If Only There Were an Idea Orchard We Could Pick From

Probably the most frequently asked question of writers: “Where do you get your ideas?” The short answer: Lots of places.

The long answer: Richard Thomas at Storyville is here to help with that. He looks at how various writers can get ideas. Obviously not the absolute final list, but it’s a fun collection of how the imagination can work. For me, most ideas come from what Thomas describes as Quiet Time:

“Always be open to suggestions. Maybe it’s in the shower, or on the toilet (I’m not kidding here), or when you go jogging. Always keep a notepad handy. When you are doing other things and NOT thinking about a story idea, a new title, a way to use that new word or setting or character you’ve been holding onto, you’d be surprised what comes to you. Let your mind wander, let whatever abstract thoughts you have just float about. Maybe it’ll turn into the “What if…” game we talked about earlier. Just be open and aware and quick to write something down if it comes to you. “

Queen of the Air, for example, started with the phrase “My mother thinks she’s Amelia Earhart.” No connection to anything else; it just flashed in my brain one afternoon. It started as a short story and soon I realized I needed a lot more space to develop it.

I’d say most people think writers use what Thomas calls Personal Issues or Personal Challenges. Lots of people tell my husband or me “You should write about this aspect of my/your real life.” Maybe that works for some people, but generally this doesn’t work for me. I write fiction, not nonfiction. Nonfiction is great, and sometimes I’ll pull details from my real life, but rarely will I write a story that’s inspired by people or events in my life. I think that’s part of the fun of fiction–you get to make stuff up! It’s nice to be able to impart a personal connection with your characters, but I think it’s also just as good to develop a sense of empathy for emotions you haven’t experienced.

Mostly, I think this is a hard question for writers to answer because a lot of times it’s not the simple or exciting answer an audience wants or expects. Rarely does a writer get a spark of inspiration, sit down and pound out a perfect novel. More often, the idea strikes and it gets mulled over and tweaked and written down and rewritten a thousand times. It’s part of the process, but not as simple as one might expect.

Do you ever get asked where your ideas come from? What do you respond?

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