Wednesday, June 16, 2010

How I Write: Ideas--Where Do You Get Them?

Welcome to the inaugural post in the How I Write series. This series of posts is the brainchild of Ansha Kotyk, who--along with the other participants, including Yours Truly--haunts the forums (registration required) of the Romance Divas website. We'll each be posting on the same topic each Wednesday for the next two or three months--longer, if it goes well and we're having fun with it.

So, today's topic is ideas. Specifically, where do I get them.Or more broadly, where does any writer get them. SF writer Harlan Ellison once famously replied, "Poughkeepsie." But he's infamous for not suffering fools gladly, and many a writer tires of being asked just that question.

The answer is that ideas are everywhere. They're thick on the ground, a glut on the market. It's not getting an idea that's difficult, it's turning an idea into a completed story. Most professional writers will tell you that they have more ideas for stories than they'll ever have the time and energy to write--something many non-writers don't seem to understand. More than one famous writer has been offered an idea in return for his doing the work of turning it into a story, after which the idea man and the writer will share in the bounty sure to flow from this partnership. That's rather like handing a sculptor a block of wood or marble and saying, "You make a sculpture of a dolphin, and we'll share the profits when it sells." Not a very enticing offer.

I have files full of ideas on my computer, and partial stories. I have notebooks scattered around the house with notes, story synopses, and short character bios, all of which could be turned into stories eventually. Some I've had in my mind for years but have never found the right way to spin into fiction. Others come to me and get turned into stories almost immediately.

But the question is: where do I get them.

I get them by looking at the world around me and asking questions. You can look at your family, your friends, your co-workers, strangers; you can look at the neighborhood, your home town, your nation, or the world. You can look at the news, or other works of fiction. You ask, "What if?" And then you consider the possibilities. What if things were different, in small ways or large? What if people behaved different, individually or collectively? What if two very different people were attracted to one another?--leads to any number of romance stories. What if you received an invitation to a magic school?--J. K. Rowling created Harry Potter. What if some new technology made it impossible to conceal your thoughts from those you loved? What happens then?

Another good question is, "Why?" When you notice someone doing something eye-catching, unusual or odd, ask yourself why. Why did that happen? What would motivate someone to do what you observed? What was his purpose? What was his goal? Discard the mundane answers, the easy, off-the-top-of-your-head answers. Dig deeeper. Look for something more intriguing.

What if? Why?

I'm partial to speculative fiction (i.e., science fiction, fantasy, comics and superhero stories). What if a young woman with superhuman strength wanted to try bondage? Who could bind her? How? Bound by Convention was the story I wrote to answer that question for myself. What if someone defaults on the payments for his multi-million dollar starship? Well, someone would have to repossess that starship for the bank, wouldn't they? I just finished the first draft of a novel about that someone. A dozen other writers could tackle the same idea and produce a dozen other stories--better or worse or just different.

The idea is just the starting point. What you do with it is what matters.

Next Week: Character/World-Building

Below is the current list of contributing writers to the HOW I WRITE blog series.
Click a link and find out HOW I WRITE!  (in alphabetical order, check us all out!)
Kendall Ashby Corbit- Rated R
Kristine Asselin – Rated PG
Tatiana Caldwell – Rated R
Jennifer Carson - Rated PG
Isabelle Flynn - Rated PG
Ansha Kotyk – Rated PG
Laura Pauling – Rated PG
Alexia Reed – Rated R
P.M. Rousseau – Rated R


  1. It is definitely all about what you do with the idea that matters the most. I hope we can continue to explore WHAT we do with those ideas throughout this series.
    Thanks for joining in on the fun this week! Great post!

  2. Good post.

    One thing I've been learning is that it is nearly impossible to come up with ideas that have never been written about before. Think you have a completely unique idea? Five other people somewhere also have come up with the same or a very similar idea. But that's okay - because like you said, we could all take the exact same idea and end up with five completely different stories. There's some comfort in that.

  3. The fabulous "What If" question! It helps me out of the toughest writing jams! Love it! Our daily lives are such great fodder for characters, situations, plots. You just have to know what you're looking for -- a notebook is on my shopping list today. I'm terrible at writing down those great ideas.

  4. Wow, what a great post and a great idea! That is the question, isn't it? Where do story ideas come from? Everywhere and nowhere. You're right - I have more story ideas than I can ever get out in one lifetime.

  5. Ansha--this series was a great idea. I'm going to enjoy participating in it. Tatiana, yeah, they say there are only three/five/seven/X stories in the world anyhow; it's how you put your own personal spin on the story that makes it yours.

    "What if" is a great way to spin new story ideas, ain't it, Kris? And Julia--you could join in on this, if you wanted. The more, the merrier!

  6. I think I drive my husband crazy with my questions. I'm always asking him why is that like that? Is that a law? What was he thinking? He usually tries to answer but then gets frustrated when I come up with an opposing why did I ask him anyway?

    Thanks for the post.