Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Ideas Store

Joanne Macgregor lives in Johannesburg and she has a varied background ranging from teaching English at high school to being a theater dogsbody.  Somewhere along the line she decided that her calling was psychology and she now practices as a counselling psychologist, dealing primarily with adult victims of crime and trauma.  And somewhere in the middle of that, she discovered another calling as a writer.

She is a successful author of books for young adults, and I guess that provides some counterpoint to what she deals with in her day job.  But her first adult novel, DARK WHISPERS, is filled with psychological tension, as dark as the title suggests.  South African thriller writer Mike Nicol says: “It’s gripping – so shocking you won’t be able to breathe until you get to the end.”  He’s spot on. (You'll find out what her husband said about it below!) 

Here she gives us an insight into where those ideas came from and where they're going to.

 Welcome Joanne.

A few years back, I had the great good fortune to attend a writing master class with thriller writers Jeffery Deaver, John Connolly and Mike Nicol. They were asked the question that all authors everywhere are asked: “Where do you get your ideas from?”

Mike Nicol, John Connolly and Jeff Deaver

Deaver joked that he bought them down at the Ideas Store, Connolly quipped that he grew them on the farm. We all laughed, but then insisted they answer the question, because the answers to this question are invariably fascinating to both readers and fellow writers.
Where the heck do the story ideas, the characters and the plot twists come from? And why do they come to us, rather than to other folk?
I can only reflect on my experience and writing process. Sadly, I have never had a delivery from the Idea Store, though farms have given me ideas (all those animals, shadowy outbuildings, honed scythes and poisonous plants!).

I’ve had to grow concepts in the fertile fields of my own head. It seems to me that my ideas come from three main sources: the inner past, the outer present, and that nebulous source known as The Muse – aka heaven-knows-where-this-comes-from-but-it’s-got-me-a-little-worried.

Some – many, actually – of my ideas for both story and character come from my own lived experience. So traits and mannerisms of one or two teachers from my high school years have appeared in compound characters in my Young Adult books, and I drew on my own experiences of discomfort and vulnerability in gynaecological examinations to flesh out my protagonist’s experience in my new adult thriller, Dark Whispers. I get ideas for settings from places I’ve been, and for character “voice” from people I’ve heard.

A long time ago, when I was doing my undergraduate degree at Wits University in Johannesburg, there was a well-intentioned fellow who drove around town in a station wagon topped with a coffin. One side of his vehicle was painted with the words Turn or Burn and the other with Draai of Braai (Afrikaans, which translates as Turn or barbeque)! He proselytized passionately to the heathen students through a loudspeaker, urging us to repent. This little gem of an experience has winkled its way into my latest manuscript, a dystopian, in slightly modified form. 

What really fascinates me is why and how I even remembered it when I don’t have a great memory at the best of times? What makes writers’ brains “sticky” for anecdotes and characters like these, when they’re just a passing blip on the radar of other people’s minds?

Do we feel things more intensely, and engrave them on our memories that way? Or was there a part of me even back then that wondered, “I wonder what this guy’s story is?”, and the experience nestled itself in a neural net deep in my brain?

I don’t know. But I believe all writers are magpies, collecting shiny facts and glistening oddities which then fall out of our heads and into our stories when we put our fingers on the keyboard.

I also save ideas from the present – news stories, television documentaries, anecdotes I hear from interesting people. The idea for Dark Whispers was sparked by an online news report of a dangerous Australian doctor, and one of the twists in the novel’s ending was inspired by an article in a woman’s magazine that I read in the dentist’s office. One of my YA books, Rock Steady, began with a conservation guide showing me San cave paintings in the Drakensberg mountains, and educating me about the illegal trade in ancient rock art.

Generally, a number of ideas will take up lodging in my mind and indulge in some wild idea sex – they get together, merge and blend in unusual ways (screaming out “What if? What if!” as they copulate), and then breed read-worthy offspring. Kind of like this: What if a patient, in a session of hypnosis, discloses to her psychologist that she was intentionally mutilated by her gynaecologist? What if that doctor works at the hospital where the therapist has her practice? What if she starts investigating? What if he finds out?

The third source of ideas is that tricksy, fickle wench, The Muse. That’s what we writers call the ideas, the dialogue, the descriptions that apparently download into our minds from a source unknown. We don’t just write about what we know, we insist, we also write about what we haven’t lived, or seen or heard. We imagine. We create. We just damn well make things up, ok?

As a psychologist (my other job), I’m generally of the opinion that everything we think is an expression of ourselves, and everything we say about others is a projection of our own psyche. Which is all well and good when I’m writing about intelligent, resourceful, courageous heroines, or when I wake up in the middle of the night with scene for a deliciously intense romantic scene imprinted on my dream-mind’s eye (the source for one of my YA romances).

But the idea sits a lot less comfortably when I’m writing about a misogynistic, psychotically deranged doctor, or sadistic torture scenes. Did that stuff – those thoughts and speech – come from the inside of me? Really?

When my husband finished reading Dark Whispers, he gave me a worried side-glance and whispered, “Fuck, woman!” What dark abysses of evil lurk below my outwardly normal (mostly) depths that I can come up with this stuff? Why do the chapters told from the point of view of truly disturbed characters flow so easily from my mind that they energize and even delight me?

No way, I reassure myself. Nope, that awful material didn’t come from me. Blame the muse, I say – she’s the one who thinks up these macabre images, these foul events. But what am I saying then? Do I believe an ingeniously creative, but alternately malevolent and benevolent spirit possesses me and makes me take dictation?

Either this stuff comes from inside me, or it comes from somewhere else. Either way, it’s unsettling.

So that’s it, an overshare on the source of my story ideas. In a nutshell: I’ve got 99 problems, but ideas ain’t one. Now if I could just find the time to write…

Guest blogger Joanne Macgregor - Sunday

You can find out more about Joanne and her books at her website or read an interview with her in AFRICA SCENE in the ITW The Big Thrill.


  1. Welcome, Joanne, and thanks!

    I've often thought that people who ask that question (where the ideas) are simply lacking in self-confidence. EVERYONE is capable of coming up with ideas. We're born with the ability to imagine monsters under the bed and in the closet and lurking behind trees on a dark, windy street. I think it's mostly that many people give in to fear and lack the confidence in their self to walk the wire without a net, to cast caution to the wind along with their body and mind, and so they never learn that they, too, can soar.

  2. Loved your thoughts on the process, Joanne. I just wish I knew where my ideas came from...then I'd sell them down at the ideas store, undercutting Amazon of course.

  3. I really liked your post, and I would like to add something. All of us are able to seek out stories, and interesting characters. But we need to pay attention; many people are too busy to do that.I look forward to your book.

  4. Thanks for you post, Joanne. I was at your launch in Cape Town last year.

    1. Thanks, Stan. Can you believe it was only in February this year?! What a year it's been :)

  5. Thanks for all the comments! I think we should definately get together and launch an ideas store :) I once did a school talk where I gave the kids a grid with columns of characters, vilains, settings and events. They had to choose one from each column and write a story with them - and, yes, everyone could do it.
    (We just do!)