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Thursday, 7 April 2011

Where do the ideas come from?

I was asked the other day where my ideas come from, and it struck me that there isn't a single answer to that, because some of them leap on me out of the blue, some are long-term temporary obsessions, others are thrust upon me.

Let's take the way I started writing adult/general non-fiction, the genre known as narrative non-fiction, which one of my favourite second-hand bookshops calls "History of Things".

I had a call, sometime in 2000 from Ian Bowring, who had been my publisher at Longman-Cheshire. He had moved to Allen and Unwin and was casting around for somebody who could write in that genre.
My first book for Big People.

"We'd like you to do a book about malaria, scurvy or sugar," he said. I gave him good reasons why malaria and scurvy might not be good ideas to tackle (I was effectively a full-time science journalist in those days, and knew what was happening in the research world).

But I did have a curious riddle, posed by a line in Shakespeare's Winter's Tale, and I told him I had found the answer, and could hang a book on it.

Other books are commissions. A freelance editor I had worked with passed my name on to another publisher, and they asked if I could whip up a treatment on "Lawn".  An outline and a sample chapter, they said, cash money to be paid, and a contract if they managed to sell the idea.

It was only years later that I twigged that all the odd editors who came offering "fixer" work, which I always took, knew each other.  I had, without realising it, got a bit of a name for being reliable.  It paid off!

So I did the work on The Lawn, got the pay, and nothing happened. The chap who asked me to do the work left the companyOther works came and went, then out of the blue, they sold the idea to an overseas publisher and it was a goer.
Now for the odd part. I always do interviews on radio when asked, and I did a promo for the book in a hook-up to New Zealand.

When that went to air, I had an email from a New Zealand lady who explained that she had the paperwork to prove that she was nuts (I think she meant she was bipolar, but no matter, she had and interesting idea, and she presented it in a sensible way).

Having only heard an interview and read a review, she said that if I could do a social history of the lawn, I ought to do one on fences.
My first reaction: "daft idea".  My second: "Hmmm". My third (this was over a couple of weeks): "Naah, it doesn't have legs."

Australia's 5000-km "Dog Fence",
near Lake Eyre
Now I'm fairly certain it would work. If I expand "fences" to barriers of all sorts, so I can add the Great Wall of China, the walls of Istanbul, the Maginot Line, the Berliner Mauer, Hadrian's Wall, the dog-proof fence, the rabbit-proof fence, barriers in Israel/Palestine and the southern USA, slip-rails and the fencing requirements placed on squatters and selectors, dry-stone walls, the effects of barbed wire, stuff like that, there may be something in it. Along the way, I plan to visit the world's only barbed wire museum. Not this trip, though.

Hill End, New South Wales, visited in relation to my planned study of gold rushes. No rails, no nails, just posts, palings and wire.

Right now, 'Fences' is an idea that I'm toying with, but it's on my list of eight major books (and 26 booklets) that I want to do before I hang up my pen.  I'm visiting places, taking notes, gathering pictures and ideas, just in case—and even when I'm after something else, I keep an eye out for interesting barriers.

Next time, I'll say something about finding out, but here is where I list my favourite research sources.

1 comment:

  1. I actually enjoyed reading through this posting. Many thanks.
    Paling Fence