Thursday, August 18, 2011

“Where do you get your ideas?”

Over the years, readers who have enjoyed my articles, short stories, and novels sometimes ask, “Where do you get your ideas?” The answer is probably unsatisfying: anywhere and everywhere.
In a sense, a writer who is constantly creating has access to a literary artesian well. The more he or she exercises the imagination and records those thoughts in words and paragraphs, the more ideas spring up and await their turn to be captured on paper.
But what about a beginning writer? Where does one even start? There are unending numbers of places to dig for ideas. Sometimes even the news can provide inspiration. For instance, one time an editor wanted a sci-fi story for teens. While driving my car and pondering what angle I might use for that genre, I heard a radio report that China was considering building a manned base on the moon. From that news snippet, I began thinking, “What if they did? And what if the U.S. had one, too?” Starting from that little “what if?” beginning, I conjured up “Stranded,” a story in which a young man traveling from one moon base to the other wrecks his moon buggy and lands in an airless pile of trouble.
History provides limitless potential for story ideas. I particularly like stories that use World War II as the backdrop. “But history is boring,” some say. However, that’s only true if you reduce history to a date and a dry description of an event. A fiction writers job is to breathe life into characters who populate those events.  Let’s say you create a teen boy who’s a soldier in the Civil War. He doesn’t want to be there, but all his friends will call him a coward if he turns and runs. What should he do? Die just to be considered brave? Run and be branded a coward and a deserter? Plopping a character into a crisis and then getting into that person’s mind transforms a cardboard cutout into living, breathing saga that grips readers’ eyes and makes them want to follow you to the end.
Ideas can spring from hobbies, from legends, from myths, or from age-old human longings to survive, to love and be loved, to attain a goal…. Simply reading someone else’s novel can make a writer think, “That wasn’t bad, but I think I can make that plot even better.”
A vast universe of potential stories whirls around you every day. To non-writers those possible stories are invisible. But a person with the heart and soul of a writer can spot those ideas, reach out and capture one, and start unraveling it word by word.

Do you write? Where do you find inspiration?


  1. Great post! I'm a writer who lives inside the whirling carousel of "what if" so this resonates with me. Thanks.

  2. Thanks for stopping by, David. The world will never know how many adventures were launched by those two little words "What if...?"