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09 March 2021

Three ways to generate new writing ideas

Jenny Quintana Author
by Jenny Quintana From Our Students, Writing Tips

Jenny Quintana worked on her debut novel The Missing Girl on one of our selective entry Writing Your Novel courses. Her debut went on to be named the Waterstones Thriller of the Month for July 2018. She is the author of two other gripping crime thrillers, her latest novel The Hiding Place is to be published later this month.

Here Jenny shares the three techniques she uses to come up with new ideas for her novels…

It’s a popular question for novelists: Where do you get your ideas from? For me it’s the character that comes first. I consider their lives and relationships. Then I come up with their story. Sometimes ideas pop into my head, but other times, it’s necessary to search for them. So where are the best places to look?

1. Real life events and news stories

In my first novel The Missing Girl I decided early on that the main character’s beloved sister would go missing and that the story would be about her search to find out what had happened. I read news stories and articles written from the point of view of people who had experienced something similar. My aim was not to replicate what had happened to them, but to try to understand the emotional impact on a person, or family, when someone goes missing, and to translate that with sensitivity to my characters.

Similarly, my latest novel The Hiding Place is about a woman who was abandoned as a baby in a shared house. As an adult, she decides to discover the truth about her past. Reading about real people who had similar experiences, helped me to understand the different possibilities I could explore in my story, and to get a wider outlook on abandonment and it effects.

In these two cases, I used real events to enhance an existing idea. If you have no idea of what will happen to your characters, it can be useful to look at headlines, read news articles and watch documentaries. A story, a person, a comment, can trigger an idea which you can then make your own through setting, time and place, and emotional response.

2. Art and music

If you’re stuck for an idea, empty your mind and play a piece of music that you might not usually listen to. Think about the lyrics if there are any, the mood and the way the music makes you feel. Does this trigger any ideas for a character or a plot?  If your story is set in the past, it can be helpful to listen to the music of that time. Music creates a sense of time and place. It can help enhance atmosphere and pinpoint character.

In Our Dark Secret, I was struggling to picture the character of my protagonist’s dad. It was the seventies. I knew he liked to hang about in a record shop. I listened to different seventies music and when Barry White came on, his character clicked. I could see him swaggering down the street in his bellbottoms to the sound of You’re the First, the Last, My Everything. At the same time, I understood the importance of the record shop. Plot and character had begun to develop.

Similarly, art is a great way to kick-start a new idea. Think Tracy Chevalier The Girl with the Pearl Earring. Study a painting. Do any of the people depicted give you an idea? What about the setting? Does this resonate with any characters you already have in mind? In The Hiding Place I was inspired by a painting called The Virgin in Prayer painted by the artist Sassoferrato. It wasn’t so much the subject as the colour and style that triggered ideas. I went to see it at The National Gallery and bought a postcard which I then propped up on my desk as a source of inspiration while I wrote.

3. New experiences

It isn’t necessary to do anything incredible such as sky diving or travelling in a hot air balloon – unless your character will do this and you want to do the research. It’s being out of your routine that opens your mind, moving away from your desk and computer and observing ordinary people getting on with their lives. Go to a new cafe or pub, art gallery or museum, garden or animal sanctuary. Walk a different way, shop somewhere new, catch a bus instead of a train. Public transport is an excellent source of inspiration. So many people going about their lives. 

Anything can trigger an idea or help you build a character or enhance your current plot. My family laugh at me because I am constantly asking banal questions such as: Who is that man? What do you think he is carrying inside that plastic bag? But imagine the possibilities for unusual answers and imagine where that could lead as a story. Years ago, I remember seeing a boy pick up a shoe from a display outside a shoe shop, run to the fresh fish shop opposite and slam the heel into a fish.  I’m guessing that he did it as a dare, but I decided I would use it as the pivotal point of a short story about a boy who killed his abusive father. The story won a competition I entered. The only time I’ve ever won a competition!

Listen and observe. Question and examine. And don’t forget to carry a notebook.

Jenny’s latest novel The Hiding Place is available now for pre-order. Out 18 March 2021.

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