If you ask most writers where they get their ideas, the answer is ‘everywhere’. And that’s true. You can get ideas from anywhere and everywhere; however, the trick isn’t to get ideas, the trick is to get useful ideas. For example, suppose you’re writing a thriller and you’re describing a car chase. An idea about snorkeling in Bermuda is not helpful. It might be fine for another book or another scene but if our hero is careening about a corner on two wheels while being shot at, it isn’t going to do either you, or him, much good.
One possibility is to step aside from the scene and make a list of things that could be relevant. So in the above example one or both of the cars could sideswipe another vehicle, a tire could blow out, a vehicle could roll over, there could be any number of near misses with pedestrians, cars, trucks, buildings, trees, fire-hydrants – you know, the sort of things you might encounter on your normal commute to work. List everything and then chose a few specific possibilities to work with and you’ve got your chase. But put the list aside for future reference. You never know when you’re going to need a good pursuit by car, truck, motorcycle or other vehicle.
Another good source of ideas is the newspaper – or news site since so few people actually read papers anymore. Many such sites have categories for local, regional, country, and global. Drop by such a site one day and copy each and every headline into a spreadsheet. Don’t bother with the details. They’ll just bog you down. The headlines then become suggestions.
So, for example, a headline such as ‘Senior Dies in Townhouse Fire’ might not be of much use if you’re writing a romantic scene but it could provide you with a bit of dialog. You know – he reveals the trauma he experienced as a small child losing his grandmother in a fire and she just melts. I know it’s tacky but if you’re writing romance novels it may be a step up.
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Obviously you can’t violate copyright and steal from other authors and it’s not particularly good practice to reuse someone else’s idea unless you give it a significant twist – but the latter is perfectly reasonable. Consider the Harry Potter series. The basic concept was the classic struggle between good and evil; but, of more importance, it was framed around the concept of a hidden school where young people possessing magical powers were trained in their use. It would be quite acceptable from a plot perspective to set up a hidden educational facility for the training of assassins, politicians, bloggers – or perhaps evil villains. I mean how do you think Sauron in Lord of the Rings books got his start?
In addition there are any number of writing prompt websites around although I tend to steer clear of them seeing as I have a pretty good idea of what I need and I find they tend to muddy the waters.
Looking into your own past may be quite fruitful. You don’t necessarily need a great deal of life trauma to provide some useful input into your writing. Thinking back on some of the routine activities in which you engaged while in high school may be quite productive. Probably you’re going to have to enhance them a little – but after all, you are a writer for heaven’s sake so embellishing – I mean using your imagination – should come pretty naturally.
Keep in mind that the questions ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘where’, ‘when’, ‘why’ and ‘how’ are your friends. Starting with the most banal statement and applying both those questions along with your imagination can yield all sorts of productive results. Some of them may be a little bizarre maybe, but that’s okay. If an idea doesn’t suit what you’re working on in the present it may assist in the future.
Remember, there’s a story in every headline, in every house on your block or unit in your apartment building, in every person you meet and in every bank statement – although the latter may be too depressing to use in anything but horror fiction.
Alternately titled Patterns in the Clouds.
Guest post contributed by Doug Lewars. Doug is not necessarily over the hill but he’s certainly approaching the summit. He enjoys writing, reading, fishing and sweets of all sorts. He has published nine books on Smashwords.com.