Creative Techniques that Work

by Philip Martin

“Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.”
– John Steinbeck

1. Create your compost heap of ideas

Tolkien described the source of ideas as like leaf-mould. Poet Gary Snyder called this source of ideas a compost heap – perhaps a more accurate term, as a compost heap is human-made. In either case, the source of ideas is jumbled and of uncertain origins. It is nutrient-rich with images, broken-down scraps of thought, scribblings, and real-life episodes from a writer’s past. And like a compost heap, it should be turned over and scrambled up now and then with a garden fork to help the fermentation.

The Hobbit, for instance, includes fragments of a youthful Alpine trek in 1911. From that 1911 trip, Tolkien brought home a postcard with a painting of the “spirit of the mountain”: an old man with flowing beard, broad-brimmed hat, and long cloak, sitting on a rock under a pine. The card later ended up in an envelope, marked as the origins of Gandalf, the great wizard of Middle-earth.

Tolkien added elements of George MacDonald’s goblins, plus an episode similar to one in Beowulf in which a cup is stolen from a sleeping barrow-dragon. For battle scenes, Tolkien drew on his own memories of service as a signalman in the horrible trenches of the First World War.

Every intriguing item is a starting point. A writer is always asking not “What is it?” but “What could it mean?” – especially if a curious item were transferred to another context. Like rich compost, the origins of an idea are less important than the new growth that might spring from it.

From the imagination come fantastic ideas – at all hours of the day and night. The clever writer knows to jot them down as soon as possible. Anne Rice admits that she has risen on occasion late at night to write down a half-dreamed idea on her room’s wallpaper, so she could remember it in the morning.

Where to keep all these ideas? A writer needs a place to keep random, unorganized ideas so they are easy to collect, add, and review the notes. A notebook is the perfect place. In a 1981 essay, “Escaping into Ourselves,” in Dreams and Wishes: Essays on Writing for Children (1996), on the creation of her fantasy stories, Susan Cooper wrote:

A writer’s notebooks are perhaps the best illustration . . . of the way his mind works.

Some consist of detailed blueprints for books or plays, set out with mathematical precision; some are filled with discursive examinations of character, building up backgrounds which may never appear in the story but which show the writer getting to know the people he has made.

My own notes are mostly cryptic and random, full of images, scattered with quotations and ideas which often seem totally irrelevant to the book in hand – though they weren’t at the time. Rereading them, I have always again the feel of what it is like to write fantasy. . . .

She offered some of her own journal entries as examples, from her research that led to her writing the award-winning series, The Dark Is Rising:

If you wear agrimony, you may see witches. And if you look into their eyes, you see no reflection of yourself.

Names of fields in Hitcham: Great and Lower Cogmarthon; Upper and Lower Brissels; Homer Corner; Hogg Hill.

The sword comes from the drowned land.

The opening of doors. Wakening of things sleeping. Revealing of old things forgotten.

Don’t forget: “The mountains are singing, and the Lady comes.”

Bird Rock. The birds remember. It is their door.

The Welsh word for “grass” is “glas-wellt” (lit. green straw).

A sailor tattooed with a star between thumb and forefinger.

These are wonderful notes. Each has the possibility to inspire a scene, a character, a plot point. Mixed together . . . this kind of a journal becomes a rich compost heap of idea indeed!

2. Ask “What If?” . . . and then ask the next question

The phrase “What if . . .” is the magic wand of the writer. Ideas come from the ability to daydream and imagine. As Richard Matheson said, his novel The Shrinking Man was “researched” by taking a chair and sitting in his basement for hours.

J.R.R. Tolkien kept one scrap of paper, an intriguing phrase that came to him, for no obvious reason, that he jotted down on the back of a student’s exam: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

Years later, he returned to that scrap to begin his children’s book, The Hobbit. His imagination had long chewed on the obvious question behind that mysterious phrase: what is a hobbit?

This is the real secret to the “What If . .  ?” game. Remember to ask the next question, the one that comes after the first creative flash.

Neil Gaiman, talking in a 1997 article about playing the “what-if ” game, offered this example: “Well, if cats used to rule the world, why don’t they anymore?”

He continued: “And how do they feel about that?” That second question is the key. Creative answers come from constantly asking yourself more questions about your story.

3. Two ideas offer a unique intersection for a better story

In a 1968 article in The Writer, “Thoughts on Plots,” Joan Aiken pointed out that it takes two ideas, colliding, to spark a story.

I shall always remember H.E. Bates [English, 1905–1974], that master of the short story form, saying that besides inspiration and a lot of sheer hard labor, a story requires, for its germination, at least two separate ideas which, fusing together, begin to work and ferment and presently produce a plot.

Many stories have been told, but unique intersections of any two ideas will be more original. Take a story of a dragon in a cave. Then take a story of a door-to-door vacuum-cleaner salesman. Both have been told. But the combination of the two? Less likely.

Think of the number of ideas you might generate by watching a traffic intersection where two busy streets come together. At the intersection, you’ll not just see more traffic, but you’ll now have the likelihood of interesting episodes as people face more decisions, have to deal with crossing traffic, and end up in surprise situations and, yes, collisions.

Consider whodunits such as the Egyptian archeologist mysteries by Elizabeth Peters or the National Park ranger mysteries by Nevada Barr, and any number of similar series. The protagonist’s occupation is one story; the mystery suspense tale is the other. Many novels use that angle of an occupation – doctor, cowboy, detective – as their second story, to be explored in detail throughout the book . This offers frequent collisions of the dramatic plot with interesting occupational situations. The details of professional practices are interesting in themselves, and they contribute substantially to the core story in some way.

Aiken herself liked to collect odd clippings from the London Times:

I used to find the personal ad columns very fertile sources. Sometimes, as an exercise, I set myself the task of combining two or three into a short story. Consider these:

“Agile bagpiper with waterproof kilt wanted for party.” .. .
“Model rhinoceros wanted.”
“Would exchange gentleman’s library for Jersey herd.”

Consider the mega-popular Harry Potter series. One thread was the overarching good vs. evil plotline, as Voldemort and crew scheme to rise to supremacy. The other thread: the life of a group of students in a private boarding school, Hogwarts Academy. The offers a plethora of story elements about classes, teachers, evening hi-jinks, pranks, friendships, bullies, school food, sports, and so on. The two stories come together wonderfully. In many ways, the particulars about Hogwarts and the education of the young magicians is the more unique element of this fantasy series.

4. Listen

Many accomplished writers talk about how, once their story is really cooking, their characters start to talk to them or seem do want to things “on their own” in ways that surprise the author (who is theoretically in charge of the creative process!). While this seems a little weird to a non-writer, writers understand well the subconscious flow that generates this kind of story self-propulsion.

The key is moving from a stance of complete control to one of openness.

“When I’m really writing, I’m listening. . . . It takes us places we have no idea where we’re going. Surprises always follow.” said Newbery Medal–winner Madeleine L’Engle.

Too many writers write a story from beginning to end without listening carefully enough. They want to control the story. They push the story’s agenda forward without considering creative options that the story itself might organically suggest.

I recall a good friend who once was interviewing a Native American fellow. The Indian interviewee was a drummer, with a big pow-wow drum in his house, and so my friend asked him an obvious question: Can you tell me about the story of the origins of the drumming tradition in your culture?”

The man paused. Then he said firmly, “The story of the drum is not one we tell to everyone who asks.”

My friend waited a moment, then, after a bit of silence, went on to her next question.

Only later, at home, replaying the tape, did she realize that she had not waited long enough . . . that the pregnant silence was just the beginning . . . that, although she had not understood it at the time, the man had just delivered the first line of a story.

Good interviewers know that the best line of questioning is: I don’t fully understand. Explain. Tell me more.

For a writer, these are the questions you ask your story. Ask the tough questions. As Sir Francis Bacon said, “A sudden bold and unexpected question doth many times surprise a man and lay him open.”

What if your story has the potential for becoming a deeper, more rewarding tale . . . but you haven’t stopped to consider the possibilities?

Great stories aren’t churned out in a flurry of pounding up and down like wielding a butter churn. They emerge slowly. Sometimes you need to wait, and listen, and think about what the real story is. Give your story a little more time to respond to the questions. And ask some follow-up questions. And be open to answers that you really hadn’t expected, that didn’t appear in your carefully crafted outline, that maybe are somehow unpleasant or a little difficult to you to deal with.

The answer might sometimes be unexpected, even to you.

This article is by Philip Martin, director of Blue Zoo Writers and Great Lakes Literary ( and author of How To Write Your Best Story and A Guide to Fantasy Literature.

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