In Search of Ideas

Authors, I’m guessing you’ve heard this question over and over: “Where do you get your ideas?” I know I’ve heard it more times than I can count. Now, if you’re like most writers I know, ideas for possible stories come fast and furious—most of the time. But what to do when you feel as though the idea well has run dusty and dry?

Well! Let me share a few standards that I, and other authors I know, rely on:

The Media

That old saying that the truth is stranger than fiction has stood the test of time for one reason: It’s true! I’ve discovered that the news, whether on TV or in a paper or online, is a veritable mine of ideas just waiting to be…well, mined. <grin> It just happened to me again this morning. My dad was reading to me from the local paper about a hit and run accident in our area. At 3 am day before yesterday, a woman driving a pickup ran a red light, slammed into a van carrying workers on their way to a job, then jumped from her truck and ran away. One worker was killed, three others seriously injured. The police finally caught the woman at her home, and when they did so she was suffering from a multitude of injuries, probably, the authorities said, from the crash.

SO, I’m listening to him read, and this is where my mind goes:

What if the woman they arrested wasn’t the one driving the truck? What if it was someone who wanted to kill the driver of that van? So she stole the pickup of a woman she’d been watching, a woman who lives alone, who is known to drink excessively, who has received at least one DUI. Just before she steals the pickup, what if she attacked the inebriated woman, causing her injuries? Then she takes the pickup, T-bones the van to kill the driver, then takes off. Of course, when the authorities come after the woman who drinks, they won’t believe it wasn’t her, that someone just “happened” to attack her and steal her pickup.

And on it goes from there.

Okay, I’m not saying the idea is perfect, but what I am saying is it’s amazing how many real stories can spark a “What if” scenario, than can then become a book.

Personal Experiences

Some of the most powerful nonfiction I’ve read has stemmed from what the author, or someone close to the author, really experienced. Who are the people around you? What are their stories? What about their stories gets your heart pumping, sparks your outrage, warms your heart? Listen and ask questions. There are stories just waiting for you to discover them.


One of the best things you can do when you’re looking for ideas is people watch. Seriously! Go to the mall, an airport, the park—any place that’s busy. Then sit down, and watch. Watch the interactions between people. Watch expressions and body language. Look at how folks are dressed, what they’re doing, how they act.

We have a bohemian community not too far from us, and it’s a veritable feast of odd characters to observe. There’s the man trapped in his own world who sits on the same bench every day. He’ll watch people passing by for a minute, then suddenly he freezes in whatever pose he is in. He sits like a statue for five minutes or so, then comes back to life. A few minutes later, he freezes again. It’s as though he just catches some inner bus to another destination, then comes back. I’ve watched him a number of times and wondered…

What happened in his life that brought him to this place?

What does he see, hear, think, feel while he’s checked out?

What if he’s not really crazy, but he’s some researching watching to see how people react? Or what if he’s an undercover cop, and this is a persona he’s created to keep an eye on the bad guys? OR, what if (and this shows you how bizarre my brain is) what’s going on in his head is reality, and I’m actually a part of the delusion??

Watch people, let your imagination run wild. The ideas and stories will follow.

Okay, those are a few suggestions for sparking ideas. Now, your turn! Where do you find ideas for the books you write?

Can’t wait to read your responses!

15 Responses to In Search of Ideas

  1. Avatar
    Diana Harkness July 25, 2012 at 3:54 am #

    The idea for my novel came from the Bible and spending time immersed in the study of that era. The ideas for my essays and poetry come from the Bible, from nature, from interactions with other people, and from TV, film, music, and works of literature. A poet’s lecture (on Youtube) recently influenced me to turn an nature essay into a poem.

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    Wendy Heuvel July 25, 2012 at 6:49 am #

    My ideas tend to come from observation. I see something, and my imagination runs wild!

    For example, my fantasy novel about fairies started with seeing a lamp in a store. There was a fairy on the lamp and the light bulb changed colors. I suddenly saw a whole other world. It was enhanced by driving by an evergreen bush… and instantly I knew where the fairies in my story lived.

    Other ideas come from reading – a certain Bible verse jumps out and I see a story behind it. A story about Alexander the Great leads to an archeological tale.

    But overall, I believe there’s Divine inspiration behind all the ideas. When my mind is open to hear from Him, He always delivers.

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    Connie Almony July 25, 2012 at 6:50 am #

    Most of my ideas come from my own experiences. One of the biggest criticisms I get about my first manuscript is that the premise is unrealistic. I lived the premise, so I know it’s not. Like you say, truth is stranger … Other ideas come from my work in the mental health field. I see commonalities between victims of specific situations. Of course, I don’t use client’s info, but I take the commonalities (things that are likely with all such victims) and apply them to a totally made up character. Like you say, “what if this were to happen to someone like … ?” Another book idea came from a movie I saw a long time ago. I asked the “what if” question about a premise happening to someone of faith. How would this person deal with it differently than a non-believer? Would it be different? Thanks for the additional ideas!

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    Ane Mulligan July 25, 2012 at 7:08 am #

    I have a friend I workout with and she’s given me some of my best ideas. One turned into the vehicle to bring about the black moment in the story I just finished and it’s so good and completely unexpected. 🙂 That’s when things get fun.

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    Laurie Alice Eakes July 25, 2012 at 7:47 am #

    Mine come from reading histories of. . .all sorts of stuff. I find a book on an interesting subject and begin to read and the what-ifs begin there, too.

    Or sometimes my research reading is deliberate. Example: Heartsong (Barbour) was doing their state series. I’d just come home from some work in New Jersey, so picked up a book on NJ history and started reading. Hmm. NJ had a glassblowing industry? The best glassblowers were from Scotland? Thus was born The Glassblower.

    And sometimes I’m clueless from where my ideas spring. Take my ballooning heroine, for instance. I’m terrified of heights. I knew nothing about ballooning in 1812 England, yet… up-up and away my heroine goes.

    Hmm, maybe it was that summer camp roommate who had a weird obsession with that ancient group The Fifth Dimension who sang that song, and I’ve been plotting against balloons ever since.

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    Karen Foster July 25, 2012 at 9:07 am #

    I’ve never met a person who didn’t have an interesting story buried within them. Most people love talking about themselves. I just have to listen! 🙂

  7. Avatar
    Timothy Fish July 25, 2012 at 9:20 am #

    Plagiarism works wonders.

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    Jeanne July 25, 2012 at 11:27 am #

    Loved your ideas, Karen, and seeing where your mind goes. Hmmmmm. 🙂

    I’ve gotten a couple of ideas from life I’ve lived, but I’ve also caught glimpses of stories from events that have happened to friends. If/When I write them, details will be changed. I’ve had one character sketch from a vehicle I sat behind at a stop light. (What kind of woman would drive that kind of truck?).

    I love reading where everyone’s ideas come from. 🙂

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    Robin Patchen July 25, 2012 at 12:13 pm #

    First of all, it’s wonderful to know other people’s thoughts are as bizarre as mine. Thank God for the writing community, or I’d wonder if I might not be completely sane.

    I find idea nuggets are a dime a dozen. There’s always a good story idea out there. But developing those nuggets into full-fledged stories–that’s the hard part. I ask myself a lot of what if questions and challenge myself to brainstorm the answers.

    My best stories come from my own experiences. I take what I’ve lived and change it to make it work in a story. I shared with a friend an experience from my past yesterday, and she suggested it would make a good story. So now I find myself wondering, hmm, what if…?

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    Cecelia Dowdy July 25, 2012 at 1:02 pm #

    I work in a building that hires a lot of physicists. I wondered, since these men and women are in the science community, do they believe in God. That idea fluttered in my mind until John’s Quest was born (My Heartsong Presents novel about an agnostic science professor.)

    I also get ideas from family and friends. I know people who suffer from alcoholism and I find that problem creeps into a lot of my stories!

    I also get ideas from traveling. I’ve been on several cruises since I used to work for a travel agency. I thought it’d be neat to set a romance novel on a cruise ship – what a perfect, romantic setting! Thus, my Love Inspired novel, First Mates was born!

    I do like your story idea Karen. You’ve given me some things to think about in regards to finding story ideas! I rarely read the paper anymore, but, I might start reading it again. Looks like it could turn into a wealth of information for story ideas! 🙂

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    Peter DeHaan July 25, 2012 at 2:33 pm #

    I tend to get book, article, and blog ideas when I’m: 1) in the shower, 2) exercising, or 3) driving. None of these are convenient times to jot down an idea.

    I just now remember I had a great book idea this morning while on my exercise bike, didn’t stop to make a note, and have now completely forgotten it. Bummer.

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    Sara Baysinger July 25, 2012 at 2:58 pm #

    Oh my goodness, so funny that you asked this question today. I had a crazy dream last night that made a perfect scene for the book I’m writing. I get a lot of my ideas from my dreams, but I also get ideas from other amazing books I’ve read. And movies. And songs/music.

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    Stephanie McCarthy July 25, 2012 at 3:14 pm #

    I know it sounds strange, but most of my ideas come from something I misheard or misread. I start thinking about it “my way” and usually can get something going on my ms.

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    Dina Sleiman July 25, 2012 at 3:28 pm #

    All of these are great. I’ll actually be teaching on this next week at Philadelphia. Two others that I mention are the “out of the blue” inspiration–which basically is the subconscious–and Holy Spirit inspiration. I’m a big believer in feeling some sort of inspiration and direction from the Holy Spirit through listening prayer before I start any extensive project.

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    Kristen G. Johnson July 25, 2012 at 4:47 pm #

    One place I get my ideas is listening to music. Sometimes classical music will bring images to mind and those images will come together into a story. Sometimes the music has lyrics and they will spark an idea. Sara Groves, “A Tent in the Center of Town,” sparked an idea for a book about a traveling revival with a shady crew member.

    Since I write stories set from 1920-1950’s I read Reminisce magazine where readers send in their experiences and stories and those always give me sparks.

    Fun discussion! Thanks, Karen!

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