“Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?” by Miko Johnston

Miko Johnston is the author of the “A Petal In The Wind” series. Her third novel, “The Great War”, will be released next month. Miko lives in Washington (the big one).


Ah, inspiration. Creativity. The stuff that propels people like us to write.


I once took a course in creative thinking. It emphasized that creative ideas will come to you when you’re thinking about nothing. They’ll pop into your mind when you’re out for a walk, or unloading the dishwasher, or brushing your teeth. Sometimes they do, but not with assured reliability. The same is true when you’re trying to solve a problem. Creative ideas may come, but often the idea has no connection with what you’re focused on, and you rarely get struck by “problem-solved” lightning. Even if you come up with a brilliant idea, then what? Brilliant ideas are a pressure chamber. They set the bar stratospheric. How can you possibly be creative when you absolutely, positively must?


Therefore when family and friends have asked me, “Where do you get your ideas from?”, I never could answer that question. Until now. It all comes down to check and balance.


I’ve taught myself to focus on writing problems – ideas to launch a story or fix a stumbling block – and find a workable solution, not count on one spontaneously appearing. One of my tricks is to forego creativity and focus on the problem logically. Often when right brain creativity fails, left brain logic can nudge forth a wisp of an idea that you can build onto until you at least have a direction. For example, if I’m inspired to write about a young girl who wants to leave home, I could come up with dozens of scenarios of why and how she leaves. But logically, in order for this to be a story, I know one thing for sure – she has to leave home. Then it becomes a matter of when – is her leaving the inciting incident that launches the story, or will it be the climax?  That narrows the choices, and the focus, therefore maintaining the check and balance between creativity and logic.


Then there are times when logic isn’t the answer. To balance that, I switch my thinking from left brain to right, using free-form writing when I’m stumped in a scene. I select two characters and begin writing a conversation between them. I don’t bother with punctuation or tags, I just write. It usually takes between two and five minutes, but eventually my brain switches over and what comes out aren’t my words, but those of my characters’. Then I check it for any insight they may have and usually garner an idea for moving the story forward.


Sometimes the present solution lies in the past. Throughout the decades, I’ve jotted down many detached ideas that seemed worth saving. Sometimes it’s a clever line. Other times it’s a plot twist from a book or TV show that struck me as ingenious. I won’t repeat it, but I’ll take the basic premise and re-twist it. I did that in my current novel, A Petal In The Wind III, to solve a mystery in a way that will keep the middle of the book from sagging. These are one-time-only ideas, though, hence the balance. Why waste a clever idea on a project that doesn’t deserve it? That would be like breaking your diet with a graham cracker, not even a s’more.


I’m very fortunate to be at a point where life is good. While I want to enjoy it for as long as it lasts, sometimes it concerns me. I worry: What if I let it go to my head and I turn into an a-hole (hereon referred to as “that word”)? I keep myself in check and balance by thinking of the most ridiculous, outrageous “that word” examples I can, and then find the silliness in them. It isn’t hard. That’s how I get many of my humorous ideas.


These different methods share one commonality. I believe that inspiration, creativity, and ideas are all most likely to happen when you’re immersed in writing. Not just writing, working on it. If we don’t write, keep writing, work on improving our writing, we don’t leave ourselves open to ideas. It’s like searching china replacement websites to find pieces from your discontinued pattern to replace the ones you broke. There’s no guarantee they will be found, but it’s more likely to be found.


Consequently the best answer I have to, “Where do you get your ideas from”, is: “From writing.” As Linda O. Johnston pointed out in her recent post, writing is writing. Even something as specific as novel writing is “writing”, whether you’re trying to summarize a 400-page manuscript into three paragraphs for a query letter, distilling the story into a single logline, or expressing the proper gratitude in your Acknowledgements page. Then there’s everyday life writing – from letters of condolence and congratulations to reviews and critiques, emails, thank you notes, journaling, and more. All writing challenges us to form a series of words that unite into paragraphs and pages, sentences and stories. Words that will elucidate, or entertain, or maybe both. For those of us who call ourselves writers, writing is a part of who we are, and each type of writing expresses different parts of us. It keeps us in balance, and if we’re lucky, in checks.

Writing Advice: Better Done than Perfect

Complete confidence is not a common trait among writers. I assume that statement applies to people who work in any creative field. It’s not that we’re neurotic. Usually. We are often charming people if you can drag us out into public. Did I mention that we are typically introverts who prefer the company of animals?

So, why the lack of confidence?

When a writer brings a character to life, builds a world, and plots out an entire novel, it’s personal. The character’s thoughts, words, and actions are driven by the author, so they are a peek into that person’s mind. Not necessarily an expression of his or her own thoughts on a subject, but what he or she is capable of thinking about a subject. Writing is an act of exposure, and there is always the fear that someone will—wittingly or unwittingly—cause harm.

When a wolf exposes its belly to the pack, no other wolf will touch it, not even a pup. The same can’t be said of the reading public. Once that short story, essay or novel is out there, it becomes fair game for comments, criticism, and the dreaded internet trolls.

Sometimes the criticism is correct.

I’ve looked up the spelling of names and words when writing only to find they are spelled wrong in the final draft. How does this happen??? It’s a mystery, but it does happen. And I once referred to a shoe string necktie tie as a bolero rather than a bolo. Never mind that an editor and four proof readers missed it as well. When the book came out, a sharp-eyed reader caught it and left a scathing review on Amazon. I immediately corrected it, and I would have reached out and thanked the reviewer had it been possible to contact him.

Sometimes people will simply disagree with you.

In my second pet psychic mystery, A Bird’s Eye View of Murder, Frankie Chandler’s Aunt Gertrude is visiting from Arizona. Auntie can be overbearing at times, which made for some funny situations. Don’t we all have relatives who test our patience? A reader commented that Frankie was just another weak female character because she put up with her aunt and didn’t tell the old lady off. I don’t think self-control and respecting one’s elders are signs of weakness, so I moved on.

The natural response to a fear of making mistakes is to never, ever publish, and this may be why completed manuscripts still languish on some writers’ computers.

Recently, I was lamenting the results of a new jewelry technique I wanted to master. An artist friend told me Better done than perfect.

What a freeing thought.

This doesn’t mean an author should send out a submission or post a book on Kindle without a thorough proofread. (Note: You are your own worst proofreader, because you will fill in the blanks as you read with what you wanted to say. Find an expert if you can afford it. If not, remain friends with former classmates who delighted in comma usage.) It also doesn’t mean that half-baked efforts are okay. It’s only a first draft, but I really want to get it published. Someone will like it.

What it does mean is that after you’ve done your best, after you’ve taken all necessary steps to ensure mistakes are fixed and formatting meets industry standards, you need to let it go and move on to the next project.

Every time you reread a page, you will think of a new and—possibly–better way to say it. Know that and decide to end the loop.  You will never stop learning new techniques and tips. Your style will develop, and you will become a better writer, but only if you keep writing. (And not the same thing over and over.)

Once you complete a few projects and let them go, you may even see an increase in confidence. It’s not a guarantee. Those niggling thoughts may always follow you around. Is the finished product perfect? Are the clues too obvious? Did I misspell mononucleosis? Just remember, you’re in charge. You can ignore those thoughts, do your best, and move on.

Do you suffer from paralysis by analysis? Give us some examples. Sharing your demons and having a laugh over them destroys their power!



Impressionism or Realism?

Rest Stop on the Writing Journey

The trail leading to “why this post?” about visualizing characters—is twisty and meandering…

Trail-head number 1: Connotation and denotation[i]. I’ve wanted for awhile to do a post about how much a writer can potentially convey just by choosing a word that conveys more than a fact—but also has an “aura.” I’ve called it in the past, choosing the most-loaded word. A bend in the road with an uphill rise—also love alliteration, and especially if combined with words that denote more than their definition–even when just an impression. Though, there needs to be a shared or recognizable background for those words to work. So I’m often finding myself, especially in re-write and draft-reviews, trying to finWinding Road Signd that “perfect” word that will conjure up a particular image in the reader’s mind. At a minimum when stuck, adding peripheral-props, like a style of dress, or a slump of the shoulders, type of build, a turn of the head or other unconscious character mannerisms–even the type of car the character drives; instead of skin color, exact features, type of hair, or how the character “looks” in a mirror. Hopefully you get my drift even though these aren’t great examples. A starting “impression” a reader can create a real character from using their past life encounters.

Trail-head number 2: At my/our latest book club meeting we discussed different kinds Book Club Clip Art 23916of electronic gadgets like Smartphones, Kindles, IPods, etc. From somewhere in that discussion, audio books came up and I spouted-off about how much I liked them and what narrators I liked listening to.[ii] On the way home I also thought further about what writers I listen to, and realized my favorites mostly go on-and-on-and-on describing the physical attributes of their characters.

On the side of the road during a curving twist, in editing my latest, The Movie-Maker, it was rightly pointed out to me there’s not a lot of physical descriptions of my characters, and several could be “fleshed-out” a little better.

So, I went back and flipped through my latest (something I seldom do because it’s too late to rewrite…), but I wanted to know what I actually do/did—versus what I like to read, and what I might want to change in future books. FBRTMMFront300dpi1200pixAnd yes—unfortunately or fortunately—depending on your writing-style perspective, a lot of visualizing my latest cast of characters is left up to the reader without lengthy descriptions from me. Nonetheless, that night I so enjoyed listening to my latest audio book, a very long-winded character description in Margery Allingham’s The Fashion in Shrouds– brought to life by narrator Francis Matthews. I’m not sure if I saw the person(s) Margery wanted me to see, or if somehow, a key word(s) she used triggered in my memory a real person I’ve known or met? But Georgia Wells and others were very real. Hmmm. Dueling perspectives—even goals?

Bottom line I think, is creating identifiable characters—and by that I mean characters a reader can visualize in their mind’s eye, feel they know, and maybe even identify with—is QuestionMarkFaceneither easy, nor as linear as it at first might seem. The often given writing advice, “show not tell,” can definitely also be applied to character description–but it’s not the whole story either. I don’t think it’s easy—yet another writing goal ha! But an aspect of writing well worth being thought about when you’re doing that last draft. And asking the questions, “How will the reader picture XXXX in their mind’s eye? Have I given enough clues? Not enough description? Too much description?”

A side detour: (for a future post unless the road turns again)—the Hercule Poirot character I will always have in my brain is not the “person” I initially conjured-up from Agatha Christie’s realistic descriptions of the great detective in her books. No, it is David Suchet. Bringing up the question of what film actors and audio-readers bring to the character visualization table? And then there’s what picture a choice of a character’s name brings.

Happy writing trails! (even though sometimes circular, winding, and many times, an uphill climb.)

[i] Connotation – “An idea that is implied or suggested.”  Denotation – “The most direct or specific meaning of a word…”

[ii] Hugh Fraser and Patrick Malahide.