[Originally posted on Goodreads 2016-04-06.] One of the most common questions that I’m asked about my writing is “Where do you get your imagination from?” I always find this difficult to answer as it sounds like asking “How do you daydream?” My question is “How do you stop daydreaming?” as this can be a major issue for me. Ooh, look at that smudge. It’s shaped a bit like a dragon. Hmm, dragons… Sorry, what were we talking about?
Imagination is shaped by our senses. Since pre-history, our ancestors have observed the world, and these observations spark ideas that can lead to stories (or scientific discoveries). For some reason, I seem to have a blind spot for things that most people notice, such as a friend’s new clothes or haircut (the most notable occasion being when I walked right past a bucket full of roses that my husband had bought for our first wedding anniversary — I’ll never live that one down¹) but little things of no consequence can trigger musings that can follow such a labyrinthine path that I forget the original observation that set off my thoughts. The same observation can lead to different ideas for different people. For example, if I see a crow pecking at roadkill it leads to a children’s story about road safety and stranger-danger (The Foolish Hedgehog), but for someone else it might lead to a horror story.
When I was a child, there was plenty to stimulate my imagination, some of which I’ve already mentioned. At this point I’m going to shamelessly plug my brother’s book Into the Lion’s Den: A Biographical History of the Talbots of Malahide, which was reviewed by the Irish Independent because imagination can thrive when the family grapevine includes rumours of alleged spies and, centuries earlier, a rather blatant breach of sacred hospitality involving murder at breakfast. Most of the holidays that I can remember involved visiting relatives which, to me, was far more interesting than theme parks or hot, sandy beaches, as some of them had big, old houses. One that particularly stands out in my mind is the place where one of my father’s aunts used to live. (It was certainly big from the point of view of a six year old who lived in a small terraced house.) My two older brothers and I slept in attic rooms when we visited (my next sibling down was only a baby at the time) with sloping ceilings and dark corners. The views consisted of a kitchen garden in the rear with a scarecrow and a field in the front with a scarecrow. I’m not sure how the crows felt about them, but they certainly spooked me. On top of the hill beyond the field was a castle which, naturally, my brothers informed me was haunted. It is, after all, obligatory that older children tell the younger ones ghost stories.
When I moved up from primary school to a nearby local private school (where I was a day-girl) I was told by older girls about the phantom goalie who apparently haunted one of the lacrosse goalposts. It’s easy enough to dismiss such stories as a wind-up if you’re safely inside a populated building, but as a first former² whose classroom is in a hut on the boarder of said lacrosse pitch, it certainly stimulates the imagination. Especially in the winter during prep, which entailed walking from the main building after tea, down an unlit path, past the tennis courts, open-air swimming pool, high hedge and the pavilion that smelt of muddy boots and linseed oil, and then sitting in silence doing homework from 4:30 to 6pm. (First years got off earlier at 6pm. The older girls didn’t finish until 6:20pm.) If memory serves me well, there were only eleven of us in the class back then. It was even more entertaining when gales rattled the hut or when the foghorn was in action.
Everything around us can trigger ideas, if we are receptive to them. Sometimes I can definitively say what inspired a particular part of my stories (and close family or friends may be able to spot them, especially in my novel The Private Enemy), but sometimes I can’t pinpoint the source. The essence of long-forgotten memories can seep through the layers of detritus that have accumulated over the years, merge with other memories and blend into the imagination, inspiring stories, characters and places. Memories can be unreliable. Something that seemed large and spooky as a child, can turn out to be small and ordinary as an adult, but the distorted memory is more interesting to the story-teller. Look at the world, for a moment, from the eyes of a child and forget mundane reasoning.
However, I think that most of all, the imagination is fed by stories (regardless of whether they are novels, plays, films or relatives spinning a yarn) because most of the things I see that set me daydreaming are things that remind me of something I’ve read or heard or watched. Stories are built on imagination, but they also feed the imagination. If, after you put down a book, you find yourself thinking about the characters and the world they inhabit, then don’t ask me where I got my imagination from, because you’ve got one as well.
Daydreaming is easy. The hard part is converting those thoughts into words that can hook readers and, in turn, stimulate their imagination.
¹In all fairness, he had cunningly hidden them behind a bicycle as he’d bought them the day before. My absent-mindedness at least meant that the surprise wasn’t spoilt.
²First form in secondary school is now Year 7 these days.