Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

Every writer of fiction hears, “Where do you get your ideas?” and many, like me, respond, “I don’t know.” But, nagged by the sense that the answer isn’t satisfactory, I finally gave the question some thought. There’s still something of an “I don’t know” component involved, but I’ve decided that writers aren’t really different from everyone else. Writers simply take ordinary thought processes, worry them to a greater degree, and apply them to the page. Ideas can come from making observations that stick, borrowing from real life, needing to solve problems, gnawing on imponderables, and listening to the subconscious.

Making Observations That Stick

Who doesn’t like to people-watch? Sitting one day in the airport, I watched a woman talking on her phone. Slender, hair colored and styled to perfection, dressed in a business suit and expensive-looking heels, she was far enough away that I couldn’t make out her words. But she was doing all the talking. Her face was contorted, and she kept stabbing the air using her right index finger like a stilleto. Someone was getting crucified–an employee? a kid? I’d hate for her to be my boss or mother. Here was Cruella De Vil, from 101 Dalmatians. But anyone sitting in an airport with nothing to do might engage in some imagining beyond the first impression. There could be a more sinister reason for her behavior–maybe she’s chewing out a hit man for a bungled job. Or, thinking charitably for a good reason she’s lashing out, she could be talking to a doctor who bungled an operation that crippled her husband. I’ve not used this character or image in a story, but she is stuck in my head, a resource I might draw on some day.

Sometimes whole stories or books come from an observation that sticks. When I first joined the board of The Nebraska Society To Prevent Blindness, I was intrigued by the first entry in the chronology of the National Society: “Founded in 1908 to promote legislation of eyedrops to prevent ‘babies’ sore eyes.'” (I’m paraphrasing.) It was my “Huh?” over that curious phrase that led me to do research and ultimately to write my debut novel, Compromise With Sin.

Borrowing From Real Life

I may or may not use this situation, which I once saw on the news. A Marine scheduled to be deployed to Afghanistan just days after his wife is expected to give birth is offered a deferment when the baby is born needing life-saving heart surgery. He decides to leave for Afghanistan the day before his son’s operation.

By the way, I have a problem with writers who reveal intimate facts about friends or family members. (I say that even though I’ve always enjoyed the novels of the late Pat Conroy.) But this issue bothers me to the extent that I’ve made it the crux of my work-in-progress (WIP).

Needing To Solve Problems

Much of a writer’s work involves the need to solve problems. Every type of story has both big and little problems that set the imagination in motion. How did this happen? Who’s at fault? What will the character do next? What will be the consequences of the character’s decision? What’s the best/worst that can happen? Etc.

But this kind of thinking isn’t just the province of writers. It’s true for all of us. The car breaks down, making you late for an important meeting. Your job doesn’t pay enough for you to manage student loan debt. Your spouse wants you to move out.

In my debut historical novel, Irina Taylor wears scarves. It wasn’t until after publishing the book that I learned that scarves had not yet become a fashion accessory. Hmm. Irina is the protagonist in the novel I’m currently working on. I needed to give her a reason for making lengths of fabric she wraps around her neck, so I decided she’s hiding a scar she got as a child when her twin, Christina, threw a fork at her. And having to think so much about the scarf may be the reason a scarf becomes very prominent late in the story. (That’s the “I don’t know” component.)

Gnawing on Imponderables

I can’t say that I often address imponderables in my writing, but there are several in my head. One comes up in my WIP, and that’s my difficulty appreciating the biblical account of the Prodigal Son. I’ve always sided with the loyal son, not the one who squandered his fortune on women and booze, and returned home to a feast and the open arms of Daddy.

Listening to the Subconscious

When I’m thinking or writing I know I’m feeding my brain, and I trust my subconscious to go to work. It’s not as though I can program it and expect answers or ideas on my schedule. The subconscious does what it will and often reveals itself in what are naturally hypnotic states: when I’m falling asleep or waking up, driving a familiar route, or putting on make-up.

Not all the ideas that come from my subconscious are useful. But when they are, it’s so much fun.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.


We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.

–Kurt Vonnegut









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