On Writing – The Origin of Ideas

There are questions that appear and re-appear in a cycle that seems endless.  This is the one that puzzles and annoys me the most.

Where do you get your ideas?

Good God, where DON’T I get them?  Ideas for stories are everywhere.  They litter the streets and halls of everyone’s life.  Like leaves in the autumn, ideas are blown in all directions and pile themselves around your feet.  This next bit is going to sound mean to some, but that’s not my intent at all.

If you can find an idea for a story, you’re not paying attention.

Seriously.  Story ideas are everywhere.  It doesn’t matter what genre you prefer as a writer.  Look up, look out, just look.  There are stories ideas everywhere.  Here’s how to find them.

Go someplace where people are.  It doesn’t matter what kind or age. It doesn’t matter how many, so long as there are some.  A busier place means more targets of opportunity, but not necessarily more ideas.  A mall, a college campus, a coffee shop, pick someplace where you can sit for a while without drawing official attention. (If yo do draw attention, tell them you’re a writer looking for story ideas.  They may tell you to move on, but they will think you a harmless kook)

Now watch the people.  Watch them individually or in groups.  What’s happening?  What might be happening?  A young man on his phone.  Too far away to hear the conversation, so make up your own.  Is he happy, sad, business-like?  What’s the story idea?  A beloved has left him, dead or simply bored.  The job he interviewed for has called.  Yes or No?  He’s a spy.  A hired killer.  An alien from another dimension.  A struggling author.  What’s the story?

Write down the ideas.  Quick sketches of the idea, the character, the setting.  Then move on to the next person or group.  In an hour you should have a handful or more ideas.  Take them back and get to work.

At this point, I can hear some people shaking their heads (there’s this tiny, little rattle…).  “But I write fantasy/science fiction/some other imaginative form.  These everyday people with their everyday lives have nothing to do with my kind of writing.”


In “The Lord of the Rings”, Aragorn has a future father-in-law who doesn’t think much of him.  King Arthur’s wife has an affair with his best friend.  Luke Skywalker has issues with his father.  In “Pebble In The Sky,” Issac Asimov throws a man into the future as he steps over a child’s toy. How much more mundane can you get?  Once you find an idea, then you say, “How would that play in my universe?”  On a distant planet, what would a young alien be worried about?  How would he/she/ix communicate?  Maybe a human man finds himself suddenly in another dimension and is trying to figure out what to do.

Ideas are a beginning, a seed.  That seed will grow based on how you take care of it.  A different context is like a different kind of soil.  While a radish seed will always grow a radish, story ideas can grow into the most diverse and amazing things.

The best part is that they are everywhere you look.  That’s where you find your stories.


*   Lovely little word, piffle.  I’ve used it for years, but not everyone seems to know it.  It means something that is ridiculous, nonsense, trivial.  It’s been around since the 1840s.

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