Shore to Shore author Tamsin Hopkins discusses her own writing practice and asks three emerging short fiction writers (Emily Devane, Stuart North, and Sarah Hegarty) how they approach catching and keeping the best ideas. There is also an opportunity for readers to contribute to the discussion.


Writing a great story every time is the dream, but the truth is most writers will produce a range of quality, some golden nuggets, some mediocre pieces and some that refuse to work. Sometimes, just being able to write at all can be a bonus. Keep writing, keep showing up at the page and be ready for when you’ve got something fabulous to say, we’ve heard this advice before. So where do the ideas come from and how do you find the good ones? If only we knew.

When I’m looking for a short story I can usually come up with ideas to get myself going, for me it’s finishing that’s my problem, so I need to get on with it when the idea is still exciting. I have found the story is always better if I work on the first draft intensively, so that’s probably the most important thing for me – get it down before it’s gone! It’s not necessarily that the idea was weak in the first place, although it might have been, but the vision fades if I don’t get on with it. It gets less inspiring.

When I’m starting a short story, I will usually have something that doesn’t yet involve a story arc – I get a picture or it can be a feeling, sometimes a smell. To animate it and turn it into a story, something with action and conflict I ask questions, lots of questions.

Who is that at the window?

Why can she smell paint?

Why is she interested in that?

What makes her come down the stairs?

What did she remember?

Are those her keys?

What does it mean?

This kind of thing will usually unlock a story idea for me. I’ll get down a quick draft and then the work begins. But without the defining moment to start it off – fear, anger, the smell, the violent act, the pivot – it’s nothing. Just a whisper on the breeze.

When I was writing Shore to Shore I had a theme to work to, which helped. Each story is based around a river, inspired by the character or mythology of that river. I liked the framework. I do also use a book of prompts sometimes, The Pocket Muse ones by Monica Wood are a good mix of visual and other stimuli. I also use my notebooks, my journal, Pinterest and other photos.

The real problems start when I want to write a story to order, perhaps under pressure – I need five thousand words for Bridport and I need it now. That kind of thing.

No go.

I need a ghost story, I’ll get a children’s story. I need hard-boiled realism, I’m channelling Angela Carter. I want flash, I’m churning out a novella.

I know I’m not alone I this.

I also like to refine my work over a long period of time, the longer I polish, the better a story gets. Can’t rush it. Next year’s Bridport entry might be all right if I start now.


In the meantime, enjoy these interviews with emerging short story writers Emily Devane, Stuart North, and Sarah Hegarty. I’ve asked all three about how they manage their ideas and inspiration.

Interview with Emily Devane

When you get an idea for a short story, how does it come to you?

Usually at the least convenient time – on the school run, or while driving – an idea for a story will pop into my head. I tend to find stories in the collision of two or more themes. So scene or setting may be the starting point, then a character or situation may occur to me later.

How do you know the idea is a short story?

If it resonates. A beautifully described setting is not enough – something has to happen. The characters have to seem fully-realised, too, even if we’re only glimpsing a tiny slice of their lives. One of my stories, Ruby Shoesmith, Click, Click, Click (in the Bath Short Story Award Anthology 2015) is about a girl with dyslexia. It’s more of a situational, character-driven piece. The ‘story’ only arrived when I came up with the structure of a school spelling test. It became a story within a story, with each word of the test revealing more about Ruby.

Do you have to actively search for inspiration in some way?

Inspiration requires space and time. I don’t go looking for it but I do find that reading other people’s work, watching interesting films or trying new things all help to fire my imagination.

Do you ever sit down and decide to write a story without knowing what it will be about?

Usually I have a fair idea of where I’m heading but sometimes the story evolves as I write. Recently I experimented with writing a piece of flash fiction from scratch. I’d read an article about mathematics in literature, and how variety in sentence length can affect the reader’s experience. I challenged myself to write a piece where the first sentence was one word, the second two, and so on up to ten words, then back to one again. The story that came out was strange but the pattern gave it an interesting rhythm, and on the page it looked like waves. I reworked it and was really pleased with the end result, which was part-way between poem and story. Being forced to come up with creative ways around my self-imposed rules has been surprisingly freeing.

How do you plan for the length of a given piece of work?

I sometimes set out to write flash fiction, or I can sense that a piece would work best in that form, but otherwise I write to the length it needs to be. To be honest, I’ve found that most stories benefit from a fairly brutal edit.

How do you know when you’ve finished writing about an idea? Do you ever write more than one piece from the same idea? How would they be different if that’s the case?

Some ideas seem to crop up in various forms. I’m especially intrigued by what we hide from others, and why. I’m also keen to create voices in my short stories for those who are ignored or misunderstood in society. Those big themes will often be present on some level in my work. That said, I prefer to explore new ways of looking at an idea – because that’s what it’s all about – seeing things anew.

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Emily Devane writes fiction, long and short. Her work has been shortlisted or placed in various competitions; anthologies include the Bath Short Story Award (2015) and Rattletales (forthcoming). Emily is working on a short story collection and is a 2016 Word Factory apprentice.

The Short Story

Interview with Stuart North

When you get an idea for a short story, how does it come to you?

I honestly have no idea. It might start with a line, or an image, or just a juxtaposition of elements that click in my mind. I don’t think you can ever pinpoint exactly when an idea first develops, or how.

How do you know the idea is a short story?

Gut feeling, mostly. Beyond that I just let it percolate in my mind for a few days and see if anything falls into place.

In terms of specific techniques, I always fatigue test an idea by trying to boil it down to a single sentence. If I can’t do this then the idea is either too vague or too unworkable to weave a story around. A general rule of thumb I’ve found is that if an idea involves a want or need of some sort then it’s strong enough to weave a story around.

Do you have to actively search for inspiration in some way?

Yes. I’m not one of these lucky people whose ideas just come to me while walking the dog or whatever. I often find that the best source of inspiration comes from just reading lots of works in that particular genre. Films, TV and video games can also help.

Do you ever sit down and decide to write a short story without knowing what it will be about?

Sometimes, though I find I tend to work best when I have a general idea of where a story is going beforehand. It also helps to have a strong opening scene ready in my mind, or even just a strong opening line. Something to use as a mental springboard. I could never just sit down in front of a blank screen and try to hammer out a piece from scratch.

How do you plan for the length of a given piece of work?

I don’t. Write it to the best of your abilities and then stop.

If I have to write to a specific length (say, for a competition) I try to work with an idea I know I’ll have enough material for without it being too ambitious. That’s quite tricky to do, however. More often I just modify or cannibalise an already finished piece that I think might fit in with the competition’s guidelines. That way I at least have a general idea of its final length.

How do you know when you’ve finished writing about an idea? Do you ever write more than one piece from the same idea? How would they be different if that’s the case?

I always reuse ideas. I’m not a hugely original writer, and my ideas tend to be variations on a theme. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Originality is overrated. A good story is more about the treatment and development of an idea than the idea itself. You can get plenty of mileage out of a single idea if it’s a good one. Just look at Ross MacDonald.

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I’ve been writing short stories for the last ten years or so, and am currently writing a fantasy novel loosely based around the event of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorra, which I’m aiming to have done by the end of the year. I’m in my second year studying the Creative Writing and Publishing MA at City University. You can visit my website here.

Interview with Sarah Hegarty

When you get an idea for a short story, how does it come to you?

Usually when I’m not thinking about it! Tasks like washing-up or weeding are great ways of letting my mind wander, and ideas float to the surface. Sometimes there’s a visual clue: one of my favourite stories (‘Vigilante’, published by Cinnamon Press in ‘The Book of Euclid’ anthology) started when I saw a pair of magpies attacking a blackbirds’ nest and killing a chick. The magpies’ determination – and success – made me think of a couple, whose marriage is not all it seems…

How do you know the idea is a short story?

There’s a buzz; a weight; a depth to the idea that I want to explore further.

Sometimes it isn’t, of course… Cue tears and madness – often after several drafts. But ‘no work is wasted’, as my MA tutor Dave Swann (a great short story writer) used to say.

Do you have to actively search for inspiration in some way?

That doesn’t work for me.

Do you ever sit down and decide to write a short story without knowing what it will be about?

No. I always have the germ of an idea, and maybe the first line – which may well disappear or pop up somewhere else in the finished piece. But when I’m writing the first draft I don’t know how the story will end.

How do you plan for the length of a given piece of work?

Interesting question. When I was writing assignments for my MA (in Creative Writing at Chichester) the maximum length for each piece was 3,000 words. After writing a few I realised I had the feel of that length: two or three characters, and a short time focus for the action, gave the story room to breathe. But I’ve never tried to impose that discipline on a piece from the start: I’m more likely to splurge, and edit later.

How do you know when you’ve finished writing about an idea?

The ending feels satisfying; there’s an emotional shift. The characters have revealed themselves, and acted. The question that began the short story has been answered; but there’s also a suggestion of the future – an opening out, not a closing down.

… or there’s blood on the floor.

Do you ever write more than one piece from the same idea? How would they be different if that’s the case?

It hasn’t happened yet.

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Sarah Hegarty is currently editing the 4th draft of her novel, set in the Congo in 1908, and working on short stories. She was delighted when one of her pieces was shortlisted for the 2015 Fish Prize. You can follow Sarah on Twitter @SarahHegarty1 and learn more about the writing she does by visiting her website here.


Tamsin Hopkins writes short fiction and poetry. SHORE TO SHORE , her first short story collection was released in February 2016 with Cinnamon Press. Find her at Tamsinhopkinswriter.com, on facebook and on Twitter @TamsinHopkins