Where do ideas come from?

Dogged perseverance working in tandem with imagination ... 


Maxine Alterio, January 2018


This is a question writers are often asked. Readers wonder if we write from experience and to what degree we are the fictional characters in our short stories and novels. This notion intensifies when a story is narrated in first-person or set in our hometown or city, or if the characters work in professions with which we have longstanding associations  — in my case, thirty years as a tertiary educator.

I draw on a blend of experience, emotional memory, observation, curiosity and imagination to create a work of fiction. When I write in first-person the ‘I’ is not me. However, the technique allows me to move closer to a main character and to create a sense of immediacy or urgency in the writing. Setting a story somewhere with strong personal connections or meaning helps me evoke a vivid sense of landscape and place. I often treat the setting as a character in its own right, believing that place influences our fictional characters’ sense of themselves, and how their lives unfold, and sometimes unravel. Physical landscape interacting with emotional landscape enriches the themes of a story or novel.

A reviewer once noted that I write short stories about love, loss, sensual power and letting go, an accurate observation. These themes also occur in my novels, along with belonging, identity, racial tension and alienation. Why these particular preoccupations? With each book I write, I unearth additional answers to the question and gain insights into their hold on me. Fundamentally I write to make meaning of what it is to be human.

My short stories sometimes begin with an idea (for example, the ramifications for a woman who fattens up her husband so his lover will leave him) or a theme (entitlement, say) or a possibility (winning Lotto) or a question (what if a character walked into a shop during an armed robbery?). The first of these four examples developed from a conversation with colleagues about diets; the second arose after I learned of a powerful man who was prepared to risk everything to father a baby; the third stemmed from reading an article about the perceived link between wealth and happiness; the fourth came in response to glimpsing a sensationalised headline in a newspaper.

Ideas for my novels come from a deeper place and can have a lengthy gestation. Ribbons of Grace (Penguin NZ, 2017) was inspired by a conversation I overheard as a youngster between two men at a New Year’s Eve party in Arrowtown: "When they laid out that Chinese miner they discovered he was a she." Initially their exchange intrigued me; later in adulthood it haunted me. Forty years on I wrote the novel in part to resolve the ambiguity and also to explore what might have led a female sojourner to disguise herself as a male and travel to another country. 

Lives We Leave Behind (Penguin NZ, 2012), was born of desperation. During a meeting to negotiate a contract for my first novel with Penguin managers, publisher Geoff Walker asked if I had a second book in me. Realising this was an important question that required a confident answer I said — despite having no glimmer of another project in mind — “Yes, I do.” To my horror, Geoff then said, “Tell us about it.” Thankfully I remembered a story a friend had told me years before about a group of First World War New Zealand nurses on board a troopship that was torpedoed in the Aegean Sea. Until I began relaying the nurses’ story to Geoff and his colleagues, I had not thought of fictionalising their plight. I left the meeting in a state of shock tinged with exhilaration, having accepted the offer of a two-book deal.

The idea for my forthcoming novel Wait for Me (Penguin Random House NZ) came about in another surprising way. As recipient of the 2013 Seresin Landfall Otago University Press Residency, I was on a six-week writing retreat in an isolated bay in the Marlborough Sounds. In my proposal I had stated that I intended working on a second story collection. Usually if I make a commitment I stick to it. However, I woke on the third morning in the bay with a cast of characters, settings, time periods, and several storylines for a novel. The compulsion to capture and work on these nocturnal developments meant shunting aside the short story I had been labouring on and entering a novel-writing frenzy. By the time the residency ended I had written three chapters, made notes for four more, and drafted a synopsis. I had also devised a possible structure for the book, which I later discarded although it served me well as a first draft. The ending I had in mind remained throughout subsequent drafts and will appear in the final section of the published novel.

In answer to the question I posed at the beginning of this blog, my ideas come from many and varied sources. A few arrive as gifts. Most however evolve through dogged perseverance working in tandem with imagination, informed by what I hear, see, feel, taste, touch, read and think about. There is an element of mystery at work too. Something I don’t want to examine, or bring, even partially, into the light, in case it dissipates and I am left wordless and rudderless, unable to write.