Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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June 28, 2019

Ideation: Where Do Ideas Come From?

Laura Drake

"Where do you get your ideas?" Every writer has been asked this at least a dozen times. In fact, famous authors have come up with outrageous answers, so they don't have to go into it. Think I'm kidding?

"From the Idea-of-the-Month Club." – Neil Gaiman

"The Idea Book. It’s loaded with excellent plot ideas," he said. "I have a subscription, of course, and as soon as I get my copy I write in and select half a dozen ideas and get clearance on them, so that no other subscriber will go ahead and write them. Then I just work up stories around those ideas." Lawrence Block

I don’t get them, they get me. – Robertson Davies

I've always been fascinated by this subject. At the same time, I'm reluctant to talk about it. Because I don't know. After all, if you're not in control of the ideas, they could just stop coming, and then where would you be? It's probably my biggest fear as a writer. Every new idea I have for a book is golden, because I wasn't at all convinced I'd get another.

Stephen King said once (sorry, I can't find the exact quote) that it's like there's this invisible stream over our heads, and writers tap into it, and the idea flows to them. Someone also said an idea is like a buried stone you trip over, and you think, "What is that'?" And dig until you see it all.

Michelangelo had another version:
Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.
I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.

Wherever they come from, our job is not only to recognize ideas, but to get GOOD ones. Who hasn't had their interest piqued by an interesting tidbit, only to realize that it's not enough for a full-blown story? (And the goal is to discover this before you write the whole book, right?)

I don't pretend to know where ideas come from, but I do know where I'm more likely to get them. I don't mean a physical location—I mean my state of mind. My best ideas came when I was bored. I got my very first plot idea on the back of my husband's motorcycle (I hadn't started riding my own yet). We lived in Southern California, and it's hard to get anywhere without going through desert. Nothing against deserts, but after hours, your mind wanders, plays, and begins to put disparate things together. That's the state of mind we avoid in our busy everyday lives, but for me, it's where ideas live.

I've talked to a lot of artists—painters, writers, musicians—many of whom have had great ideas on trains. The only explanation I have is all that stuff is coming at you while you're relaxed, so somehow it kicks you into hyperspace in terms of brain function. – Peter Gabriel

Neil Gaiman told his daughter's class of seven-year-olds: "You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we're doing it."

Everybody walks past a thousand story ideas every day. The good writers are the ones who see five or six of them. Most people don’t see any.Orson Scott Card

Let's get one thing clear right now, shall we? There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn't to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up. Stephen King

Like the ideas for some of my other novels, that came to me in a dream…I fell asleep on the plane, and dreamt about a woman who held a writer prisoner and killed him, skinned him, fed the remains to her pig and bound his novel in human skin. His skin, the writer’s skin. I said to myself, "I have to write this story." Of course, the plot changed quite a bit in the telling. But I wrote the first forty or fifty pages right on the landing here, between the ground floor and the first floor of the hotel.Stephen King on Misery

One night, I was lying in bed and I was very tired, and I was just sort of channel surfing on television. And, I was going through, flipping through images of reality television where there were these young people competing for a million dollars or a bachelor or whatever. And then I was flipping and I was seeing footage from the Iraq War. And these two things began to sort of fuse together in a very unsettling way, and that is when I, really, I think was the moment where I really got the idea for Katniss’s story. – Suzanne Collins

Where do you think ideas come from? What is your state of mind when ideas come to you?

Laura Drake's latest release, The Last True Cowboy, is going to be a Kindle Daily Deal, on July 1 for $1.99! Mark your calendars!

The next in the series, Home at Chestnut Creek releases the very next day - and contains a full book by Carolyn Brown! Two books for the price of one!

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24 comments on “Ideation: Where Do Ideas Come From?”

  1. I go to my yard and pick and idea from my idea tree. Sometimes they're under ripe, sometimes they've started to rot, but ...

    Or, I put a couple of characters on the page and let them talk.

  2. My critique partners had a discussion about this recently. One partner read somewhere that ideas float around for everyone to use. However, they only stay with you a short time before moving on to someone else to use. It's important to work an idea right away before you lose it.

    I think she might be onto something because I've had ideas only to find some else had written something similar. Whether or not it was my subconscious picking up and using what I'd already watched or read, I don't know.

    I do believe the voices in my head work best during those quiet times in the car, shower, or grocery store (Yes, it happens all the time!). Often, I startle myself when I realize I've been carrying on a conversation about plot or dialogue with no one but my dogs.

    Very fascinating article, Laura 🙂

    1. Yes, Elise, not to get all woo-woo, but it's hard to explain why people get the same ideas at almost the same time.

      I live for those kismet moments, When two disparate ideas come together in a totally new way...I was channel surfing for a movie last night and came across one - the wife is an attorney - the husband cheats, and his mistress ends up dead. It looks open and shut that he did it. His WIFE represents him!

      Now the movie stunk, but the IDEA! Wowzer.

  3. The idea for my last book, SECRETS, LIES & GRACE, came when I was down in the bush a bit,not far from our house and I saw some wild dogs (these were a cross between our native Aussie Dingo and German Shepherds - big, lean and mean). I imagined them attacking me and wondered how I'd get away from them.

  4. For me, ideas come during unique encounters with people. My first book sparked when I watched a pair of elderly women making fortune cookies by hand in San Francisco's Chinatown with the grace of prima ballerinas. Another came when I met a man who--as a high-school senior--was kissed by Marilyn Monroe on the beach during the filming SOME LIKE IT HOT in 1958 outside the famed Hotel del Coronado. My dad--who was a butcher in Detroit--taught me how to talk to strangers. So, as the saying goes, everyone's your friend (and a potential story catalyst)...you just haven't met them all yet.

  5. This is so true! I actually don't know where ideas come from! Like, one time I was right in the middle of NaNoWriMo, totally into the novel I was writing, and the last thing I wanted was a new story idea. Well it just sort of came to me, totally unrelated to what I was writing, and I still can't explain why or how that idea happened. xD

    1. Talia, but yay for it happening, right? Fae gets tons of new book ideas - she's afraid she won't get them all written! I'm not like that. Oh, I've always gotten one (eventually), but my ideas are an Easter Egg hunt, not a turned on faucet!

  6. They come to me when I least expect it...and I usually don't have anything to write with or not able (driving). I try really hard to remember. Of course, some come in the night when I'm trying to sleep, like a voice calling out, except it's all in my head.


  7. The shower. Or right before the freeway exit I'm supposed to take--and I drive past it. My best ideas usually come with a laugh, as if it's too silly to really be an idea for a book or a blog. Oh--thank you for the quote from Orson Scott Card! And you know me (too well!). I have so many ideas, I'll need to set a record for oldest living woman to finish half of them, so no worries there. Okay, going back to my little dream world now...

    1. Ha! Saw this after I wrote the reply to Denise! I envy you all the ideas, Fae, but the only ones that stay are the ones we get written, right?

  8. I seem to get many of my ideas while showering—the one place where I have no distractions interfering with my brain wandering here, there, and wherever. I play "What If" games too, about whatever I observe or read or watch.

  9. I find ideas can be anywhere, but I most often pick up on them in that half-awake stage you get when you're relaxed and thinking about nothing, in the car (when someone else is driving), or in the shower or leafing through a magazine. Great post Laura.

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