Where do you get your ideas?

When I talk to non-writers about projects there is one inevitable question; where do I get my ideas?  There seems to be this magical aura around the subject as though writers have tapped into some underground magical force that no one else can find.   Or maybe they think we’re genetically coded in some unique way to boost creativity.  That’s not the way it works, at least not for me.

They want to know where I get my ideas?  I keep my eyes open.  Wherever I’m going, whatever I’m doing, I’m paying attention and keep an open mind.  A dozen times a day, at least, something occurs to me.  The comments people make, how they move, how they look, what’s on TV, who’s at the restaurant.  Words, phrases, scenes, subjects, they’re constantly bouncing around my head and rearranging themselves in different ways.  Hey, that’d be interesting in a story.

I’m sure that isn’t an ability that’s unique to me.  In fact, I’m pretty sure just about anyone can do what I do.  Most people probably have a ton of good ideas for stories that occur to them.  But here’s the key thing: writers do something about it.  When one of these ideas occur to me, I don’t move on and forget about it, I let it wiggle around the back of my head for a while.  What kind of characters would be involved in a story like this?  What kind of plot would it have?  Where would it take place?  What kind of twist can I inject?

Sometimes I evaluate the idea and decide it isn’t that good, not all are going to be, but the ones with any promise get written down.  The really good ones, I’ll find the time to write out at least a page synopsis and notes so I can dig into it deeper later on.

But I’m always paying attention, always thinking.

Here’s an example:

A couple weeks ago I was struggling with the name for a project I was working on.  You might remember that, I wrote a post called It’s all been written.  Usually I have a title before I start writing but that story was giving me fits.  I kept checking ideas online and all the good ones had been taken, so I emailed a friend and asked for her opinion.

She wrote back an innocuous suggestion that didn’t remotely fit the story… But I thought it was a hilarious.  Immediately my brain kicked into gear.  What would that story be like?  What kind of characters would it have?  How would that work?

I could have disregarded her title idea and moved on because it didn’t fit my story.  Instead, I got a really amazing idea for a new one just because I was paying attention and I kept an open mind.

So, there might not be any mythical well spring of story ideas out there (if there is, point me in the right direction) but paying attention and writing things down is almost as good.

14 thoughts on “Where do you get your ideas?”

  1. I couldn’t agree more. I carry around sticky notes everywhere I go so I can jot quick ideas down when they come to me. At home, I have an “Ideas” document where I list all of the story ideas I’ve ever had pop into my head. It’s up to 60+ at this point, ready to go whenever I need it. Will I ever use them all? Maybe not, but they’re there when I feel the need to work on something.

    1. Glad I’m not the only obsessive note taker. I have OneNote on my phone so I can jote everything down and it syncs between all my devices with the app. I’ve got dozens, I’ll never get around to them all. 🙂

  2. I get my best ideas when I am completely spaced out – whether that is when I am driving or when someone is talking to me. I let go of the reality around me and let my mind go and it usually finds its way to a story

    1. Similar to what you’re saying, I get a lot of my ideas when I’m half asleep. There’s the period right before and right after deep sleep where the subconscious mind is mixing with the conscious. The mind is an amazing thing.

  3. Thank you JM for sharing your view on inspiration. I think that ideas come when our conscious mind is allowed to relax and gets quiet for a moment. I do feel that this is a little magical and comes from somewhere else that is not our own conscious or subconscious mind. It has been with all of us from the moment we have been conscious, so maybe that is why it does not feel that special. I think the reason that some people struggle to access it, is that they have lost their ability to “quiet their mind (or “zone out”) and listen”.

    My experiences with inspiration are similar to yours and I still get caught out at times.
    The other day I got an idea for a story just before I fell asleep. I was too far gone to get out of bed and to my notepad next to my computer, so I mentally resolved to remember it the next day. (Yes, I still use a pen and paper for that)

    Of course I knew that I had something to remember, but what was it again? I did not stress about it and trusted it would come back in due time. It took about two weeks before the idea was triggered during a conversation over lunch with some work colleagues. I ran straight to my car to get my notepad and wrote down a couple of key words to remember it when I had time to write the story.

    Mental note to self: “Ideas often come at unexpected moments, make sure you have a notepad handy at all times, especially next to the bed!”

  4. Stephen King once said he got his ideas from a mail-order catalogue. I’ve been trying to find that same catalogue but I think it’s out of print.

  5. I’ve started to carry a little notepad so not to forget them and you never know when a cartoon idea will pop into your head. Sometimes the sketch come to mind first and then you think up a gag to match or sometimes the joke comes to mind then create the sketch. Sometimes half a dozen in a day, other times nothing for two weeks. That’s the way it is. Thanks visit my blog

    1. I’ve always got either a notepad or the app on my phone. Sometimes I’ll get a line or an idea and it has to get written down or I’ll forget it when the next one pops in my head. Thanks for visiting my blog too!

  6. Oh I totally agree with you. Just last night at dinner with friends she mentioned something that ingrained itself into my writers brain. A new unusual title for a story. It will develop into quite a story and I don’t think she will ever have thought her fun statement at the time is going to develop into a story that delves into such a sensual mystery.

  7. Hi Jeremy, Nice post. My ideas present themselves when I first awake in the morning and am too lazy to get up and write them down. Eventually, I remember some of them. And then, of course, there are the muses. They can be a real pain. And then there are the elves. Not the same ones who cobble shoes while you’re sleeping. The kind who edit your stuff and usually take out the juicy parts.

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