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How is an Idea Like a Ghost?

Charles Dickens said, “An idea, like a ghost, must be spoken to a little before it will explain itself.”   This quote says a lot of things about the writing process:

1. Ideas turn up out of the blue like ghosts. They creep up on you when you’re doing other things. They are unexpected and their purpose is obscure.

2. Just like the appearance of a ghost may be shocking, as an author you must be capable of being shocked by an idea.

3. If you want to know who the ghost is, you mustn’t run away. Similarly, you shouldn’t dismiss ideas that don’t immediately make sense.

4. If an idea surprises you, then there’s something new to explore. This gives the writing a dynamic edge.

5. Just like engaging with a ghost may lead to an unknowable outcome, you must engage with an idea from a position of curiosity.

I love this quote because ideas really are like ghosts. They wake you up in the middle of the night and demand a fresh look at something you wrote during the day. They put dialogue into the mouth of a character as if it was coming from someone else, sending conversations off in reckless directions. They drop an object into the writing and it starts behaving like a poltergeist in the story. They stay filmy and hang around moaning until you figure out what they mean.

In Chapter One of “The First Lie” a Shona sculpture turned up like a ghost. Selkie picked it up at a market and loves its crude beauty. Little did I know that it would have a role in the story, including the final dramatic scene. In Book Two (still in progress) I’ve written one word in my notebook: gargoyle. This ghost is still waiting to reveal itself.