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Martin Griffin on micro-ideas and origin stories

Martin Griffin on micro-ideas and origin stories

Remember that famous tale about Suzanne Collins and the spark of inspiration that led to The Hunger Games? Collins was channel-hopping and, skipping from a reality TV show to footage of the Iraq war, she inadvertently created a compelling contrast. The two collided in her imagination and the possibility of a high-stakes game of life-and-death emerged. Collins’ isn’t the only eureka-moment origin story; Meyer’s Twilight began as a dream; Tolkien was marking essays when suddenly struck by the desire to write the opening line of The Hobbit, and of course Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein begins as a competition among friends – surely the most famous origin story in all literature.

My novel The Second Stranger has much more prosaic beginnings. At the end of a woodland walk with the temperature dropping and snow beginning to fall, I found myself the last visitor to leave an isolated car park. There was a café nearby, its light spilling into the darkness, so I went in for a hot drink. I was served by a teenage girl who seemed to be entirely alone out there. Driving home, I began thinking what it might be like to work like that; isolated by geography and weather, but also compelled to accept whatever visitor might show up. I imagined a hotel cut-off by a winter storm and a woman working the night-shift there, and began wondering what might happen if a police officer with a terrifying story knocked at the door.

It all sounds very neat, now I’ve put it like that. But the trouble with my book’s story – and who knows, the same could be true of the origin stories other writers tell – is that there is never just one thing that triggers the idea for a novel. I’m willing to concede there might be a unifying event we remember and consequently learn to tell others, but there will have been scores of other mini-realisations we’ve rationalised, combined, tidied-away and even forgotten before that event occurs.

Ideas for stories mostly arrive in tiny pieces; pieces so small they initially appear beneath our notice. I use my phone-notes to record these ideas, and I have lists of them waiting to be revisited; a phrase, a name, a possible location, a line of dialogue – if we don’t collect them, we’re not primed to recognise it when a memorable event draws a group of them into a shared orbit. The café near the snow-filled car park might be the bit I remember best, but I’d wager it was simply the glue that bound a dozen of these micro-ideas together.

There’s a problem with this version of creativity of course; it doesn’t make a great origin story next to its eureka-moment alternative. As much as we love the idea of a single magic moment, the reality is usually very different.

That aspiring writer sitting around waiting for one complete and beautiful idea to fall into their lap? Chances are they’re going to be waiting a long time.

The Second Stranger is published by Sphere on 19 January 2023

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