Where the ideas come from – Cressida McLaughlin

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By Cressida McLaughlin

Usually, about three-quarters of the way into writing a book, or perhaps when I’m doing structural edits, I’ll be assailed by a new story idea, or a character who is clamouring for my attention, demanding that I put him or her on the page right this minute. It makes me want to drop the book that’s almost finished, that I’ve worked so hard on, and throw all my energy into the next one.

I feel fickle, traitorous; surely this is the book I love most in the world? But the new idea won’t shut up, and it’s heartening to know that they’re waiting in the wings of my subconscious, that I don’t have to work too hard to find them.

I have got to that point in my current book. I’m putting the finishing touches in place, days away from sending it to my editor, and – until a few days ago – my subconscious was silent. It had begun to play on my mind, and instead of being distracted by the new plot, location or characters setting up home in my thoughts, I was distracted by the absence of them. Had the well dried up? Had that mythical writer problem actually come to pass? Was my time as an author going to be short-lived?

I wondered what to do. Looking at social media is a no-go, because you’re faced with all the books that are already being published, all the ideas other people have had before you. Of course, writers are constantly collecting story ideas; it’s a part of their brain that is never truly switched off. Real life is full of them – overheard conversations, advertising billboards, news reports, the comings and goings in the park or outside the living room window. I write them down in my notebook or on my phone, or they simply get absorbed, slotting neatly into my mind, ready to emerge when I least expect it.

And what I have realised, from those few days of panic, is that I can’t try too hard to make the ideas come. It was frustrating, trying to force that new, perfect plot out of my head. Everything felt cliched and unoriginal, it had been done a thousand times before or was too poor to make it beyond the first sentence of the blurb.

And then it appeared, as if by magic, while my husband was watching Gardeners’ World and I was sitting next to him on the sofa, looking absent-mindedly at a paint chart for some decorating we’re planning on doing. The title, the set up, the main character – all there, suddenly, as if they were long-lost friends turning up unannounced from Australia, exciting and bewildering all at once.

There is still a lot to do, of course; this is only the beginning of the journey. I’m days away from having enough to turn into the briefest of synopses, but I knew, the moment it popped into my head, that it was the right idea – the one that warranted developing.

I was so happy, and so relieved! Now I can go back to finishing my current book, and leave these urgent whisperings to do their thing in the background, spinning like a dust devil as they gather together into something coherent. I know that when I’ve hit ‘send’ on this one, the notebook will come out and the new book will begin to take shape.

It was a nervous few days, but it was a good reminder that the ideas are there, waiting to make their presence known, and like so many things in life, trying to force them isn’t the solution. A watched pot never boils and, it seems, book ideas are the same. Walk away, ignore them, and they’ll soon be bubbling over.

Cressida McLaughlin was born in South East London surrounded by books and with a cat named after Lawrence of Arabia. She studied English at the University of East Anglia and now lives in Norwich with her husband David. Cressy’s favourite things – other than writing – include terrifying ghost stories, lava lamps and romantic heroes, though not necessarily at the same time. Cressy spends her spare time reading, returning to London or exploring the beautiful Norfolk coastline. Part 1 of The Canal Boat Cafe Christmas is out now.


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