Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

“Where do you get your ideas?”

This question was reportedly posed to Stephen King at a writers conference in New England.

His answer may seem harsh, but it’s illuminating: “If you have to ask, don’t become a writer.”

Most working writers have little trouble coming up with ideas. In fact, most have more ideas for writing projects than they could possibly complete in a lifetime.

Ideas can come from anywhere: from lessons you have learned, from difficulties you have overcome; from hobbies or memories; from something you’ve read or someplace you’ve visited; from a distinctive accent or anecdote you overhear on the bus or in the grocery store; from asking “what if?” or “why not?” as well as many, many more places.

The first book I ever completed, a teen novel titled They Call Me AWOL, was based on my own experiences as a high-school truant who skipped his first two-and-a-half years of high school but who, when his girlfriend from church found out, had to squeeze four years’ worth of classes into the next two-and-a-half (the girlfriend is now my wife of forty-two years).

Long ago, because I’m a Shakespeare nut, I created my own daily flip calendar that paired a short quote from Shakespeare’s works with a corresponding or contrasting verse from the King James Version of the Bible (which was produced in the same era, country, and city by men who knew each other). One morning as I flipped to a new page, I thought, Why haven’t I pitched this as a one-year devotional? The Bard and the Bible: A Shakespeare Devotional was the result.

The idea for my novel The Bone Box  came from a news article about an archaeological discovery. My historical novels Northkill and The Return are based on events in my family’s history. My nonfiction books Life Stinks…And Then You Die and How to Survive the End of the World arose out of my reading and study in the Bible books of Ecclesiastes and Revelation, respectively.

Ideas are all around you, if you just pay attention. Where have you found your best ideas?


38 Responses to Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

  1. Avatar
    Shirlee Abbott September 4, 2019 at 3:11 am #

    I didn’t find my best ideas. My best ideas found me. I owe the Holy Spirit.

  2. Avatar
    Maco Stewart September 4, 2019 at 3:39 am #

    Although he’s clear that this is the question most often asked, usually Mr. King answers more helpfully, so this is not representative of his usual response to this perennial question. In the many videos of his talks, he gives details (Misery after hearing about a prolific murdering nurse, for example) and in On Writing, he describes his muse (a crotchety man in a wife beater who lives in the basement). I suspect in this case, after 40 years, he was bored with the question, if the hearsay is accurate. He also explains that for him, the ideas that he writes are ones that won’t go away, where two ideas grind together (what if vampires came to a New England town, Salem’s Lot). For me, characters appear (usually one is like me) with a premise: what if Middle Eastern terrorists got together with North Korean leadership to do harm to the US? or what if a burned-out CIA operative, looking for a quieter life, ends up entangled with a technology that truly worked in detecting deception and finds herself in the worst trouble of her life? Then the characters get themselves into life-threatening situations. And find a way out . . . maybe!

  3. Avatar
    Emmanuel Chukwuebuka Akaolisa September 4, 2019 at 5:55 am #

    I get mine on the dining table and in Bible studies

  4. Avatar
    Judith Robl September 4, 2019 at 6:16 am #

    From a nugget of family history, a Quaker wife struggles to keep her family together when her husband and two sons are removed from meeting for their participation in the patriot cause during the American Revolution. Still filling in history on this one. But then it led to all the women in my family who lived on the edge of wars. And…

  5. Avatar
    J.D. Wininger September 4, 2019 at 6:19 am #

    Living life my friend. It’s simply a matter of noticing what goes on around you. Enjoyed Mr. King’s response by the way.

  6. Avatar
    Roberta Sarver September 4, 2019 at 6:26 am #

    My first response: how did you manage to skip the first two-and-a-half years of high school and get away with it? That in itself would make a great story. We writers are curious people, as you know.

    I write a lot about the humorous side of human relationships. I came from a large family and had one myself. That gives me a ton of ideas.

  7. Avatar
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser September 4, 2019 at 6:26 am #

    My ideas are not worth much now,
    they seem a waste of breath,
    for who wants to learn just how
    to face fear and pain and death?
    My focal length and f/stop
    are jammed unto the view
    that blocks the sun in drastic crop,
    that makes all bad things true.
    It seems that I can just recall
    a world of hope and play and light
    with a daily round not held in thrall
    to the demons, and the fight.
    Not disinclined to share, to give;
    this is just bloody hard to live.

    • Avatar
      claire o'sullivan September 4, 2019 at 11:52 am #

      Andrew —

      People avoid the concept or wave it away, the avoid people suffering and dying.

      The resolution to this IS to write about it as you do in your blog.

      blessings, prayers, always.

      • Avatar
        Andrew Budek-Schmeisser September 4, 2019 at 12:05 pm #

        Claire, thank you for this, and most especially for your prayers.

        It’s an important subject, I think, especially as there is a kind of hope to be found in a hopeless situation – and not a forlorn hope, either. But the lens through which I try to focus the learning is becoming increasingly telecopic, and the message gets hard to frame in a way that someone not thus beset can relate.

        And it takes a toll, because to even attempt it, I’ve got to face things I really don’t want to face. I’m not a fan of Nietzche, but his comment “Gaze not too long into the abyss, lest it gave into thee” does have the ring of truth.

        How I wish I could write of cotton-candy clouds upon which dance unicorns, sometimes…just for a day, a day’s break from having to be brave and forthright.

        But I can’t take a single step without being reminded of the doom that grows within me, and that, I guess, is what I’m meant to write.

        To do my best, and not to yield.

        But God, I am scared. Please help me not to be.

        • Avatar
          claire o'sullivan September 4, 2019 at 1:35 pm #

          We all stare into the abyss– the majority avert their eyes.

          And… who wants cotton candy and unicorns?

          Okay, unicorns with horns, shorn and gone. Staring at the inability to be cool… and clouds? Be destroyed by the sun, and unable to shed much-needed rain.

          One word at a time, Andrew. One word a day.

          May the Lord of all still your fears, dear friend.

  8. Avatar
    L. K. Simonds September 4, 2019 at 6:28 am #

    Good morning!

    I just downloaded The Bone Box from Kindle Unlimited. I look forward to reading your fiction, Bob.

    I got the idea for my first novel, ALL IN, Morgan James Publishing, released last week, during a trip to New York years ago (the book is set in 1998). My friends and I looked in the Manhattan phone book for people with the same surname. It was a vacation tradition. We found one person on the Upper West Side. Initials and a surname, as unmarried women often listed their numbers in those days. “We should call her,” we said. “She could show us around town.” We didn’t call, but the thought stuck with me, What if you did make such a serendipitous phone call? What if the person was facing a crisis and the phone call was a lifeline thrown to her? The novel, told from the POV of the woman who received the call came from that “What if?”

    • Avatar
      Renee Garrick September 4, 2019 at 9:34 am #

      Your book is now on my reading list!

    • Avatar
      claire o'sullivan September 4, 2019 at 11:54 am #

      Me too! Just started The Bone Box.

      And the what ifs are really the best!

  9. Avatar
    Cecilia September 4, 2019 at 6:38 am #

    The manuscript I’m writing is a fiction but it’s based on my life before becoming a Christian and after becoming a Christian. It’s title “Broken Ten” and to summarize: “She spent a lifetime creating an orderly life, one that hid her darkest secrets. Now God is asking her to reveal everything to a group of broken women who desperately need hope.”

  10. Avatar
    Sami A. Abrams September 4, 2019 at 6:54 am #

    The manuscript my agent and I submitted a while back came from an article I’d read. I had a facepalm moment. Wow, people don’t realize the long term effects of different types of abuse/traumas. I wanted to show how it can materialize at odd moments in a person who lives a “normal” life.

    • Avatar
      Isabella September 4, 2019 at 7:22 am #

      I will absolutely look forward to reading this! Great idea. Relevant and affirming for a reader but challenging. Look forward to seeing how you create the tension and how it resolves. If it does.

  11. Avatar
    Paula Geister September 4, 2019 at 7:15 am #

    I will turn a common phrase on its head and it becomes a new idea. That sort of thing gives me a chuckle. The hard part though, is making sure for a humor piece the timing is as well done on paper as it would be verbally. Even if it’s not meant to be humorous, “common phrases” aren’t always so common. That means weeding them out to pick the most likely ones for my audience.

  12. Avatar
    Isabella September 4, 2019 at 7:27 am #

    I’m curious to know the opinion of writers / readers here on which ideas have the most longevity and can sustain the arduous rewriting: those which have great intellectual stimulation for you or those to whom you are deeply emotionally attached?

  13. Avatar
    Isabella September 4, 2019 at 7:29 am #

    Sorry, I meant to say “Those to which you are emotionally attached.” Not whom. Freudian slip I guess.

  14. Avatar
    Bryan Mitchell September 4, 2019 at 7:35 am #

    My best ideas start the same as lesser ideas. I tend to gravitate to the more interesting ones. I’m working on my first novel, and have shelved other ideas until I get through this one. But I’ve written a lot of original music and have always considered the audience. What do I want them to walk away with? What’s the message? I nurture my favorite ideas and fine-tune them the best I can before sharing it.

  15. Avatar
    Kimberly Joy September 4, 2019 at 7:37 am #

    I write daily inspiration and encouragement for my readers on Facebook. Today’s devotional was inspired by an ant zipping around on a floating tube in our pool. Yesterday’s was about a blindfold race in our church Sunday evening.

    One of my favorites tells the story of a mentally-challenged robin we had in our yard when I was a kid. It built a crooked nest every year, and every year, my dad fixed it. (Just like God can take the feeble work of our hands and bring forth something good and beautiful.)

    Ideas are everywhere if you keep your eyes open!

  16. Avatar
    Debby Kratovil September 4, 2019 at 7:39 am #

    First, let me say Bob: I just bought a copy of The Bard and the Bible! Love this!! (I was an English major who went on to teach high school English). I was raised on the King James Bible and I can understand it! My ideas come from memories of my dysfunctional childhood and writing them out helps me reckon with them. I do a LOT of journaling from daily Bible reading and those entries don’t read like devotionals. Lot of tongue in cheek – putting today’s clothes on Jesus and having Him walk through my neighborhood and town (I live in the DC suburbs, so He would have a hay day with all these politicians/Pharisees, wouldn’t he?)

  17. Avatar
    Sharon K Connell September 4, 2019 at 7:53 am #

    Every once in a while, Stephen King comes up with a good saying. LOL

    “If you have to ask, don’t become a writer” is exactly what I think every time someone asks me where I get my ideas for a story. And some of those people ARE writers. LOL But it’s only curiosity on the part of most people. Some are really interested.

    My ideas come from everywhere. They pop into my head, and if I’m not ready to use that particular idea, I jot it down in a notebook for possible use later. I even get ideas from other writers and their books. Not to tell the same story, but something within that story may conjure up a new idea. That’s one of the reasons I keep reading other works. You never know.

  18. Avatar
    Dianne Miley September 4, 2019 at 9:06 am #

    Agree with Stephen King! Another question I can’t answer – What about writers block?
    Hmmm… what’s that? Never had it. Too many ideas, too little time!

  19. Avatar
    Abrigail Julian September 4, 2019 at 9:25 am #

    Definitely a word of frank wisdom from Stephen King! I’ve never lacked for ideas. Ever.
    Also, Bob, love that title: Life Stinks…And Then You Die
    Makes total sense that it’s about Ecclesiastes.

  20. Avatar
    Isabella September 4, 2019 at 9:43 am #

    I don’t believe writer’s block arises from lack of ideas. It has more to do with anxiety, and a sudden, or latent, struggle with our existential purpose. It is a crisis guiding us back to the need for nourishment, tenderness, humility, assertiveness. It is an opportunity to examine other issues in our life. In most cases, a regular form of vigorous exercise that oxygenates the blood and a change of scenery can “unblock” many poets and writers, who spend so many sedentary hours.

    Lack of inspiration isn’t from lack of observation or willingness to examine issues, it has more to do with a naive insecurity. In many cases, those who think they have great ideas are only different in their ability to feel confident.

    Regarding the question that was posed to S. King, “where do you get your ideas?”, my belief is that this was not a “help me” question but more a deferential one which pointed out the unique nature of King’s often bizarre and frightening scenarios. The question for most writers is never really “what” or “where ”.
    It is “How?” That is the moment when training, and willingness to be both humbled and empowered, is needed.

  21. Avatar
    Renee Garrick September 4, 2019 at 9:45 am #

    Taking a road trip with my dear husband is the best way for me to generate writing ideas. Seeing a broken-down house from a century (or so) ago, I’ll say something like, “Just think of how proud the guy was when he built that house. And look at it now.” For me, it’s all about wondering what kind life happened there. My husband listens–and even gives input along the way. Whenever we embark on a trip by car, I bring along a notebook . . . but earlier this summer I brought a voice recorder instead. On the 10-hour trip, I came up with the nugget of a story. On the way home, I spent several hours telling the story with the recorder running. When I got home, I created an outline . . . and the manuscript is growing!

  22. Avatar
    Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D. September 4, 2019 at 10:39 am #

    Bob, I get my best ideas from life….then I just ask myself, “What happens next?” I take the smallest observation and expand it into a story. I think my stories ring true, since they are based on truth.

  23. Avatar
    Linnea September 4, 2019 at 11:01 am #

    I once belonged to a book club. You know the kind – if you don’t respond quickly enough you end up receiving their own pick of the month and either accept it or send it back. One month I received “The Paston Letters”, correspondence between 15th century family members. I enjoyed it so much that I began searching for other books focused on the medieval period. After reading several concerning the black plague, the idea arose for my novel, “The First Vial”.

    My current WIP centers around the last months of the Jewish captivity in ancient Babylon. The idea for this novel was born in the aftermath of the war in Iraq when I read about the damage to Babylon’s archaeological site. It stuck with me and years later I began “House of the Embalmer”, a novel I hope to finish next year.

  24. Avatar
    claire o'sullivan September 4, 2019 at 12:04 pm #

    Bob —

    Just started reading The Bone Box — I love Biblical archeology and of course, the skeptic and the romantic aspects.

    Ideas? Come from: words, phrases, what if, friends/acquaintances and passersby going through a wring (or look like they are), my Grammar Nazi who wants to write a book with me (yeeks! but it is a funny cozy mystery), true crime (can’t resist it), forensic files… always to get a twist on it. And the middle of the night when I can’t sleep, scribbling it down (in the morning it sometimes looks like Greek or the worst ever idea).

    I have bones/skeletons and titles for many a book. Around 15.

  25. Avatar
    Roberta Sarver September 4, 2019 at 1:11 pm #

    Prayers for you today, Andrew.

    • Avatar
      Andrew Budek-Schmeisser September 4, 2019 at 1:23 pm #

      Thank you so much, Roberta. Today’s a bad one. Can’t swallow or breathe without conscious effort, and even I know that ain’t how it’s supposed to be.

  26. Avatar
    Melissa Henderson September 4, 2019 at 2:21 pm #

    My best ideas come from my personal life experiences. That is why our family motto is “It’s Always A Story With The Henderson’s”. 🙂

  27. Avatar
    Wendy Casto September 4, 2019 at 6:06 pm #

    I draw ideas from my own life experiences. The two books that I’m batting around for later are a late 60’s coming of age story (based on my own childhood), and a children’s book (inspired by my two sons, now grown). But, my mission is my current book project, which is the true story of my experience as a Christian healthcare whistleblower. I’m alive to tell the story because of God’s presence and provision in the midst of a 3-year-long ordeal that I could not have survived without Him. He wrote an amazing story–I just hope I can do it justice.

    I’m enjoying this blog. Thank you.

  28. Avatar
    Katie Dale September 9, 2019 at 9:01 am #

    I feel like the ideas I have are drying up. I’m getting tired of navel-gazing, looking at my past for inspiration. I think I ought to start living more to get the life experience to write more. Reading other books can stir inspiration, but to get outside my head and have something worth writing about, I’m afraid I’m going to have to learn from living. “In order to write about life first you must live it.” – Ernest Hemingway

    • Avatar
      claire o'sullivan September 9, 2019 at 11:17 am #

      Katie —

      let’s meet for coffee and people watch!

      I don’t get out enough, either. Grocery stores don’t count much unless someone slams into you, grabs your purse, swears at the food or counter, or a conversation between mom and kid turns weird.

      I wonder why I don’t pay more attention…?

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