This is the question everyone loves to ask—‘how do you get your ideas?’—and the question every writer dreads having to answer. The truth is that ideas just pop into existence, and no one really knows where they were hanging around beforehand.
It would be handy if there were some high-powered meditation technique to make them pop into existence, but I don’t know what it is. I think the best you can do is not let the ideas you have go to waste.
If these were tips for semi-autobiographical fiction, I’d probably be talking about closely observing the real life around you, making notes on fellow-passengers on the train, etc. But that’s not enough for genre fiction, especially not speculative fiction.
You need to observe in a what-if state of mind. What if that man on the train had a long knife in the package he’s cradling in his lap? What if that building-site hole in the ground didn’t stop five metres down, but went down for kilometres? What if these cracks in the pavement had a significant pattern, and stepping on them in a certain order changed the dimensions of space and time? Maybe a what-if kind of mind is something you’re born with, but you can surely encourage it further.
The what-if that gave me the clue for my latest novel, Song of the Slums, came from preparing material for my www.richardharland.net author's website just before Worldshaker came out four years ago. I was doing several pages on the nature of steampunk - what it is, how it features in film, fiction and lifestyle - and I discovered a whole lot of photos of fabulous musical instruments that steampunk 'makers' had constructed. That gave me the idea for a band way back in the 19th century that invents rock 'n roll a hundred years before its real historical birth. And that was the seed for the whole novel, everything flowed from that!
Here are a few sample instruments ... real electric guitars you can really play, but they look as if they belong in the age of steam.
(Actually, I'm not sure that that one on the right really plays!)
So that was a real godsend - the idea of a Victorian-era rock band tied in with the alternative 19th century I'd already created in Worldshaker and Liberator, with my hankering to write a 'success story' and with my own past experience as a muso in a band. How lucky can you be?
In the past, my usual answer to how-do-you-get-your-ideas questions was to talk about my very useful, very inspirational dreams. It’s true, I do have very long, elaborate, vivid dreams, and I draw on a lot of dream-material. That's what gave me my start for Worldshaker and the Ferren trilogy. After a while, though, it starts to sound corny—‘It came to me in a dream.’ Yeah, yeah, yeah …
Still, if you have vivid dreams, record them, don’t let them go to waste. My trick was to keep pen and paper by the bed, so that, when I woke up out of a dream, I could write down a dozen or so words, often in the dark, then sink back asleep. In the morning, those words were enough to bring back the memory (when I could read my own writing).