Novel ideas: the chemistry of creativity

Today’s guest post is by Tony Glover, the latest ‘signing’ for the Crafty Writer’s publishing wing, Crafty Publishing. Tony who has written extensively for theatre and screen has just released the first in a series of crime novels and tells us where he gets his ideas in the first place. It’s all a matter of chemistry, apparently …

‘Where did you get the idea?’ It’s the most banal question – yet the hardest to answer. Creativity is a mysterious affair. Where do ideas come from?  How do we access the part of our mind which produces them?

Forcing ideas rarely seems to work – I can do it – though they often end up in the trash. When I was writing television reviews my brief was to produce four hundred and twenty five words to fill a column in the local paper. If the review tape had not arrived, I was up against the clock, writing the copy while watching the show.  Adrenaline can produce inspiration, though it usually results in paralysis, rather than strong, clear ideas.

Finding your Alpha state

Writing is done best when we’re calm and relaxed. The trick is to access the brain’s Alpha state, a level of consciousness in which the mind is playing and day dreaming. Gentle exercise, such as a swim or a walk, helps me reach that state. Then I start the flow by selecting an incident, an object, or an image. The choice can be random – in a way it doesn’t matter – this is simply the starting point. I ask students to try this exercise:

Write a list of twenty objects your character keeps in the fridge. (I’ve had everything from nail varnish to body parts!) Don’t think about it, just jot down the things your character might keep in there. From this you begin to get a feel for your character – their age and gender; their passions and interests.

Crisis, conflict, resolution

Most stories can be boiled down: ‘This is the story of (your character) who is faced with a problem.  Their attempt to overcome it and reach their goal generates obstacles.  In overcoming those obstacles your character grows and is changed.’

So the job of the writer is to invent a character and then put them in a challenging situation. Your readers get enjoyment from  watching them try to solve their problems. Crisis, conflict, resolution.

The chemistry of creativity

This arc produces two emotions in your reader – distress and empathy. The problems of your character produce distress: watching them try to resolve them produces empathy. In turn these emotions stimulate the production of chemicals in the brain – cortisol and oxytocin – which give readers pleasure.  Cortisol focuses our attention: the more distress you feel, the more cortisol your brain produces. The second chemical, oxytocin,  is connected with care and empathy.

Pick five things your character might carry in their pocket or purse. The search for your character narrows. Their nature and appearance becomes clearer, taking shape in the mist. What’s their name; age; where do they live? Does your character live alone? What do they do?

Now you place them in a situation. A dilemma is good. An impossible choice in which either option raises the stakes.

Select one of their five objects – something which is precious. It might be a diary, a ticket, a jewel. Think of a secret reason this object might be so precious. Why is it secret? What is at risk?

Growing your story

From this tiny seed your story can grow. My book Cars Just Want to be Rust grew from such  a moment.

I was in a small market town – Bellingham, in Northumberland.  A black and white Land Rover pulled into the square. The driver, a young policewoman, lowered the window, tipped back her sunglasses and called out to a friend. The sun gleamed on her white shirt and her tanned arm as it rested on the sill. She chatted to her friend. The car radio crackled. She turned away, tilting her head to hear. She waved to her friend and roared off.

Surely, I thought, there wasn’t much crime in the countryside? What did this woman do every day?  Who was she? What was the message?

I nurtured the seed. I talked to serving officers about their work. While detectives solve the major incidents, uniforms mop up the rest. Might a beat officer be tempted to do a little detection herself? Each answer prompted another question.

Daydreaming your story

I allowed the story to grow. Thinking, rather than writing, is vital. Dream of your character. Visit the world of the story; move through it. Once you start to write, there’s a temptation to stick to that version – then you are no longer playing, no longer dreaming. This is the way it works for me. You may well be different.

In answer to the question I posed at the top: I don’t know where ideas come from. ‘Out of my head’ is the best I can come up with. But I do know it is possible to grow a story from next to nothing.

Cars Just Want to be Rust is the first novel in the Kitty Lockwood crime series, written by award-winning filmmaker and playwright Tony Glover. Kitty Lockwood, a Northumberland country copper, struggles to gain respect from her male colleagues while following her instinct about a property millionaire who on the surface appears to have committed no crime. But Kitty won’t give up and her tenacity uncovers a bloody mystery of organised crime and psychotic murder.

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5 comments on “Novel ideas: the chemistry of creativity

  1. Paul Trembling on said:

    I didn’t know about the brain chemistry behind it, but I can certainly identify with a lot of the techniques! For me, a story often begins with a picture (mental or other wise)that generates questions (who? what? where? when? why?). Answering the questions tells the story.

  2. Tony Glover on said:

    Good point, Paul. I think I do that too though not in a conscious way. Music is good too, I find. Not as an inspiration, or a starting point, but as a way of getting into the mood for writing. Georges Simenon used to get into a ‘fugue’ – a sort of trance where he would write very quickly.

  3. Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

    I know what you mean about needing to be in a relaxed state to write. So much of my work is done to deadline which is not very helpful! My most creative work emerges when I’m on holiday. But then I feel guilty about using up ‘family time’ to write. Thinking about the chemistry of it, it’s not surprising that there has been so much drug experimentation by writers trying to induce that Alpha state. The Electric Koolaid Acid Test comes to mind! We of course on the Crafty Writer do not endorse such activities, of course 😉

  4. Tony Glover on said:

    Yes – red wine or Horlicks is my drug of choice!

  5. Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

    Horlicks puts me to sleep! Red wine is very helpful though. However, as I say to my students, if you write with wine make sure you edit with coffee.

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