Where Do Writers Get Ideas?
by Jackie Houchin
In a recent post on Marilyn Meredith’s blog titled “Field Trips for Writers,” I wrote about exciting trips we “WinRs” have taken and how they tickled (or tricked) our muses into action. I also suggested a bunch more for her readers. Check them out; you may glean a story idea too. (http://bit.ly/1PIYv3o).
Any little sight, sound, or experience can generate ideas for your writing. A few crows pestering my Maine Coon cat in our back yard inspired me to write “The Crows Know” about a planned murder that went awry.
The glassy-smooth feel on my fingertips as I ran them down the side of a newly polished sports car inspired a story about a murderous duo in “Sweet Ride.”
A longing for a certain left-over item in my fridge after a harried day of shopping the malls, led to my dark flash fiction story “The Perilous Pizza.”
A newspaper story about a 1932 dam about to be renovated, inspired fellow WinR writer, Gayle Bartos-Pool, to write “Damning Evidence,” the third in her Gin Caulfield mysteries.
Then there’s that newspaper clipping about the body of an elderly family member found wedged behind an upright piano months after she went missing. It intrigues me. How did she get there? Was there no noise of a struggle? No odor? It’s mind boggling and “ripe” for a story. Go ahead, be my guest!
Every wonder where the writer came up with a man-eating plant who falls in love with him after reaching gigantic proportions (Little Shop of Horrors), or an astronaut who grows potatoes in outer space (The Martian), or a love story with a woman who lived 50 or 100 years before him (Somewhere in Time/Time after Time), or who lived before AND after him (The Time-Traveler’s Wife).
Something sparked those ideas; I wonder what it was…? (Take a second just now to ponder them. Really. Do it!)
Here are a few places you can look to get your “juices” flowing:
1. Pick up a newspaper (any section) and read a tiny story.
2. Glance in the gutter of a busy street (A kid found $600 in a paper bag doing that!).
3. Look at signs and posters in the windows of stores or apartments or the post office.
4. Look at want-ads or items for sale, or personal notices.
5. Peer over your neighbor’s fence.
6. Peruse the items in your fridge… your car’s trunk…or your jewelry box.
7. Thumb through an old family album with murder, vice, or a caper in mind.
8. Thumb through an old family album with…a memoir in mind.
9. Join (or maybe just watch) a protest march.
10. Choose a parable and twist it or “pastiche” it.
11. Search out writers’ prompts from hundreds of websites.
12. Delve into a thesaurus or encyclopedia (use the old “close-your-eyes, open-the-page, and point-to-a-word” technique).
13. Google a random date.
14. Google a prescription medicine that you take.
15. Google your grandmother’s maiden name.
15. Drip food coloring into a saucer of milk, then add a touch of dish soap…and be amazed. What comes to mind first?
There are ideas all around us and you can turn them into stories with a little diabolical imagination!
All it takes is… a character or two, a problem or three, several adversaries or a block wall that can’t be scaled, a terrifying time table, a heart-stopping climax, and a shocking, satisfying, humorous, or thought-provoking conclusion. Voila! You’ve got a story. (Of course it needs massaged, edited, critiqued, and rewritten! But we’re talking ideas here.)
CHALLENGE: Pick one suggestion from anywhere in this post. Let your imagination roam and see if you can come up with a story idea – at least the kernel of one – then throw it into a hot popper and see what happens!
And please let me know if you find one! (A story idea, that is!)
21 thoughts on “”
Loved your post, Jackie! Up earlier(this time-change thing still has me unbalanced on several fronts)and decided to be “on time” for Writers in Residence Wed post, and here was your mentally energizing post. I've been stuck in my current WIP on a “body placement,” so to speak–and there was the poor lady behind the piano. And the solution came to me!(also adding an upright as a furnishing in one character's house.) Sorry for such a long reply, but you've gotten my literary juices going…Thanks for such a wonderful and timely post!
Madeline, you are so nice! AND a talented, evocative writer so it doesn't take much to tease you back into writing mode. Glad the “piano” story helped. I know it remains in my mind years after reading it. I mean, how….?
These are really good prompts, Jackie. I was almost banging my head against the wall to finish my current book and asked myself Nancy Cole Silverman's question: “What's the most surprising thing that could happen next?” That helped. Wish I'd seen your post as well.
Ideas are literally everywhere. If a writer can't stumble upon a new one, she isn't looking. But as you said, the story has to be massaged and edited before it is ready, but the germ of an idea is right under your fingertips… like that ride down the dead-end street that leads to… Thought-provoking post, Jackie.
Surprising things happening are always good for stories… and for writers. Hope you get that current book done and out there! Writers like you only need a bit of prompting to get the job done. Thanks!
Writers really have a closet-load of ideas to write about, they sometimes just need a nudge toward the door. You've proven that many times, Gayle! And different writers, or different genres can get different stories from a single prompt… like a little girl saying she loved “bouncy houses so much, she wished her whole house was a bouncy house.” Now does that bring a mental picture or what?
You mentioned many ponder points that never occurred to me – thanks! And as Mad stated, these ideas help not only to create new stories, but to move them forward. Great advice.
And I hope readers will stay tuned to Writers in Residence to learn how to then WRITE those ideas into great stories and books from your and our other good teachers Gayle and Kate instruction posts!
Wow! Thank you for so many great ideas! I'm often oblivious to my surroundings, but I'll work at coming out of my mental bubble. But I don't think I'll look over my neighbor's wall. They might not understand. 🙂
HI, Jackie, great post. To jump start my stories and novellas, I usually pour over some quotes or lines from poems that I particularly like and speak to me. Also a line from a song or a phrase often helps get juices flowing. Ex: I've always loved theater and especially Ibsen. I used the oft quoted: “The sins of the father are visited upon the children” from his play, Ghosts, as the basis for the last book in my gay historical series, Lovers and Liars. I love using quotes as story starters. The song title, “Just in Time,” was the beginning of my short story, “All I Want for Christmas” and the theme became timing is everything. Again, great quote and it got me going. Might even write something today. 🙂 My best and happy holidays, Paul.
I meant great post. Auto correct got me again. Sorry. 🙂
Great suggestions, Paul. Songs and quotes.
The song words by Roger Whitiker's, “For you are beautiful, more beautiful than words can ever tell,” inspires me to romantic themes…
maybe tragic or gothic. And I can't get the picture of the song line, “Grandma got run over by the reindeer,” from my mind. And of course, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” could inspire epics or sagas.
Wow… I may have to write some stories in the new year, THANKS to You.
Oh, now, you HAVE to look, Jackie V.!!! Just a quick peek. Think: a 911 story, or an expose, or a whistle-blower story, or…. a sinkhole, or Journey to the Center of the Earth, revisited
Great post, Jackie! My idea well was running dry until I read this. I'm getting out my stepladder to peek over my neighbor's wall. Wish me luck.
Excellent post, Jackie. And wow…that's quite the piano story. Definitely darker than the one I wrote today, lol. How DID that poor lady get wedged in there with no one noticing?!? Hmm… *wanders off to ponder*
Good luck, Bonnie, and may you always remember (and not rue) the day you…looked! LOL
Thanks for reading, Linda… I know the piano story, tucked at the bottom of a page way in the back of my newspaper years ago has stuck with me too. Upright pianos – yours and mine – have some very interesting stories to tell, if only they could talk! Guess WE have to talk (write) for them. (grin)
Okay… about those little newspaper articles. The Orange County Register reported yesterday that a body was found in a refrigerator in a garage. (No biggie, it happens all the time.) But this was the body of a “relative” of a couple who placed her there a year an a half ago because they didn't have the money to bury her. They were now renting a house some place else and it was the homeowner who discovered the body when he went to clean the garage so he could re-rent the house. The couple said they were GOING to come back for it when they had the money. The woman's death had not resulted from physical trauma, so the couple were not being considered as suspects. And….
failure to properly dispose of a body is ONLY A MISDEMEANOR!!!! Can you believe that!! Well, write about it.
Then today, under “Orange County Pardons,” a Mr. Dirk Martin Davis was pardoned from a September, 1979 sentence for burglary. WHAT IN THE WORLD DID HE STEAL TO NET HIM A 37+ YEAR STINT IN PRISON??? (Fill in the blanks and write the story.)
Or… was this a mis-step of the justice system, and will he now get even?
WHAT IF… Someone else was posing as the dead woman and benefiting from some large inheritance that neither the dead woman or the two relatives knew about. It was suggested to them to keep the body in the freezer until a later date when the person posing as the dead woman had gotten that inheritance… Oh, and a more in depth autopsy said the woman was killed… Ideas beget other ideas.
How well you know, Gayle!