Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

From the time I started as a journalist at 16 -- paid five cents a column inch, thank you very much -- I've been asked how I get ideas for stories. When I switched to writing mysteries about 10 years ago readers asked the same question.

The short answer is, I don't know. Frankly, I wish I did. Many ideas come to my subconscious, roil around there for a while, then pop out when I'm least expecting. Others are the result of semi-disciplined record keeping.

In an effort to sort this out for myself, I'll try to explain.


At a recent book club meeting a reader asked me how I got the name Skeeter for my protagonist, a newspaper reporter. Other times when I was asked this I replied that it just popped into my head. But a few weeks ago I was watching the last of the Harry Potter movies. Surprise, the newspaper reporter in the Harry Potter series was named Skeeter.  That particular Potter book came out just as I was writing the first Skeeter Hughes mystery, "Where's Billie?" Hmmm. Is that where the name came from? When I pointed out the "coincidence" to my husband he reminded me that he'd told me about it two years ago.

Other times a short sentence can launch a whole book. Peter Bognanni, a St. Paul, MN author, told a book group recently that a guy at a party had told his wife that he "lived in a geodesic dome with his grandmother." That image so fascinated Bognanni that he wrote a charming book called The House of Tomorrow based on that one idea.

Why did that so captivate him? Who knows? But the point illustrates how ideas work in the subconscious.  The concept bumped around in his brain and he couldn't seem to get it out. He began researching geodesic domes in Iowa. He researched Buckminster Fuller. Then the idea morphed into punk rock bands and a kid who'd had a heart transplant. Read The House of Tomorrow. I think you'll like it.

Semi-disciplined record keeping

As a former newspaper reporter, I'm a news junkie. I read mostly online newspapers, watch both NBC and CBS evening news -- despite the ads for Ciallis and Bonina -- and my car radio is set permanently on Minnesota Public Radio/National Public Radio.

We had a saying the newsroom, back in the day, that "you can't make this shit up." Whether it's Bernie Madoff, the lady who tried to mail her son a live puppy or the earthquake that hit Japan, news is always better than fiction. That said, I write fiction, and keep a file on my desktop titled, "You can't make this shit up."  It's crammed with links to all the wonderful stories that I can embellish. I try hard to make nonfiction into believable fiction.

David Housewright, a Minnesota writer on his 11th or 12th mystery, I can never remember which, keeps a file of overheard snippets. Standing in the grocery store line, pumping gas, ordering coffee, whatever, he sometimes hears strange little quotes and jots them down. A year later he may pull the perfect line from the file that exactly conveys a thought in words better than he could have written  himself.

That's a good idea that I should adopt, but I haven't, which is why I call it semi-disciplined record keeping.

What was the source your best ideas? Comment here so we can all do what we do, better.


  1. I have yet to jot things down. Laziness rationalized by, "if it's important enough, I'll remember it."

    I've had stories inspired by melodies where I knew my characters would dance to it, or where my hero would (unbeknownst to me) be a gifted pianist and that was a turning point song for him. Or I've had click moments with a lyric line--Blake in Nowhere to Hide came together when I heard a line from Leader of the Band by Dan Fogelberg.

    Ideas and inspiration are everywhere. It's making them "yours" so they turn into stories or characters that's the fun part.

    Terry's Place

  2. I have a bulging hard-copy folder of things I've printed from online. I learned the hard way that sometimes those links stop working . . .

    Each of my stories began with your "You can't make this shit up" line of thought, and then I morphed them into something slightly different. The morphing is where I take the nugget and ask, "What if?"

    And sometimes, the "What if?" gets answered by my subconscious at 3 a.m.

  3. Yep, Terry. Making them yours is the fun part. I suspect that's why we keep doing what we do. Thanks for the comment.

  4. Mine, too, Peg. My problem is when my 10 a.m. consciousnes can't remember my 3 a.m. subconsciousness.

  5. Judith,

    Since I began writing I tend to look at the world differently. I ask a lot of what ifs in my daily life and when I get a good idea for a character or a plot line I write it down.

    Inspiration still strikes randomly, but I do have lots of fodder to keep my mind working when it is time for a new project.


  6. Isn't it great looking at the world differently, CJ? Stepping back can sometimes turn a boring situation into a delightful study of detail. Thanks.

  7. My best ideas are the ones that drop into my head seemingly from nowhere. Something may externally trigger it, but for the most part, it's this fuzzy dynamic I can't really explain. All I do know is that when they come, something inside me clicks, and it's like getting a ball inside the hoop.

  8. My plot inspirations usually start simple, sometimes with an opening scene for a novel coming to me in a flash as I'm reading the newspaper. From there, I start thinking about crimes that I can't get out of my head and/or social issues that are high in my consciousness. Then I start asking "What if?" and "How are these things connected?" I love plotting!


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