Five Places Writers Find Ideas

Michelle Ule

Blogger: Michelle Ule

I continue to  fill in for Janet this week. She developed a severe sinus infection and has been working to get well.

Some authors seem to have no problem with coming up with new book ideas; others struggle mightily. Most of us probably fall in between.

If you’re in need of an idea, here are five ways to find one:

“Give me a title,” I said to my father. “Robert wants me to write a story, but I can’t think of anything.”

“What difference will a title make?” He turned the pages of The Wall Street Journal.

“I just need something to get me started. No matter what the title, I’ll think up a story to match.”

I was seventeen.

My father hated questions like this. He frowned and of course went to the ridiculous. “How about The Creature that Ate Bakersfield?”

My shoulders drooped. Why didn’t he ever take me seriously?

I put up my chin. “Okay. The Creature that Ate Bakersfield. I’ll figure it out.”

I did.

It wasn’t the best story I ever wrote, but my boyfriend liked it and accepted the story as payment in full for a debt.

I’m not so desperate any more. :-)

  • The Universe.

I can’t really say where some of my ideas come from. I’m just sitting on the couch minding my own business and suddenly think, “I wonder what would happen if . . .” This can apply to nonfiction as well. Often nonfiction writers choose a topic that’s been bugging them or they think they’ve figured out some solutions for.

  • The Internet

No surprise here, plenty of writer websites provide prompts. Here’s just one spot.

  • The Bible

How many times have I read a passage of Scripture and wondered just how that would apply in real life? What would happen if a woman actually grabbed the pearls off her neck and threw them in front of some swine?

For novelists, pick your own passage and translate it into modern life, your personal circumstances, or an historic setting.

For nonfiction writers, what’s the heart of your puzzlement over a passage? Might that question lead to a book?

  •  Poetry

Maybe you just need a title to get you started. Poetry is full of imagery and nuance. Choose a poem that means a great deal to you, particularly the line that really resonates, and consider what it would look like to write a story to match that phrase.

For nonfiction writers, poems present life’s pressing questions in neat packages, but often those packages are Pandora’s box. If you were to structure a book around a poem, which one has contents that stir your heart and mind?

  •  Your emotions

Think back through your life to an incident that still provokes an emotional reaction in you. Why? What’s going on there and how can you express the feelings in a story? Or for a nonfiction writer, what perennial topic does that incident tap into?

  • Bonus! Your own problems.

I don’t know about you, but I’m very conscious that when I write, I’m working out something in my life. I don’t always know when I start, but I usually realize by the end what issue is propelling me into this particular story (or for you nonfiction writers into a particular subject).

One of my unpublished novels dealt with a parent-child situation. I was working an issue with a child of mine at the time. Another was an attempt to put my military wife experience into perspective. Still another dealt with my grief over not choosing to adopt a child another woman ended up aborting.

Heavy stuff, but important for my story and me.

 When you can’t get started on a writing project, or when you just don’t feel like writing, what do you do to encourage words to flow onto the (cyber) page?

 Or, better, where have some of your unique ideas come from?

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48 Comments

  • I like the idea of using poetry. I’ll have to try that. Thanks Michelle!

    My favorite idea-prompter is history. Often one line of research or one PBS special will set off an explosion of ideas in my mind. :)

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Heidi, I’m just dropping in a minute to read comments, but I wanted to say that I agree with you about PBS being such a rich resource for historical novelists. Lots of gems there.

    • I totally agree with you, Heidi, about historical inspiration! I am so there.

      It’s an amazing feeling to find that jewel of a historical fact and it just transports me back to another time. I guess that’s why I write Historical Fiction, eh? lol. :D

  • Oh poor dear Janet. You are very kind, Michelle, to fill in for her.

    My ideas came from history as well. I’d secretly had a dream to write, but only had an inkling of what I wanted to explore. I have ancestors who were pioneers, but frankly, I didn’t think their story was exciting. At all.

    I could call it “Didn’t Dance With Any Wolves, There Was a Tatonka, But No Pawnee In Sight. Sadly, There Was Alot of Cold Weather. My Brother’s Name Is Kevin. But Not Costner. The End”.
    See?
    You can wake up now.

    I was reading up on New Mexico history when a teeny tiny little blurb something to the effect of “it was during the winter of 1864 that 10,000 Navajos were forced into surrender and marched to Fort Sumner”.
    Huh?
    What is THIS?

    I did more research and lost my creative heart to some long dead people I’d never met in a place I’d never been. Even after, ahem, decades of PBS and the newer History Channel, I had not once heard of The Long Walk of the Navajo. And before you know it?

    I’m chewing my fingers as I write a query.
    AHHH!!
    What do I do to make the words come? Remind myself that if *I* don’t write the story in my head, no one else will.

  • Jeanne T says:

    Michelle, I enjoyed this post. You give some great ideas for getting story ideas! I’d never thought of poetry either, but I like that idea. To get myself writing I make myself sit down and do it. It’s not always pretty, or filled with lots of words on the page, but there’s something there that I can come back to and work with.

    My ideas have mostly come from life situations. A friend who had a life changing possibility brought to her by her husband, a “What If” question popping into my mind when I studied the vehicle sitting at the red light in front of me. Also, a couple of Bible stories have given me seeds I may one day pursue. I had one “What if” question evolve from watching one of my favorite movies.

  • Lynn Dean says:

    I love Jennifer’s story about how a single blurb of history sparked the idea for a story. I related a similar experience here: (http://www.anovelwritingsite.com/2012/06/footnotes-of-history/).

    We’ve spent this whole summer examining the source of story ideas at our blog for young writers, but more experienced writers are welcome to mine for ideas at (http://www.anovelwritingsite.com/).

  • Janet, we’re all still praying for you.

    For awhile, all of my ideas were coming from the world of sports. But at the time I was immersed in that, doing research for a book with a pro athlete in it.

    I think as storytellers our minds are naturally on the lookout for something unique and interesting. I’ve got a great idea that came from my devotions a few years ago. Haven’t written it yet. So I think whatever matters to us, there’ll be tons of ideas right there.

    As for struggling to get words out there, that was me last week. I had one day of 4,000 words and the rest were 700 or 800. I write first thing in the morning, and I don’t shower until I’m done. I found that in the shower my mind really was able to take what I’d written and run with it. Hence, one day of 4,000 words! So I think I’m going to have paper in the bathroom so once I’m out of the shower, I can write down the thoughts I had.

  • Reading the news can get my ideas flowing, especially as I wonder what the most extreme responses might be to current events or how I might solve a particular problem and how others would react to that. That’s not my original idea, though. I’ve heard other writers, like Jerry Jenkins, talk about how the news affects their writing.

  • Sarah Sundin says:

    Story ideas for me have come from dreams, “what if” questions, historical research, and movies.

    Another source of inspiration is sad stories in real life. I can’t stand unhappy endings and will craft plots to give a character in a similar situation a happy ending.

  • I get a lot of ideas from talk radio. I listen to podcasts of This American Life or Snap Judgment where there is a lot of non-fiction storytelling. It always leaves my mind full of characters and unique ideas.

  • Sarah Thomas says:

    I LOVE your idea for getting ideas from poems! How about these:
    -She cast a shadow white as stone.
    -For all of grief, an empty doorway, a falling leaf.
    -I went down to the hazel wood because a fire was in my head.

    And then there are e.e. cummings red wheelbarrow and icebox plums. Oh, I’m transported!

  • Janet, lots of people get sick, sometimes seriously, as a result of grief. That might make a good plot point for a novel.

  • Ann Bracken says:

    I use scenarios from my ancestors. Like Jennifer, they didn’t lead that exciting of lives, but you’d be amazed at the milage you can get from “woke up and decided it was time to move to a place where no one else lives.” It’s rife with external conflict (and some internal too, to the tune of “How I know my spouse is nuts”). Even if the Natives were nice, you can be sure the elements weren’t. The thought of clearing land while fighting off wolves/bears/mosquitoes/black flies/snow/dysentary/cholera/malaria/etc. makes me shudder, and makes for great reading.

    I also get ideas from dreams. If it’s impactful enough for me to remember it when I wake up, I write it down. Some of these have become scenes in my books.

    All my best to poor Janet.

  • Oooh, fun!

    I like looking at old family pictures, or a friend’s old pictures, for that matter. Sometimes I go watch a movie and almost without fail, I get inspired to write again.

    blessings,
    Becky

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Old photos could pique one’s imagination. Great idea! I have a photo of my mother’s family when she was a young child. She’s smiling really big, but one of her sisters is frowning. My mom told me she had slipped into a spot away from Grandpa, whom all the kids were afraid of, but Mom’s sister got stuck not only standing next to where he was seated but also having to put her hand on his arm. Cooties!

      • I’m catching up and late, but I had to jump in here. I love, love, love old photos. I agree that old photos stir my “what ifs” and “what was going on here?”s!

        Janet, those kinds of stories and photos stir me like nothing else. It’s my favorite place to be.

  • Janet continues to be in my prayers. I ask God to hold her in His tender embrace.

    Blessings on you, Michelle, for all that you do. I do something similar to what you talked about with poetry, except that I use song lyrics. If there is a particular line or two that just really moves me, I can use that as a springboard.

    Another thing I do is to eavesdrop randomly. While I’m standing in the checkout line or sitting in a restaurant,etc., I will keep my ears open for lines out of context. For example, “He found it in the fridge.” Then I let my imagination take it from there. What did he find in the fridge? A surprise dessert? A clue to the murder? An alien? A kitten in an old, abandoned refrigerator?

    Pictures also help. When I teach narrative writing, I will go on Google and put “funny pictures of people” or “baby animals” in the search engine. Wonderfully expressive pictures come up. Then I have my students build a story around one of the pictures. One other springboard that I’ve used in class is to play either instrumental music that has a distinct mood or songs sung in another language, such as Irish. One such piece that always works well is Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King.” It actually has all the elements of plot in it even though it’s an instrumental piece.

    Blessings!

  • My most unique idea came from a dream. It turned out to be pretty stinkin’ awesome and I got 98,000 words out of it and have started on the second one, which opens 25 days later.

    For historical romance, which the above is not, most of my ideas come from something I’m reading because it interests me. Only one idea has come from something specific I wanted to do, which was bring a Russian to 19th century Louisiana. Took me a couple years, but I finally figured out how to do it and have a story idea I like.

    When there’s no story idea to noodle with, I have a cast of characters who have lived in my head for almost twenty years and I go play with them.

  • Marilyn Hilton says:

    Thanks for these great ideas, Michelle. I love getting people to tell me about themselves, because I know they hold hundreds of stories that are fascinating and moving. I don’t copy these experiences in my fiction, but use them as seeds from which to grow a story. Also, I find Scripture to be a rich “binding agent” for theme, though it doesn’t usually doesn’t make itself obvious until sometime during the first draft.

  • marie jank says:

    When I purposely try to think of an idea. I get zip. A big frustrating nada. But I’m a fan of long hot showers and often come up w/ some good ones but then by the time I get out, get dried off and dressed. I usually forget. Very frustrating.

    Also, just reading this list and people’s comments sparked some ideas or reminded me of some I’d already had floating around in my sub-conscience. I’m my most creative when others are bouncing their ideas because I tap into that creativity with my own ideas and twists.

    Thanks for your comments!!! This was most productive for me!

    • I understand your frustration, Marie. Usually, I get great ideas while I’m just waking up but before I’m ready to get up. Of course, I should leave a pad by my bed but I don’t and many of these ideas get lost by the time I’m up, dressed and looking for paper.

  • The Bible and life experiences (of friends or myself) are my primary inspirations for topics for my nonfiction writing.

    I like the idea of poetry, too. And, adding to Christine’s comment above, for short stories, I like the idea of looking at a photograph or art and creating a new story behind it.

    Thanks for this post, Michelle!

  • A number of people have mentioned getting mileage from their genealogy. That got me thinking. There is another thing I’ve drawn from to get ideas: my family’s stories. Recently I wrote a short memoir piece about my parents called “The Marriage That Almost Wasn’t” based on the stories my parents used to tell about their dating and pre-dating experiences (they were friends for awhile before they starting dating). Currently, I’m using family stories and my family’s strong Irish culture in my YA fantasy. I grew up hearing stories about banshees and faeries on the hills. My WIP is about a teenage faerie who is the daughter of a banshee (banshees are faeries, not ghosts). The story actually grew out of my playing around with fantasy names (’cause I just like fantasy, I like making up names and I like writing lists, yes, I’m strange, no big secret). So I came up with a list of a few dozen names, like Mythweaver, Dragonsong and Unicornmist and I got very excited. I just decided that I wanted to explore this world where people with these names lived. The banshee character came to mind pretty quickly and I’m sure this is because of my upbringing. The Celtic culture loves all things magical and supernatural so I’ve been exploring the symbolism of trees, animals, seasons, etc., in Celtic culture and this has contributed to the development of the plot.

  • Dale Rogers says:

    I certainly agree that bedtime seems to get the creative juices flowing. I once wrote most of my concept for a tv script between midnight & 2 or 3 in the morning, and I’ve learned that if I don’t make myself write down ideas I have at night, I don’t remember them the next morning.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Dale, you, unlike several others who posted here didn’t let your great ideas drift away for lack of paper and pen. It’s hard to get up and write when you thought you were going to bed to sleep. And the shower presents its own creative challenges, although I remember once seeing a waterproof board and pen one could use to scribble down shower inspirations.

      • Heeeeyyyyyyy! A waterproof board??!! Forget writing, (I know, what blasphemy!) what a great way to say good morning to the sweet darling teenage boys who seem to need 29 gallons of hot water each and every morning. Each.

        I could write notes to my kids. We live in an older house.

        “you have 6 minutes and then I flush.”

        Okay, enough about me, back to maturity, deep thought and all that other stuff.

  • Robert Paige says:

    I work in high-tech so I get inspiration from geeky stuff like:

    1. Router Reboots
    Did you know that (on high-end networking gear), if you change the configuration of a computer network and don’t “save your changes” within the router, that the network will revert to the old state if there is a power outage? Talk about covering your tracks.

    2. PTSD Drugs
    There are experimental drugs to help PTSD patients by “softening” memories of recent events. Suppose some future soldiers had these pills readily available, but then ran out while in the field?

    3. Extreme Injuries
    Your body will block pain automatically until you are in a safe situation, i.e. many people who get shot (non-fatally) *don’t know it* until later.

    4. Asteroid Collision
    NASA is tracking an asteroid that will pass by the earth twice in the next 30 years. The first time on April 13th (a Friday), the second on April 13th (Easter Sunday).

    I keep long lists of stuff like this for inspiration.

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