1% Inspiration, 99% Perspiration

Every SF author can see the question coming a mile away. Grown writers have pulled their own heads off rather than face the latest interviewer's ghastly, predictable query: "So where do you get your crazy ideas?" Where indeed?

Harlan Ellison has the best answer, much copied by fellow authors. "Schenectady," he says firmly, explaining that there's a mail-order service operating from this town. All professional writers subscribe to it (first you have to know the password and the secret handshake), and every month a neatly packed box of story ideas arrives in the post. Of course Stephen King prefers their de-luxe fortnightly inspiration service, and Terry Pratchett mainlines the stuff with a fresh delivery every Tuesday. Would I lie to you?

Back in reality, quite a few writers have stimulated their imaginations by choice of diet. A pioneer in this area was Mrs Ann Radcliffe, whose 18th-century Gothic horror novels like The Mysteries of Udolpho were all the rage in Jane Austen's day. Radcliffe deliberately gobbled indigestible food late at night, things like hard cheese and lobster, to stimulate nightmares that could be plagiarized for fiction. Fair enough: I've sold all my own best nightmares as horror stories.

This leads to territory where you really, really don't want to go. Good old Philip K. Dick, for example, who made grisly fictional capital from personal drug experiences in A Scanner Darkly. Or that earlier dope-user Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose hallucinated fantasy poems like "Kubla Khan" and "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" might have had a lot to do with his favourite breakfast menu, consisting of six fried eggs and a glass of laudanum – alcoholic tincture of opium.

Even less sensible was the inspiration-forcing diet of SF author John T. Phillifent, who seriously explained that he could work up a creative mood by cultivating vitamin B1 deficiency. This was his contribution to Anne McCaffrey's rarest work, Cooking Out of This World, a 1973 cookbook which collects the favourite recipes of 58 SF authors. (I am not making this up.)

According to Phillifent, you merely lay off all those healthy, B1-rich foods – cereals, liver, bacon, eggs, yeast, various other items – and soon you'll be getting delirious story ideas from the nightmares and hallucinations which result from B1 deficiency. Before trying this at home, though, ask yourself one simple question: have you ever heard of famous author John T. Phillifent? Or even his better-known pseudonym John Rackham? No, I didn't think so.

So much for foodie sources of inspiration. I will now reveal the closely guarded secret of how one of the most successful fantasies of this or any other century was initially inspired. We're talking about Kenneth Grahame's utterly classic animal fantasy The Wind in the Willows, which when published in 1908 was hailed by The Times with the rapturous words: 'As a contribution to natural history, the book is negligible.' Its inspiration can be traced to a single domestic incident.

The story leaked out in that rare chapbook First Whisper of "The Wind in the Willows" (1948), published after the author's death by his widow Elspeth Grahame. Like one of those posthumous Tolkien potboilers, this reprints the original storytelling letters to Grahame's son Mouse (not some terrible genetic error, just a family nickname) in which the fabled novel first took shape. And, without any apparent sense of irony, Elspeth Grahame's introduction tells us about the real-life Mole that ultimately inspired the book's most lovable character.

This is what happened. One night Kenneth Grahame wandered into his garden to find a robin and a mole conducting a tug-o'-war with a huge worm as the rope. The robin flew off in haste, but Grahame grabbed the mole bare-handed and decided that his small son – then asleep – would love to see this wonderfully cute animal next day. So he placed his captive in a hamper in the kitchen, added some worm-laden chunks of turf in case it fancied a late snack, weighted down the lid, and went to bed.

In the small hours, it seems, the mole used its powerful digging arms to lift the hamper lid and escape to the kitchen floor. Where, bright and early next morning, the Grahames' aged and short-sighted housekeeper mistook it for a rat and bravely beat it to death with her broom. Aaahhh.

For some reason this scene doesn't feature in The Wind in the Willows ...

David Langford insists that he is always kind to moles.