A good place to start: how to find the idea that can drive a novel

Irish authors tell us how and where they find inspiration for an idea strong enough to sustain a book, and how they go about turning that into an extended narrative

Emma Donoghue, Dermot Bolger, Liz Nugent and Karen Joy Fowler

Emma Donoghue, Dermot Bolger, Liz Nugent and Karen Joy Fowler


A job scanning old regional newspapers (Niamh Boyce’s The Herbalist); a walk around a university campus with a child (Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves); and the phrase “sensitive cowboys” (The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt).

These small, accidental triggers have been the basis of award-winning novels and offer some insight into how random the initial idea for a book can be. Many aspiring writers have an all-consuming ache to write a novel, but it won’t happen without an idea to kick things off.

Writers are often surprised by how ideas come to them – online, an overheard conversation, a flash of something while doing the dishes. Kevin Barry has spoken of a murky period in the morning between waking and reconnecting to the world. Here, he believes, is where some of the real gold of the imagination is to be found.

“For my first novel, I started with a historical event in which the motivations of the main player were puzzling to me,” says Karen Joy Fowler, the winner of this year’s Pen/Faulkner Award. “Why would anyone do such a thing, I asked myself, and then started the book to answer that question.”

The idea of writing what you know, or at least within your own frame of experience – from John McGahern to John Updike – is well-worn. Dermot Bolger, who recently penned the novella The Fall of Ireland, thinks that, while it might seem obvious, it’s a good place to begin. “Start with something that happened in your own life, or the life of someone you know, but be aware that fiction is not written about the real world – it is written about a parallel imaginative universe.”

A character and an opening line
For Liz Nugent, author of Unravelling Oliver, her book started with the title character – and a shocking first line: “I expected more of a reaction the first time I hit her.”

“I began with a character, and the reader meets this protagonist in the aftermath of a catastrophic event. Oliver was very clear to me – I listened intently to him even though I had no idea where I was going with him. Ideas for characters and plot came to me randomly and I made notes, but the story structure arrived much later – there wasn’t ever a grand plan.”

That crucial starting point can come from anywhere, but a novel needs to be able to sustain itself. Emma Donoghue, who has just published her eighth novel, Frog Music, believes several smaller ideas can connect around a theme, but that writers need to be careful not to work in lots of different ideas for the sake of it.

“I’m afraid for a novel, you do need a big idea. By which I mean an idea that feels big to you; there are lots of successful novels that wring grand meanings from an apparently tiny incident (The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas, say, which turns on a single event). A novel is long both to read and to write: you need a strong thread to follow through the labyrinth.”

To map or not to map?
The thought of turning one idea into a 300-page manuscript is daunting, but this can be helped by figuring out if your idea will work as a long narrative by making a map. Emma Donoghue is a “firm believer” in outlining, and likens it to an architect working off plans. She allows herself to deviate from it, but an overall outline stops her losing the way.

“A poem or a story can come in a flash but a novel – like a building, or a garden – takes structure. I’m not naturally good at plot, so for my last four books I’ve planned in advance what’s going to happen in each chapter and scene.”

Karen Joy Fowler approaches it from the opposite direction. “In school, I would write the paper first and then the outline, and I still do this when I write novels,” she says. “When I get to the end of my book, I outline what I’ve done so that I can get a better sense of the shape of it, the pacing, the emotional highs and whether they occur too early or too late.

“Instead of worrying over whether an idea is ready to be fully transformed, I’d encourage aspiring writers to think that the idea may just be there to get you started, like the booster rocket that falls away but the journey continues. Don’t worry if you can’t make it work. Be prepared to let it go.”

However, outlining is not for everyone: Dermot Bolger thinks the biggest pitfall is that when writers knows how their books will turn out, they may lose interest in their own story. “A book is driven by the engine of curiosity – of wondering what will happen next. It makes the reader keep turning the pages, but the same curiosity needs to be there for the writer, to force them to sit down at the desk on cold Tuesday mornings.”

American writer John Irving famously said he can’t write a book until he knows what the last line is. Liz Nugent, however, tried outlining her second novel-in-progress, but found it didn’t work. She began with an outline but soon found it limiting and felt “painted into a corner”.

Finding inspiration
Every writer I’ve interviewed has always stressed the importance of reading, not for acts of mimicry or pilfering, but to keep an ear attuned to what’s being said in books, old or new. Emma Donoghue reads a lot and says she is “never out of ideas”.

But where does this intangible thing called inspiration come from? “Once it came in the form of a phrase I completely misheard in a song on the radio,” says Fowler. “Once it came from the image of a rearing unicorn on the label of some wine I was drinking. There’s a story there, I suddenly think, and I start writing to try to figure out why I think that.”

Some writers – Dermot Bolger among them – are more cautious about the word. “Novels are not written with inspiration – they’re written through boring, repetitive routine. They are ground out in slow paragraphs in writing sessions.”

Liz Nugent finds it in voices, film, at the theatre, a season – but feels it needs to be compatible with a sustained narrative. “That said, I don’t look for inspiration, I stumble upon it like a very short-sighted person in the dark.”

The rhythms and routines of writing only come with actually doing it. Writing at the same time every day helps create a sense of habit that you are less likely to give up on. By committing to it and clocking up words daily, there is also a chance of discovering that what you want to write and what comes out on the page are two very different things.

Karen Joy Fowler says she has often had to let go of her original intentions after realising that her first idea was just a launch point from which to tell a completely different story.

“A friend says that her stories always arise from the ashes of the story she thought she was going to tell, and that’s my experience, too.”

This is part one of a 12-part series

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