How do you get your book ideas?

Rachel Kent

Blogger: Rachel Kent

What sparks your imagination or gives you an idea for a book? How did you find the idea for your current work in progress?

In the author note at the back of Pursuit of Justice, author DiAnn Mills shares how she got the idea for the book. She says, “A few years ago, while visiting a friend in West Texas, I was told about the legend of the Spider Rock treasure. My friend even knew people who continued to look for the lost Spanish gold. Immediately I became interested, not to embark upon a digging expedition but to write a contemporary story about this legend.”MillsPOJ

That legend was the birth of a novel because the story was so gripping to DiAnn.

Author Melanie Dickerson is captivated by fairy tales so she has written a series of retellings based off of tales like Cinderella, Snow White and Beauty and the Beast. Her basic ideas came from her love of those stories, and she was able to use her imagination to reinvent them.

Stephanie Grace Whitson’s book The Key on the Quilt was born out of a visit to a museum. Stephanie saw a quilt with an actual metal key sewn onto it, and that visual jump-started her imagination to come up with a story about an actual key on a quilt.

These are three fiction examples, but if you write nonfiction I’m sure your idea had a point of origin as well. Does the topic you are writing on relate to something you’ve gone through in your life? Is it based on a cause that is close to your heart?

Please do share with us how your current idea came to be. Your ways of coming up with ideas might help a stuck author to know where to start looking to find inspiration, too.


Where do you find your book ideas? Via lit. agent @rachellkent. Click to tweet.

Three authors found inspiration in three different places. Where do you look for book ideas? Via @rachellkent Click to tweet.

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  1. I’m writing a 3 book series on The Long Walk of the Navajo and their imprisonment from 1864-68 in New Mexico. I’d never heard of this event until December of 2011. I found a small article online while I was doing research on New Mexican history and my heart just about stopped.
    I scrolled Google for hours, reading about the captivity of men, women and children and how their only crime was being Navajo.
    As a Canadian, I wasn’t always interested in the minutia of American history, especially of remote New Mexican forts and tribes of shepherds and peach farmers.
    As I read, I got more and more agitated and then, I almost lost it when I read that the Army shot women in labour because they slowed down the 450 mile across the desert in winter.
    The Army’s orders were to shoot the young men.

    If I had been a Navajo mother in 1864, I’d have seen at least 2 of my 3 sons shot. I’d have seen my young pregnant friends shot. My elderly parents and in-laws would have been shot. I’d have most likely seen my husband shot. My youngest son would have been traumatized into silence, and then his sweet spirit would be gone forever.

    I have a friend who is an RCMP officer. She deals with domestic violence all the time. I have heard such sad stories about women who have no hope and nowhere to go and endure what amounts to a one sided life in the ring with Foreman or Ali. It’s always been something I cannot fathom, being beaten by my own husband.The stats are that 1 in 4 women in Canada experiences domestic abuse! That means 1/4 of the women we see? Beaten or verbally abused.

    As I thought about the Navajo and how the grief of those years is very much a part of their culture, the “what if?” thought process kicked in.

    What if a warrior escaped and ran away? What if he meets a white woman who lives in mortal fear of men, but she finds that he understands her better than she understands herself? And that is how The Secret Keepers was born.

  2. Each of my novels of medical suspense had its beginning with my seeing a situation or location and asking myself, “What if–?” For example, I walked into the parking garage at the medical school where I worked and thought, “You know, if it took place at night, this would be a great place for a kidnapping.” The idea took off, and became my most recent novel, Stress Test. Writers are always thinking about things like that, I guess.

  3. Jeanne T says:

    How interesting to see where other writers get their ideas. 🙂 I’m looking forward to reading more here today. 🙂

    My husband and I are adoptive parents. When I began thinking about what story to write next, I thought “What if a woman who got pregnant at 17 can’t get pregnant at 33, when she’s ready to be a mom?” Although this isn’t exactly the story I ended up writing, this is where it all began.

    We’ve had some interesting things happen in our city this summer. When an idea comes to mind from a headline or new story, I jot it down and add it to my Story Sparks folder. 🙂

  4. Sarah Thomas says:

    My miracle series began when I was marveling at how my memory of nearly drowning when I was four is mostly a GOOD memory. How to explain that? Well, a miracle would do nicely.

  5. While looking at an icon of Our Lady of Guadalupe, I realized the spiky golden “halo” that surrounds her looked like the aura of a migraine. Then I thought, “What if someone started seeing saints inside their migraine auras?” Then, “What if that person was a war veteran with a brain injury?” Then, “What if the saint helps the war vet solve mysteries” and “What if the migraine aura is a portal to another ‘place’.”

    Writing this has been a way for me to make something magical out of the migraines that plagued me for 30 years. Oddly enough, when I started writing these stories, the migraines went away. 🙂

  6. The inspiration for my current WIP progress seems silly after reading Jennifer’s and Richard’s, but here it is. I am a second generation Irish American who grew up on stories about banshees, faeries, and ghosts. My family is quite Christian, but we’re also very Irish and the Irish have a rich history of folklore and a fascination with the magical and the Otherworldly. I grew up with a love of fantasy. I also have a love of names. There’s no explanation for that. It’s just a fact. I own several baby name books even though I’ve never had a baby.

    About a year ago, just for fun, I began making a file of possible fantasy character names. One, Keira Nightsinger, particularly appealed to me. I thought it would be a good name for a banshee. I didn’t really want to write a story about a banshee though. Siobhan is a name that I’ve loved since I first heard it. It’s just really cool-sounding, I think. So asked the “what if?” question and wondered what it would be like to be the daughter of a banshee (a compassionate Irish banshee, not a murderous old hag Hollywood banshee).

    Since I love thunderstorms, I thought, “What if Siobhan’s main talent is the ability to make thunderstorms? What are the implications of that? After all, what do you do with a teenager who can make storms whenever she feels like it?

    By this point, I’d already decided to write this as a YA fantasy, so the conflict had to be Siobhan’s not her mother’s. That’s when my love of unicorns and dragons came into the story. I asked, “What if, in Siobhan’s world, girls are always supposed to follow the same path as their mothers and Siobhan just dreads having to become a banshee? What if a unicorn appeared to her and told her that she had been chosen to train to be a Unicorn Protector–and what if this was a rare honor? And what if this unicorn, who would become her trainer, was a huge nuisance?

    Then I decided that the conflict was too simple, so I added another element: dragons. What if society said Siobhan was supposed to be a banshee, but she was offered a way out? She could become a unicorn protector. And what if her mother was delighted because she had always wanted to be a unicorn protector BUT what if Siobhan wanted something else for herself? What if she wanted to follow her father’s path and become a Dragon Learner, but this path wasn’t an option because a)in Siobhan’s homeland, girls NEVER follow their father’s path and b) dragons are considered the most vile and wicked creatures that exist? And what if there is a deadline? Siobhan must start training for her life path in a few months. And what if Siobhan’s great-grandmother, a legendary figure in Cu Tailte, had been ripped to shreds by a dragon so that the hatred of dragons is not just societal but familial? How can she pursue her dream? And what if the only way to become a Dragon Learner is to travel through a forest that is renowned for its treachery and danger? And is this path truly a way for Siobhan to become who she is called to be or is it a path to fulfill romantic, self-centered desires?

    Answering those questions has been a fun journey and it’s a journey that has led to more questions. At this point, I have ideas for four books simply from having to ask and answer world-building questions and in developing (mentally) the stories of a couple significant relatives of Siobhan. Also, there is a possible story about the future of a relationship Siobhan begins with a human sixteen-year-old boy named Ewan.

    So, in the end, writing a list of fantasy names and wondering what it would be like to be the daughter of a banshee has led to a springboard for four or five novels. And initially I thought I was writing a short story in order to take a break from working on my adult psychological mystery novel!

    Have a Happy Labor Day! 🙂

  7. Jill Kemerer says:

    My ideas spark from tiny, tiny things! I wrote an entire book based on a girl who pretends not to be drinking soda but obviously is drinking one!

    One of my first books was based on an extremely minor character in Ann Rayn’s Fountainhead (didn’t care for that book). I thought, that girl needs a vacation but she’ll never take one. So I forced her on one!

    Last night I got another character idea based on a driver’s training instructor. When I get those thoughts, I run with them!

    Have a great weekend!

  8. My first book idea came out of a situation my husband encountered in a Ph.D. program. My writer’s/lawyer’s brain went wild with the question of what if we could sue the university. That manuscript is in a drawer right now, but I hope to resurrect it some day. My current story is based on my father’s life and what I wish could have happened for him. Each story begins with a seed of real life and then grows and, hopefully, blossoms into fiction that touches and encourages lives.

  9. My latest WIP came about because an editor at a conference used a phrase I found interesting. She said, “At the end of the day, I’m a story peddler. I peddle stories.” Of course, in my fantasy-bent brain, a “story peddler” looks a little different than it does in our world. 🙂 I’ve had great fun imagining my way through that manuscript.

    A YA contemporary novel I wrote started with the idea, “What if I had moved in next door to my husband after my parents divorced when I was 8 and he was 10?” It evolved into something quite different, as I pulled my poor protagonist through some tough stuff. But that was the original seed, planted while watching old home movies of my husband and his family around age 10.

    And my original fantasy series is based on a missions trip I took to Kosovo. That was quite an adventure, and a lot of the stuff our team experienced translated nicely into a fantasy world, as did my teammates, whom I’ve turned into characters. I wonder if I should tell them…

    I love reading about the places writers get ideas! It’s so varied, not only from person to person, but also from project to project.

  10. Hi, Rachel! Thanks for mentioning my fairy tale retellings!

    My Regencies were born out of a challenge I participated in a few years ago. A blogger challenged everyone to read all the Jane Austen books in one six-month period. Or you could choose your own Jane Austen challenge, as long as it had something to do with Jane Austen. I chose to read all six books in the six month period (not a problem, since I’m a huge JA fan) and also watch at least one movie version of each book. At some point in that six months, I came up with a book idea in which I took the basic premise of the Jane Fairfax character from Jane Austen’s novel Emma and gave her a hero (much more heroic than Frank Churchill) who overcomes multiple obstacles to marry her in the end. And of course, I got other ideas that spun off of the secondary characters, and before I knew it, I had a series that is my personal tribute to Jane Austen. 🙂

  11. What fun today!! Love all the ideas and ways stories come into our hearts and minds!

    Sometimes, when I’m standing in line, or sitting in a restaurant or coffee shop, I look at a young couple, or a wrinkled old man or a middle-aged gathering of best girlfriends…. and I start wondering….and…pondering…and imagining…and next thing I know, I’ve jotted notes for a character or a story. Once, the table covering was paper, and I wrote on it, ripping off the edge when I left.

    My latest idea came about remembering when hang-gliders landed in our fields and scared the, well, you know what, out of our cows…those poor old bovines would plow through a fence to retreat from those flying machines!

    Hoping your Labor Day weekend is tea-riffic!! Happy Days!!

    • Rachel Kent says:

      Ooo! So you are one of those authors who should have a shirt that says “Careful, you might end up in my book.” 🙂

      Have a great long weekend too!

  12. My problem is I can’t stop the ideas. The one I’m working on right now is, like Melanie’s, loosely based on a fairytale. Other ideas were spurred by movies I thought would be better if only they’d … (fill in my imagination). Some are from people’s lives. Others from story prompts my crit partners and I used to write short scenes for fun. My first completed manuscript was inspired by my experience managing a “party dorm” while a grad student. Would you believe I actually had a drug sting operation going on while I was there? Life is full of extraordinary stories. All we need to do is open our eyes, ask questions and listen!

  13. Rachel, in early January 2010 it occurred to me to begin posting the diary entries I had written when I was a junior in high school 50 years earlier. After posting my nightly reflections, first as a student at West Chester High School and Mid-Prairie High School in Iowa, I began posting my observations about Park College (now Park University) in Parkville (suburban Kansas City), Missouri. Last evening I compiled my first entry after returning to Park for my junior year after a summer back in Iowa.

    A 1961-65 Park College Diary is the current name of my blog, and I see it as the basis for my future book.

  14. Elysabeth says:

    Interesting to see where everyone’s ideas come from. This post is of particular interest to me because as a consulting author with a 6th grade class in Utah (yes all virtually done but lots of fun), on introduction day, one of the students asked me where I got my ideas from. Of course, my immediate answer is – they are all around us; all you have to do is have the imagination and inclination to write that person’s/object’s/other world figure’s story.

    My first novel, Finally Home, actually started out as a vision of a house that beckoned my character to explore and find the secrets and mysteries of the house (this was originally written as a past life experience finding out that the house had actually been inhabited by the character’s grandmother or perhaps herself in a past life (I don’t remember exactly which I wrote because I’ve lost that ms since I did a complete rewrite of it). The rewrite became a YA paranormal mystery with my character moving in across from the house and the house still beckoning to her but the neighbor knows the secrets only can’t tell Kelly as she has to find out what the secrets are on her own, with Annaliese’s and Emma’s guidance. My editors liked this version much better.

    Since publishing that novel, all my writer/reader friends who have read it have kept saying – this is so much like a Nancy Drew mystery, you need to write more and make this a series. As of last month, the second story has come to light with more psychic twists and ghostly happenings as well as a major connection that no one saw coming. I hope to have this one published by this time next year but maybe sooner if I can ever sit down long enough to write the story instead of getting sucked into work, FB games and other games on my android tablet (those pesky games are getting the better of me – I try setting limits on myself – only play one game after you have done so much work or whatever but I can’t seem to comply with my own self-imposed limits). Work really does take a toll on me though since it’s hit or miss some days.

    My state mystery series idea came from a contest I entered and took a shared second place. I sent the finished story to an editor with the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators asking her advice on what direction to take the story (the original is a mystery destination) changing the concept to having each state be the mystery. She sent me a packet of information showing me how I could go for the high-low readers, boys, nonreaders, reluctant readers, et cetera. Best money I’ve spent on my writing so far, although getting the books out there has been a whole other ballgame.

    Another WIP I have came from some pictures on a writing prompt site – there are 50 of them and I picked about 8-10 that kind of fit together and those kind of became the plot for the story – mixing and matching, moving the pictures in sequence, et cetera.

    Other stories I’ve written have come from a contest prompt or a writing prompt or even some stories I’ve heard from my family. One of them, I’d love to really explore more is the one my grandmother kind of confessed (she was born 30+ years after the end of the Civil War) to for her mother and aunts is the women of the home killing a wounded soldier and burying him in the yard during the time Sherman marched through the area. I’ve started it but just can’t seem to do it justice. The problem is there are no records of the women committing this crime but in reality they were only defending themselves and their property as there were no men around to do that since they were all off fighting in the war.

    Ideas are all around us; all we have to do is be observant and write down our “what ifs” to whatever niggles at us the most and then go from there. E 🙂

    Elysabeth Eldering
    Author of FINALLY HOME, a Kelly Watson, YA paranormal mystery
    THE TIES OF TIME, a Kelly Watson, YA paranormal mystery

  15. My latest story, Enticing Julia Morgan, is about two notorious bachelors who compete for the same lady and in their competition they build neighboring mansions that get bigger and bigger as the competition heats up. I thought of this idea while looking at two mansions in my home town built by wealthy bachelors and business partners. Both are three stories high, but one of them has this awkward dormer on the roof, which makes the house appear to have a fourth floor. I thought: “It almost looks like one bachelor had to make his house look just a tad but bigger than the other…why would be do that?” And thus my story was born. That’s when I had to dig deeper and find out what kind of lady could make two confirmed, wealthy bachelors be willing to fight for her? I love asking why!

  16. Rachel, thank you for prodding us to spill the beans.

    My WIP began when I picked up a copy of Edible magazine while eating lunch in Sausalito. The focus of the issue was the history of the dairy industry in Marin County.
    I thought, hmmm, why not set a story in Point Reyes? This is a place I visited as a child and traveled to on my honeymoon. Needless to say, many happy memories unfurled on that slice of land. Then a whole slew of what if questions took over.
    What if identical twin sisters begin an industry that meets the needs of San Francisco’s early inhabitants. What if a man from their past arrives and brings with him a tumult of memories that pits the sisters against each other?
    What if, being a nature nerd, I pepper the story with the flora, fauna, and changing seasons so reminiscent of this unique landscape?
    What if a ribbon on my mc covers a physical blemish, but the parallel is drawn in what we try to hide from others emotionally?
    What if I address postpartum depression during the 19th century? A time when that dark space didn’t even have a name?
    My own mother struggled with depression after I was born, and her experience will infiltrate my story with hope.
    Be strong and let your heart take courage,
    All you who hope in the Lord. Psalm31:24 NASB

  17. Teresa Morgan says:

    My second book began as a writing prompt. A character is walking down the street when she’s stopped by a stranger who hands her a package. She says, “Here you are” and walks away.

  18. . . . from the “book idea” fairy.

  19. Mandi Barber says:

    I have two projects ongoing (one in revision, one in planning). The first came to me during my rebellious phase, when I didn’t want to take anyone’s writing advice ever. (I was young and arrogant, I know. I’ve matured since then, and the story has evolved so much that you can hardly recognize it.) Anyway, Hilari Bell has a series of writing tips on her website. One of them is, in essence, “Don’t kill anyone on the first page.” I decided to write a story where the main character “died” (via a telepathic bond with the person who was actually dying) on page one.

  20. I was a substitute teacher, often working in a Middle School, back when the WWJD movement was happening. I wondered what Jesus would do in a modern Middle School and the idea stayed with me for years. Eventually it became my first book for kids, The Peril of the Sinister Scientist.

  21. Sharyn Kopf says:

    So many great ideas! It’s fun never knowing what will inspire you. I have at least 5 books in different stages right now – from a one-sentence possibility still floating around in my head to the full manuscript my editor is currently working on.

    One of my ideas snuck up on me on a lonely Valentine’s Day when I wondered, not for the first – or last – time, if I’d ever fall in love. Another came while watching a documentary about Charles Manson.

    My “finished” book was born one night on a dark, quiet road in the boonies of Ohio, when I stumbled into the great country-driving cliche: I hit a deer. It jumped up & ran off & I only had minor damage to my front license plate. But it led to a short story that, eventually, led to a novel.

    A novel that is set mostly in Colorado and doesn’t contain the deer story. But I still hope to use it eventually. 🙂