Where do ideas come from?

Where did you get the idea for your book? This is one of the most common questions I am asked. I’ve learned to answer it succinctly by mentioning how I’d heard about people faking their deaths on 9/11 to get insurance payouts and that triggered a thought of, “Well, what if someone just didn’t show up to work that day and decided to disappear?” But, the truth is, it wasn’t that linear or magical. I don’t really know how I got the idea. I mean, yes, I heard about people faking their deaths for insurance money, but I hear intriguing things on the news all the time. I don’t know why that stuck with me and why it spawned a whole novel. There are probably personal issues that contributed. I was at a point in my life when I was daydreaming of escape, etc, etc. But those are also complex and don’t provide a straightforward answer to where the idea for the book originated.

I’ve heard a writer say an idea came to her in a dream. I’ve heard many writers say characters were inspired by family members or other loved ones. I’ve heard writers say that the “emotional thread” of the story is very “real,” though the plot is not. If I were to guess, most ideas come when something a writer sees/hears/touches/feels triggers a reaction that elicits a response of “I need to write about this.” That writing may be a journal entry or a letter. It may come out as a personal essay or a memoir. It may be a short story that evolves into a novel. I don’t know why certain forms call to us at certain times. And I don’t know why certain experiences trigger while others don’t.

In her Writer Unboxed post, “Who Knows Where Thoughts come From?”, Allie Larkin gathers insight from a number of writers about where they get their ideas:

“I’m a journalist in my other life, so I’m constantly uncovering fascinating bits of research or interviewing people who are going through extraordinary things. The little nuggets or tidbits that I can’t stop turning over in my mind— they grow into my novel ideas.” ~Colleen Oakley

“While researching one book, I am always finding ideas for the next hundred. Fascinating facts I wish I had space to include, forgotten corners of history I wish I had more time to explore, amazing stories I wish I was writing. I jot each of these on a blank index card so that I won’t forget and add to a box where I have hundreds of these cards. Usually one persists in my imagination and I know just which card to draw when it comes time to start a new project, but I always pull out the others. I spread them all over the floors and tiptoe around each, seeing what else catches my eye. Then I see which of the cards I’ve set aside can be tied together to make an entire book. For me, plots are little pieces stitched together to make one character’s story.” ~Jessica Brockmole

“I get a lot of ideas from writing travel articles. My newest novel was inspired by a story I wrote about volunteering for the Champagne harvest.” ~Ann Mah

“My last several books have been a fusion of several stories that I’ve read about in newspapers or online. For instance, for Fractured, I read a judgment about neighbors fighting over ridiculous things. And then a few weeks later I read an article about a man who had been charged with manslaughter for running over his neighbor with his car. They had been fighting over recycling! These two things were the genesis.” ~Catherine McKenzie

“I appear to be one of the rare authors (the only one on earth?) who does *not* have 100 book ideas swirling in my head at all times. Rather, at any given time, I have a *single* idea — for the book I’m working on in that moment. Every time I draft a novel, I tell my family, “This may be my last one, because this is the only idea I have.” But once I’ve turned in the book, and have taken a bit of time to regroup, I find that the next idea always comes to me soon enough. It’s usually from a combination of (a) a sliver of an idea inspired by a public radio story or some non-fiction thing I’ve read + (b) a feeling/issue/life struggle I’ve thought a lot about and want to explore through writing + (c) an idea for a main character that comes from a composite of many people or is loosely suggested by one particular person. I have learned that if I am patient and open, a + b + c will happen, and usually quite quickly. And then I start drafting, and I tell my family, “This may be my last one, because this is the only idea I have.” (I’m reading Jane Smiley’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel. In it, she says she has had 16 ideas for books in her entire life, and she has published 14 books. That makes me feel better!)” ~Julie Lawson Timmer

“So far all of my books have been inspired by an article or true story. When I come across something that grabs me, I save it on a private Pinterest board of ideas. My latest was inspired by an article I read in Vanity Fair. Sometimes I’ll stumble across a person who seems interesting and I’ll pin their Wikipedia page, or something along those lines. Sometimes I’ll just take a picture of something myself and pin that.”  ~Michelle Gable

“I usually end up doing a lot of brainstorming with my agent and editor and once we think we’ve hit on something, I’ll go off and do some preliminary research to make sure the subject has legs.” ~Renee Rosen

I keep a book of ideas. There are probably a hundred potential stories in there. Some of the ideas come from the news, or from an article in a magazine, or from a conversation with someone, or from a book I’m reading. Very rarely does an idea come from a personal, real-life experience. My life just isn’t that interesting. There are certain ideas in my little book that are “juicy,” but I can’t work up the interest to write in-depth about them. I don’t know why. What a writer gravitates to is very personal and unique. It’s all so mysterious. That, to me, is what makes writing (and reading) exciting. Even if two writers have the same exact idea, the resulting stories will be so different because they are rooted in individual perspectives.

I love when I read a book and I think, “Wow, how did they come up with this?” Even though I know the origination of ideas is an enigmatic thing, I still ask other writers where they get their ideas. And the answers are always fuzzy.  As they should be. If there wasn’t some mystery behind storytelling, it would be way less fun.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *