Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?

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Paul Whybrow

Full Member
Jun 20, 2015
Cornwall, UK
People who haven't written a story are often mystified by how authors come up with their ideas. Even regular readers are in awe of the process.

A friend recently asked me if I had a criminal mind, as I write crime stories. She's acted as a manuscript reader for me, and after critiquing my second novel in which a serial killer was dispassionately taking victims as part of an online role-play game, she was understandably nervous about having anything to do with me! I answered her, by saying that criminality showed the extremes of human behaviour, so was memorable and intriguing, for going beyond what is acceptable by society's rules immediately implies that the stories of the perpetrator and the victim need exploring.

It's difficult to make a story based on the status quo, on peace and quiet: a tranquil sea is boring—we need waves to draw the eye and stir the emotions.

Writers are observers, noticing things that others don't and storing them away for future use. Any skills I have as a writer were partly influenced by my father, who was a noted industrial photographer, quite a shy man who used his camera as a way of interfacing with people; it was his shield and his magic wand. Through his camera lens he noticed the strangeness of what people did, commenting on these aberrations almost as a visitor from another planet sent down to make a sociological study of human beings.

After he died, I came across a poem that made me think of his attitude to people, written by Sir Walter A. Raleigh—not the famous Tudor writer, courtier and explorer, but rather a 19th/20th-century English professor:

"Wishes of an Elderly Man, Wished at a Garden Party, June 1914":

I wish I loved the Human Race;

I wish I loved its silly face;

I wish I liked the way it walks;

I wish I liked the way it talks;

And when I'm introduced to one,

I wish I thought "What Jolly Fun!"

Sir Walter A. Raleigh (1861-1922)

I think, that writers have this slightly detached stance, observing people and mentally recording their activities with a view to devising stories that rewrite what really happened. Writers remember unusual names, strange news stories that somehow swiftly disappear from the media, and amusing incidents that made them laugh and which might entertain their readers.

My ideas come from all over the place, including the news. For instance, there were a series of killings in Bombay & Calcutta from 1987-1989, with the victims being homeless people. The murderer was never caught, which in itself is attractive to a writer, for who knows where he is now?

Stoneman - Wikipedia

With so many people homeless nowadays, living on the streets, what if an anonymous killer decided to do clean up?

As a child in the 1960s, I was terrified at the prospect of meeting an escaped inmate of a mental institution, a doctor who'd been incarcerated for killing his patients. The newspapers called him Doctor Death, which was bad enough, but what really scared me about him was that he was 6' 6" tall, wore a floor-length raincoat and apparently walked without swinging his arms, owing to shoulder injuries. Imagine how spooky that would look. I watched every man who walked past our house, checking that he was swinging his arms! They caught him after a few weeks, but what a great character to resurrect in a story.

When I lived in America, a local mortuary did a stock-take of their inventory, including their dead clients, and found that they'd somehow got two extra corpses that they couldn't account for....One would have been bad enough, but two looked even more suspicious—were they connected, and how were they sneaked into the cold storage vaults? They'd both been murdered, from the wounds on their bodies, so presumably their killers had accessed the mortuary—a real case of hiding something in plain sight. One of the regular characters in my Cornish Detective series is a forensic pathologist with a morgue, so I may give her a mysterious guest.

I got the idea for my WIP The Dead Need Nobody from a Jo Nesbø novel in which his protagonist Harry Hole thinks just that as he leaves an autopsy of a murder victim. My next novel in the series will be called Kissing and Killing, which was a phrase I stole from @Matnov who used it in an old thread on the Colony. I hadn't heard it before, but it will be an ideal title for a plot in which my detective is in love for the first time since being widowed.

While planning a story, I make loads of notes, including reminders of expressions my characters use, as well as descriptive passages of how the weather, wildlife, vegetation and sea state would be at that time of year. Ideas are will o' the wisps, so it helps to pin them down in a document. Having a store of ideas helps my grey matter come up with more while in the throes of typing words on the screen.

Where do you get your ideas from?

Did a childhood memory re-emerge to fertilise a story?

Have you been inspired by a news story?

Or, by an unguarded comment that you overheard?

Even by the lyrics of a song?

Where do you get your ideas from?
All over the place. My current first draft WIP is based on something I read in a technical book I was reading. I read a paragraph and suddenly a whole plot and book idea popped into my brain. I dropped the book and immediately started writing before I forgot it.

Did a childhood memory re-emerge to fertilise a story?
Not that I know of but I did once think about writing a book based loosely on holidays I had with my parents when I was a kid.

Have you been inspired by a news story?
Frequently. Current affairs and technical developments are fertile ground for sowing the seeds of a new story.

Or, by an unguarded comment that you overheard?
Again, sometimes it will be a single phrase someone says to me that will start a germ of an idea in my brain. It will fester there for several days, keeping me awake at night until eventually I'll have to write something.

Even by the lyrics of a song?
Yes, again. But usually they act as a help when I've already got an idea. They are not usually the initial spark.
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The women's fiction novel I'm currently racking up rejections for was inspired by a song, and by a WHAT IF surrounding my own high school years. The story is framed by a current-day 40th wedding anniversary party, but takes place for 99% of the book in the POV character's past, beginning with her in fifth grade (that's ages 10 or 11 here in the USA), and then continues in a linear fashion through the present day, where the book ends at the same party as the opening scene.

I listen to a classic rock station on the drive to and from work. I grew up in the 60s and 70s (graduated from high school in 1976) so that music is what I love, and some songs I don't hear very often bring a massive wave of nostalgia when I do hear them. I heard one such song (Tiny Dancer by the amazing Sir Elton John) that particular day, over a year ago, and the story hit me like a ton of bricks. So there I am, one hand on the wheel navigating rush hour traffic on a freeway, and the other holding my smart phone, the Note app open and the speech to text button pushed, trying to talk into the phone and get all the story down while it's writing itself in my head. Freaky, man. LOL!!

And we're talking ONE LINE in that song. Which, incidentally, is the title of the book. :) An entire 100,000 word book from a line in a song, and from a seriously nostalgic WHAT IF from my own past that sort of wove its way into the rest of the story. :)

But that's a rare occurrence for me. Most of my ideas haven't come to me quite so dramatically. They're subtle, and inspired by anything and everything. :)
I get ideas from all over, but inspiration tends to strike me at the most mundane times. And, usually, the ideas that strike me are far from complete when they do pop into my head.

A few examples:
- The idea that got me into writing was simply a thought about life after death. The way my mind decided to process it led to nearly 300,000 words of prose.
- Over the Edge (murder mystery) started out as a science fiction short story, but somehow decided that it wanted to be a murder mystery when I started to expand it into a novel.
- Infinity's Heir (space opera) was inspired by one line in the song Green Waves by Beardfish ("I think I was 12 years old when I realized I wasn't immortal"). I was listening to Beardfish a lot at that time (they're a Norwegian Progressive Rock band), so their music helped shape many of the book's themes.
- Aiko's Dive was an expansion of flash fiction that I wrote for Litopia. And it was heavily influenced by a lot of the science fiction I grew up watching (The Abyss, Leviathan, Alien, etc.).
- My latest WIP was an idea that crashed into my brain while I was in the lab at work. One moment, I was running a test, then the basis for the novel was suddenly there. I fleshed it out later with a flowchart during a brief brainstorming session.

For me, the best way to come up with a story idea isn't to try too terribly hard. If I actively think about what I'd like to write about, I wind up with writer's block. But if I allow my brain to wander and come up with its own ideas, the result is far better.
So there I am, one hand on the wheel navigating rush hour traffic on a freeway, and the other holding my smart phone, the Note app open and the speech to text button pushed, trying to talk into the phone and get all the story down while it's writing itself in my head. Freaky, man. LOL!!
That is a dangerous and illegal activity and you should not be condoning it on this or any other website.
That is a dangerous and illegal activity and you should not be condoning it on this or any other website.

Tim, I'm not condoning it, and let's stay on topic here, okay? The thread is about where story ideas come from. And Litopia is not a place for members to lecture each other on their personal behaviors in public. Okay? Okay.
***Litopia is the community and the community is Litopia, therefore, and in accordance with the Prime Directive, we feel it would be prudent to move on from this disagreement and allow the community to make up its own mind about the comments involved. Thank you***
Twelfth of Never by Johnny Mathis.
Such a beautiful song and 'like roses need rain'
Gave me, my recent idea for a scene, I've just finished writing today.
AND fellow writers -
“Sometimes the hardest part isn’t letting go but rather learning to start over.” – Nicole Sobon
So where were we? Oh yes where do our story ideas come from? :)
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Plenty of ideas floating about but what I need is to have a specific first scene/chapter come to the fore. Not got a clue where it will lead but that tends to be the spark for me sitting down and putting pen to paper. Sketch that out and see if it takes hold.

Ultimately I guess it all boils down to various combinations of 'what if'. Put those together and you have the start of a plot.
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Hello Litopians

Reality Check How not to self publish