Where do authors get their ideas?

If I had a dollar for every time someone had asked me that question, I’d be so rich I wouldn’t need to write any more books.

But I would, anyway.

Authors Get Their Ideas Everywhere

To a non-writer, it must seem like a perfectly logical question, but for many writers it’s a difficult question to answer.

Mainly because we don’t know where to begin.

Authors get their ideas everywhere.

Newspapers, TV, movies, other books, overheard conversations, dreams, nightmares, people we’ve met, loved, hated, been married to.

And sometimes we have no idea how we got an idea!

How To Get Ideas For Writing

In his book Telling Lies for Fun & Profit, author Lawrence Block recounts a funny story.

An author friend told questioners that there was a magazine published twice a month called The Ideas Book, or something similar.

‘It’s loaded with excellent plot ideas,’ he said.

‘I have a subscription, of course, and as soon as I get my copy I write in and select half a dozen ideas and get clearance on them.

No other subscriber will go ahead and write them. Then I just work up stories around those ideas.’

Quite a few aspiring authors believed his story and wanted to subscribe to the magazine.

In an even crueller twist, he dashed their hopes by telling them they weren’t eligible, as they had to be a professional writer and have a dozen sales to their name.

‘But keep on plugging away,’ he said encouragingly.

That story in itself could inspire a variety of plots.

Could the aspiring authors, on discovering they’d been made fun of, get together and arrange his sudden demise?

Author Harlan Ellison’s stock reply is ‘Schenectady.’

Not being a US citizen, I had to Google it to find out where it is (a city in Schenectady County, New York) and I would have no idea how to pronounce it.

The Australian equivalent would be Woolloomooloo.

I Don't Get Ideas, They Get Me

Canadian novelist Robertson Davies says about ideas; ‘I don’t get them, they get me.’

I can certainly relate to that.

The story of Will and Frankie in my noir romance novel An Affair With Danger gradually evolved.

The characters taking residence in my head and nagging at me constantly until I wrote their story.

If you’ve read it, you’ll know that Frankie is a feisty lady and not easily ignored.

Writers That Inspire

Stephen King attributes many of his story ideas to dreams.

‘I fell asleep on the plane, and dreamt about a woman who held a writer prisoner and killed him, skinned him, fed the remains to her pig and bound his novel in human skin.

His skin, the writer’s skin. I said to myself, “I have to write this story.”’

The plot changed quite a bit and became the acclaimed novel (and movie) Misery.

It's about a crazed female fan who keeps a writer prisoner in her house after she rescues him from an accident.

I started keeping a dream journal at one stage, hoping it would produce some brilliant gems of ideas.

All it proved however, was that my subconscious was boringly predictable, because all I seem to dream about are babies. (Which for an author is symbolic of his/her books).

Life Experience is Fertile Ground

Another way that authors get their ideas is from their own life experiences. Especially, if like me, you are a mature age author.

You have so many ideas to choose from!  

The ideas for my first two books arose from my experiences.

How Not To Commit Murder, about a conman trying to go straight, was inspired by my employment as a probation and parole officer.

My romantic comedy Perfect Sex was inspired my experiences of internet dating.

And my humorous memoir Making the Breast Of It – Breast cancer stories of humour and joy was also based on my experiences of being diagnosed and treated for breast cancer.

However, the ideas for my most recent two novels, An Affair With Danger and Murder Undone, were driven by characters created in my imagination.

You're never alone when you're an author

Fiction Book Ideas

The idea for Murder Undone sprang out of a ‘what if’ concept that has fascinated me for ages.

What if at all the important crossroads decisions you’d made in your life, you’d taken another path?

Married a different person, taken a different job, moved to another city or country?

How different would your life have been?  

Sometimes a split second decision can change the entire course of your life.

Furthermore, if you had the chance to travel back in time, would you change anything?

Would you make the same mistakes? This is the dilemma I put my protagonist Eva in.

After living with the guilt of murdering her philandering husband 20 years ago, she is offered the opportunity to travel back in time to live her life again and undo her crime.

But not all goes according to plan, and her second life becomes even more challenging than her first.

Book Ideas Are Looking For You

Author Elizabeth Gilbert, of Eat, Pray, Love fame, has a rather esoteric viewpoint on ideas.

In her book Big Magic, she explains her concept that ideas are a ‘disembodied, energetic life form,’ that swirl around the universe looking for available and willing human partners. 

She’s referring to ideas in all disciplines, not just writing.

She maintains that when an idea has found someone it thinks can bring it into the world it will visit that person.

If the person is too preoccupied to notice it or unwilling or unable to pursue it, it will move on to someone else.

If the person is open and receptive to the idea, they will start to notice all sorts of things pointing them towards it.

‘Everything you see and touch and do will remind you of the idea.

The idea will wake you up in the middle of the night and distract you from your everyday routine.

The idea will not leave you alone until it has your fullest attention.’

Whether or not you agree with her about where authors get their ideas, many authors, including me, have experienced that compulsion about an idea.

A idea that grips you and won’t let you rest until you write it.

The passion and belief that the story you’re creating from your idea is worth the time and energy you’re putting into it, is often the only thing that keeps you going in your toughest moments.

Now Comes The Hard Part

In the end, as Neil Gaiman says in his blog post Where Do You Get Your Ideas? the ideas aren’t the hard bit.

‘Hardest by far is the process of simply sitting down and putting one word after another to construct whatever it is you're trying to build.’

How do your ideas come to you?

Have you had an idea that won’t let you go?  

Let me know in the comments box below.

  • Hello Robin,
    I am the inventor of the patented “Evictor Strobe Light”. It was
    created as a safe and harmless tool to drive nuisance wildlife
    ( mostly squirrels ) from attics and crawl spaces. It is 100% effective. I have a story to tell and looking for a writer to tell it. Thanks for any help……Bill

  • Loved your Storey! Your next column? How Do We Construct a Story Once We Have an Idea? Answer: By the seat of our pants. 2nd Answer: We engineer it, then fill in the outline.
    Personally, I prefer to pants it, then, when I’m forced to, I engineer it. – Cle Curbo

    • Hi Cle. I say whatever works for you is fine. Personally I like to have an outline to work to, which I can change along the way if I wish – and I usually do. But I feel a bit lost if I don’t have anything to guide me when I start. All the best with your writing!

  • You’re so right about story ideas! I’ve had them come from just about all of the sources places you mentioned, aside from Schenectady =). I only write as a hobby, and even that sprung itself upon me one day, from out of the blue. I couldn’t have been more surprised. Unlike most prolific writers, ideas come to me very slowly, or over time, and I write that way too, so every story is a long time a-writing. Still, it’s a great creative outlet and I love it. It’s also therapeutic in a away, and I can’t imagine not having it around as a portable, quiet and handy recreational activity.

    • Hi David
      I often have ‘slow-cooking’ ideas as well, that start off as just snippets of plot/character/dialogue and gradually form into fully fledged story concepts. I think they’re the best sort of ideas, because by the time they’re fully formed, I’m jumping out of my skin to start writing.

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