Where do you get your ideas from?

The perennial question for writers. There is a post on the Suffolk Writers Forum on Facebook asking how people approach plotting a novel – this is my answer (for the one I’m working on now anyway).

The germ of the idea was in two parts. A conversation in the pub I ran with a customer who asked if I had heard of Alfred Jarry followed by a long conversation about him. I hadn’t expected a customer in a pub in rural Suffolk to have heard of Jarry, but it turned out he had learnt about him from Sir Paul McCartney who he had been working with as a producer on Paul’s Ubu Jubu radio show in America.

We discussed the possibility of doing a film script about Jarry – my vision was something produced by Terry Gilliam and starring Johnny Depp (in a hole to be the right height like a reverse Alan Ladd). For various reasons – work, the fact the customer did more thinking than doing, the fact he would have preferred a version of Ubu Roi rather than a biography comparing Jarry’s life and his works in a fantastic melange – I didn’t take it further than a two page proposal. The I saw the first (and I think so far only) Sir Terry Pratchett prize for an alternate world novel advertised and started to think about a novel with Jarry as a lead character. The idea of a world where the Paris Commune didn’t fall but went on to overthrow the nascent Third Republic just seemed an obvious one. It could have a steampunk feel. I’d been doing the research for all of my life, although I hadn’t known it at the time.

I first discovered Jarry as a student. I spent a lot of time in Orbit Books in Manchester talking to Dave Britton. We had similar tastes and had both been inspired by Michael Moorcock’s New Worlds magazine, but also by pulp fiction, surrealism, science fiction and fantasy generally. Dave – who was to go on to notoriety as the author of Lord Horror and other titles in his taboo breaking Savoy Books line – was further down the path of seeking out the eclectic and outré than I was and introduced me to authors like Kenneth Patchen (with his wonderful Journal of Albion Moonlight) and Jarry. This spurred me to search Manchester’s bookshops to find some of the authors we discussed. It was a bit like following a breadcrumb trail – the notes in one book would mention other books that shared similarities. There were no Amazon recommendations in the 1970’s, we had to do it the hard way.

I’ve been following the breadcrumb trail since then, with lots of crossovers. As mentioned in an earlier post, the work of Philip Jose Farmer has been one of the key elements as Farmer’s own voracious and varied reading found its way into his own fiction – especially the Wold Newton and Fictional Author work – and led me to a previous generation of authors.

So when I started to write again after we came out of the hotel, this was one of half a dozen ideas for novels I had, and I had a couple of pages to get me going which introduced the other main character – the journalist Philippe – and the terrorist bomb that starts the action. It also introduced the shadowy Fantome who is behind the attack.

I had a general concept of what I wanted – Da Vinci Code meets Moulin Rouge as directed by the Coen Brothers, only exploring the culture and politics of Fin de Siecle Paris as a way of looking at timeless issues which are still relevant today, including the Internet, which I had imagined an earlier version of as one of the drivers of change..

I then did some more background reading and revisited the stuff I had cut and pasted from the internet (bless you Wikkipedia) in that earlier work. I also bought a few books that gave me more of the plot and characters – one which was near contemporary account of Bohemian life in Paris in 1896 which provided several locales I wanted to include, one which gave me the lead female character, and one which gave me a lot of the political background. I’ve found that background reading will spark tangential ideas about plot as well as historical detail. The fact I chose an American with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show as the female lead gave me the idea of incorporating a covered wagon chase and western shoot out in the book. Researching French writers of the period included Zola’s description of the Les Halles market as the belly of Paris so I felt that had to be included as well.

So I had my starting point of Jarry, Philippe the journalist (with a lot of autobiographical elements) and Suzanne the American expatriot, plus the Fantome who has to be a shadowy figure with elements of Fantomas and other pulp French fictional characters. The other key characters were real – Police Chief Rigualt and Louise Michel from the Commune, Russian spy Rachkovsky and the anarchists who were active at the time, Peladan and the other occultists from the Magical Wars of a few years before the main action.

The joy of Paris at the time is that all the real characters were linked together – many artists were both anarchists and occultists with Peladan being a sponsor of Symbolist painters and journalist Felix Feneon being a leading light in the anarchist movement but also publisher and publicist of many of the key symbolists. Jarry himself was active in the same circles. This interlinking is perfect to pull apart the interlinking strands of art, politics and the occult with separate but linked groups of conspirators all trying to change the world. Now that was in place it was a case of letting them interact in a set of locations I wanted to explore and a group of set pieces I could locate there.

Half a notebook of scribbles, a couple of hundred pages of background notes and a lot of shuffling of characters and ideas later – plus some character studies written on key characters for my OU creative writing course to help understand their motivations – and I had the skeleton and some key body parts for the novel. My understanding of both character and setting changes and develops as I write and think about how they interact, but the core is reasonably solid. I plot the story arc and the key scenes along the way but the details of the journey evolve as I write. I’m looking forward to going on that journey with my characters.

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