Where Does an Idea for a Novel Come from?

idea-for-a-novelI’ve just finished reading To Live by Yu Hua. This was an amazing epic novel that made me think of a Chinese Forrest Gump. The main character is not the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree, but he lives on through many different historical events in 20th century Chinese history and manages to survive despite the various upheavals in governments and political systems.

Yu Hua says that his inspiration for this novel came from an american folk song. No wonder it made me think of Forrest Gump’s Alabama.

I once heard an American folk song entitled ‘Old Black Joe.’ The song was about an elderly black slave who experienced a life’s worth of hardships, including the passing of his entire family – yet he still looked upon the world with eyes of kindness, offering not the slightest complaint. After being so deeply moved by this song I decided to write my next novel – that novel was To Live.

One would think that China and the old South would have very little in common culturally, but on a basic human level, a meaningful connection can be made. I’m also fascinated by the way a song can inspire a novel, and vice versa: just think of all those Lord of the Rings-inspired Led Zeppelin songs.

Speaking about all his novels in general, Yu Hua describes the way ideas are crystallized from the simplest and smallest things:

For an author, the act of writing always begins with a smile, a gesture, a memory on the verge of being forgotten, a casual conversation or a bit of information hidden in the newspaper — it is these tiny pearl-like details that sometimes transform one’s fate and spread like waves into magnificent vistas and scenes.

Coincidentally, Janna Noelle has written on writers’ ideas recently in her blog, Rules of Engagement:

My ideas are like – to borrow from the libretto of Les Misérables – a little fall of rain: sufficient to get your attention when it speckles the side of your face, but not substantial enough to convince you that anything more will come of it.

For all you know, maybe you were standing too close to a conversation and just got spat on.

Once the idea is born, I carry it with me everywhere.  Like a child, I’m trying to help it grow well-rounded by exposing it to numerous perspectives and experiences.

As for me, my ideas take ages to turn into workable novels. Usually they’re not even my ideas but something someone suggests to me. It usually takes me two to three years to realize that the idea has potential. Then I take that original idea, make it more crazy, weird, and complicated until it becomes truly my own.

So for those of you who are working on a novel of your own, where did your idea come from? And is it more like a pearl or like a child, or perhaps another thing altogether?

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3 thoughts on “Where Does an Idea for a Novel Come from?

  1. Wow! Thanks, Sonya. I’ve never had my words quoted like that before; it made me feel all important and like I know what I’m talking about, my dangling modifier notwithstanding. 😉

    I’m definintely with you: it takes me find the full potential in an idea. This is why I’m already working on the plot for my second novel before having even finished the first draft of the first novel.

  2. Chinese Forrest Gump? Now that must be interesting!

    I’m not quite sure where the Punchy Lands came from… But it’s not my idea you know! I found it and the rest…is the rest, I suppose!

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