Where Do You Get Your Ideas?


If you ever want to bring a blank look to the eyes of a writer, ask that. It’s a logical question. All those intricate plot twists, characters and situations – where the heck do they come from? The thing is, we don’t know. They may appear full-fledged, as in “Aha!”  Or they might tippy-toe into our subconscious, as in “Oh…yeah.”

Sometimes they lie in wait. I’m surprised by the people and events that ambush my computer, and presumably, my mind. I like to start typing with a germ of an idea and see where it takes me. If I get stuck, I ask myself what would be the most unlikely thing that could possibly happen next. So characters take sharp left turns, veer right and do illegal U-turns all the time.

But let’s think: say you were going to write a story. Where would you get your plot idea? Well, do you have an eccentric relative about whom family myths are spun? Was there a house you lived in and loved? Ever had an unrequited love? I’ll bet you could flesh out all three of those skeletons with stories uniquely your own. All you need is a person in a place with a problem. And we’ve all been that person. We’ve all had life experiences that tested, tickled and taunted us. That’s the jumping-off point for a novelist.

However: beware of reality. It’s fiction’s enemy. “But it really happened this way!” you may protest. Yeah, and who cares? Reality hardly ever has a satisfactory beginning, middle and – especially – end. The most earth-shaking events tend to taper off into normality, simply because humans crave and seek normality. Beginnings are seldom sharply defined. With the exception of birth, beginnings just sort of happen. And middles! Middles are mindless muddles of the mundane. Nothing interesting about ‘em in real life. But readers want a cohesive narrative that keeps them turning pages, so…you make it up. Or, you beat your head on the nearest wall and return to the land of sanity where people actually live their own lives, instead of dreaming up worlds for imaginary characters. But where’s the fun in that?

So here’s a challenge: describe someone. Could be someone you know or a someone you invent. Make him or her memorable. For example, here’s a character I love, Cora Entwhistle. She’s a lady of mature years who has definite opinions, but she won’t offer them unless you ask.  Mrs. Entwhistle doesn’t seek adventures, but they seem to find her. Her ancient dog, Roger, gets kidnapped; she’s swept into the witness protection program; she unknowingly eats a pot brownie. To all these situations and many more, Mrs. Entwhistle responds with straight-ahead common sense. (I like her so much I’m working on a book of short stories about her.)

And where did I get the idea for Cora Entwhistle? No clue.




2 thoughts on “Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

  1. I know precisely where ideas come from. I know exactly what kicks the little devils into life and how to sort them into useful piles for later use–which ones are good; which are great, and which will never amount to anything. And that just might be the premise for my next book. Or yours. Or Mrs. Entwhistle’s.

    The lovely thing about ideas is that they can’t be copyrighted. This results in different writers running in vastly different directions with the same story nugget. Like magic seeds one tosses on the ground and later finds dozens, if not hundreds, of different plants growing in as many different directions. Pick the flowers you like; put them in your hair, and wear them to your next book launch!


  2. Having both you and Josh as close friends you would think some of your brilliant writing would rub off on me — after all I am trying to write a novel. I’m enjoying your blog and have learned something from each of them.

    I loved the Mrs.Entwhisle story you wrote for the ELM anthology and can’t wait to read more of her adventures in the short story book you are currently working on. I bet it’s going to a laugh a minute!


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