. You, who spend your hard-earned on our books.
You, who not only talk about switching off Twitter to read a novel, but actually do it.
I wish I could marry you. All of you.

This doesn’t mean I find writers’ festival panels easy. Novelists are natural hibernators who can happily sit in front of their screens alone for months and years at a time. (After a few more generations of evolution, we’ll all be hooded-eye albinos with shoulders attached to our earlobes and enormous bladders and stumps for legs, able to touch-type by instinct at birth.) At festivals, these same hermit writers are required to be entertainers: funny and self-deprecating, eloquent and compelling. It shouldn’t be possible to be both introverted and extroverted, yet many writers manage it with grace and wit.

I’m in awe of writers like that. This personality schism doesn’t come naturally to me, but it’s worth the stretch because the thrill of discussing my work with intelligent, engaged readers is one of the joys of my writing life. For a very long time, a novel is a private thing I hold tight and close; it’s seen by nobody else for many months. Then it’s published, and, as if by alchemy, the characters leave my mind and walk around of their own accord and readers meet them, and have opinions and questions about them. It’s magical.

Sometimes, though, the audience questions at writers’ festivals aren’t so joyous. I’ve been asked: “What is your opinion of the elementary school curriculum?” (I have no children, am not a teacher, and have no idea why anyone would ask me that.) Once I was asked: “If someone killed themselves after reading your book, would you feel responsible?” (A dense fog descended on my brain, but I wasn’t forsaken. Other members of the audience yelled at the questioner to sit down and not be such a moron.) But the question that fills my heart with dread and leaves me quaking is this one: “Where do you get your ideas from?”

I know I’m not alone. In green rooms and halls and lecture theaters, writers giggle nervously and roll their eyes when they hear those seven little words. When I’m asked Where do you get your ideas from? first, I look bashful. Then I stutter and stammer. Then I tell the truth, which is I don’t know. If I did know, I’d go there more often and get more and better ones.

After I finished my second novel, I wrote nothing for more than a year. Nada. Zilch. This was the bleakest stretch I could remember. I phoned my husband at work, just to say hi, maybe seven times a day. I cooked elaborate dinners: pot roasts and hot puddings, in contrast to my usual writing fare of ramen and yoghurt. To prove to myself that someone, somewhere, was still finding ideas, I took to visiting bookstores and staring at the new releases section like they were exotic animals in a zoo. Then I called my long-time publisher just to catch up, for a gentle, general chat about my progress, or lack thereof. The conversation went something like this:

Me: OH MY GOD my career is over isn’t it? It’s over. You can tell me. Just tell me straight. I’ll never get another idea. Never never never. Well it was good while it lasted. OH NO this means I’ll have to get a job. Who would be stupid enough to give me a job? My entire skill set revolves around making stuff up. What kind of job is that for a grown up? I’m unemployable. I have a mortgage. I need to eat. My life is over.

Publisher: That’s what you said after your first book. My guess is, you’ll say this after every book.

Me: No no no I’ve never said this before and even if I have this is different I am doomed doomed.

Publisher: Can you speak up? I can hardly hear you.

Me: I’m in a cupboard. I don’t know when I’m coming out.

At the very beginning of my writing life, before I’d finished my first manuscript, before I even knew what I didn’t know, my college teacher invited me to a book launch: a former student of hers had published her debut novel to much international acclaim. I had never been to a book launch before. Other than my teacher, I’d never met a novelist. I was almost 40 and lived in the suburbs. Up until I started writing, I lived a very different kind of life.

The launch was in a groovy pub in Collingwood, in Melbourne’s inner north. It was the kind of place with skateboard parking provided, with a vegan microbrewery attached, where the patrons all looked like amateur secret agents in beards and big glasses. I looked like somebody’s mother.

The author gave a charming and witty speech and, as she sat down to sign books for the long queue, I remember thinking to myself: Well, she’s sorted now. She knows how to do it. She just needs to do it again.

Ho ho ho. I don’t think that way anymore. Now I think that ideas are like fruit, and novelists pick the low-hanging ones first. These are the ones closer to our psyche and our preoccupations, the ones that have been forming inside us for years. The idea for each new novel is harder to find, in my view. Each time, we must stretch further from the heart of us, from the things we care about.

cover Lately I’ve taken to leaving a notepad on my bedside table in case I dream a novel, like Mary Shelley who, on holiday one summer on the shores of Lake Geneva, woke up one morning with Dr. Frankenstein and his monster. After all, Stephen King wrote Misery after falling asleep on a plane and dreaming about a fan who kidnapped her favorite writer, Stephenie Meyer dreamed up Bella and Edward, and Stevenson snoozed his way to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. And it’s working for me. Here is an actual note I found the morning after a particularly vivid dream:

Eight years old again kidnapped by a secret society of maniacal British chefs who know I’m really 45 and want to squeeze my brain to make money on elections, disasters, sports, whatever. I’m in a mini-bus with the chefs. Big white hats. Shoving newspapers in my face. Gordon Ramsay and Heston Blumenthal, trying to squeeze my brain in a juicer. Super scary. Run!

I know, right? Those 2016 Booker judges can put away their binoculars: it’ll be my British-chefs-time-travel-brain-juicing-conspiracy novel (The Indigestibles?) by a wide margin.

By now, I’ve established I’m in no position to give advice about finding ideas for novels, but I will anyway.There are two essential things, for me. The first is walking. There is something about this meditative rhythm of movement, about the permission it gives my brain to wander, that encourages tiny idea sparks to make flame. I’ve sold my car and bought a dog. It’s not everything, but it helps.

The second is more difficult. To be a good novelist, you need to keep your sense of curiosity alive. You need to be the kind of person who wants to know things: about people, about events, about objects. What made you want to become a pilot? Do you get on with your sister? What is that police car doing there? Who lives in that tiny/big/smelly house? Who dropped that hand-written note in the park, and what does it say? Good fiction writers are nosey. I think “write what you know” is the single worst piece of writing advice. Instead, write what you’re really interested in. Write what is going to keep you awake at night; write what you don’t understand; write to figure something out. Good novels are journeys into the unknown, for their authors as well as their readers.

Ideas, like much of life, seem obvious in retrospect. The idea behind my most recent novel was a historical photograph. My second novel was inspired by a dinner party conversation with a stranger who was, he told me, “a telecommunications technician by day and a cryptozoologist by night.” For the rest of that evening, we talked about extinct marsupials and giant cats and Bigfoot. He didn’t smile once. For him, it was not a laughing matter. Within a few days, a plot began to appear: a family of con-artists attempt to sting an eccentric millionaire by making him believe an extinct animal still exists.

The idea behind my debut novel is harder to explain. It’s the story of a woman with OCD: a compulsive counter obsessed with 10s who must decide if there is space for love in her regimented world. The book began on a plane, in 2004. I was traveling for business (I worked as a scientific writer then, for pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies) so my laptop was in the overhead compartment. I was in the aisle seat. It was a 14-hour flight and the movies were terrible. The voice of a counting woman just popped into my head and there was no excuse to not write it down. (Sometimes I wonder how my life would be different if I’d had the window seat and hadn’t wanted to disturb a sleeping traveller sitting next to me. Voices are fragile things that fade quickly. A life can turn on moments like these.)

Sometimes, at writers’ festivals and library talks and book clubs, kind people step forward to take extra good care of me. They check what time I want to start my talk; they rearrange the rows of seats; they move the coffee cups to rows of tens. It took me some time to realise, but now I know: they think I am Grace, the counting protagonist. They think I have OCD, which I don’t (they’d realise their mistake if they only saw the state of my study). They think the idea for that book came from within me.

Perhaps it did, though. Perhaps somewhere inside me is a desire for order, a need to be the kind of person who has everything squared away and ship shape. I have no other explanation. And I like it that way. If the act of writing a novel is a mix of art and craft, it seems to me that the “craft” is the only bit I can control. I worry over every sentence, I move commas and rewrite dialogue and try to find a better way to build scene upon scene. The “art” bit is beyond my power. Perhaps I have an old fashioned muse sitting on my shoulder, whispering in my ear. It’s as good an idea as any.

Image Credit: Pexels/Miriam Espacio.

has written three novels. Her debut, the international best-seller Addition, has been published in 17 countries and her most recent, Nine Days, won the 2013 Indie Award for Best Fiction. Toni lives in Melbourne.


  1. Thanks for this great essay and sharing your writer’s life. It was a pleasure to read. I want to marry you, too. :)

  2. Funny and true. The question that most makes my mind freeze is “what are you reading now?” or “have you read anything good lately?” Yes and yes, but ask me and I will go blank. My experience with ideas and productivity works more this way– blocked by so many ideas, so many choices, and not enough time. But that is an easier problem to live with than those periods when ideas have fled or seem far too based on personal experience and/or neurosis.

  3. Yes, walking. Especially after a session at the desk. I NEED it all to digest somewhere inside me, maybe my brain.Of course the idea is only a beginning. Then comes the challenge of making the idea real: “Between the conception and the creation… falls a shadow..” (T.S. Eliot)


  4. “It was in that moment’s flight between the picture and her canvas that the demons set on her who often brought her to the verge of tears and made this passage from conception to work as dreadful as any down a dark passage for a child. Such she often felt herself—struggling against terrific odds to maintain her courage; to say: “But this is what I see; this is what I see,” and so to clasp some miserable remnant of her vision to her breast, which a thousand forces did their best to pluck from her.” Woolf, To the Lighthouse.

  5. “Eight years old again kidnapped by a secret society of maniacal British chefs who know I’m really 45 and want to squeeze my brain to make money on elections, disasters, sports, whatever. I’m in a mini-bus with the chefs. Big white hats. Shoving newspapers in my face. Gordon Ramsay and Heston Blumenthal, trying to squeeze my brain in a juicer. Super scary. Run!”

    I see a movie!

  6. This is the voice that sounds the depth of one’s soul. Writers do feel refreshed by each casual glance at the debris, the dangling shoestring and disorderly kitchen. They record whatever seems to be insignificant but can be so revealing of the inner logic of the owner. Be careful of these writers as always.

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