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Ideas for a Novel: Where do they come from and how can we find them?

A common question that I’m often asked is, “Where do you get your ideas for your writing?”  With NaNoWriMo upon us, many are asking, “How do you decide on an idea worthy of a dedicated month or year of effort?” I mentioned in the About Me section that I’ve known since I was young that I wanted to write.  I spent hours locked away in my room as a kid devouring the words of Thomas Hardy, Louisa May Alcott, Shakespeare, Judy Blume, Alice Walker.  You name it and I wanted to read it.  Reading inspired me.  I wanted to read more and I wanted to write. I always said:

If someday I can, through just the right combination of words, make someone feel the way some of my favorite authors have made me feel, I will consider my life successful.

The problem? I knew that I wanted to write.  I just didn’t know what I wanted to write about.  I had that same question that many of you do. Non-fiction came easy – and still does.  Fiction was more challenging.  All of my ideas felt cliche or overdone. I was convinced that I didn’t have muse.  It took me a long time to realize that the muse has to be nurtured.  Mine especially likes Peppermint Patties when I’m on deadline.  Sweet treats or not, a muse doesn’t just show up and hand you ideas on a silver platter.  She drops hints along the way, and it’s our job as writers to follow the breadcrumbs one by one to a great story.

Once my muse who claimed to be shy for so long suddenly decided she was an extrovert, I was swamped with more ideas for fiction than I could possibly write in a lifetime.  I was shocked because I didn’t know what had happened to open these floodgates.  Was it a wealth of life experiences? Probably. Was it the maturity that comes with a career and parenthood? Possibly.  Or had I tapped into something more important? Definitely.

Around the time that my well of inspiration started to overflow, I had finally settled comfortably into my own skin.  Along with this self-confidence comes an acceptance of all the things that interest you – good or bad.  You quit making choices about what you like and dislike based on the opinions of other, and you start listening to your gut.  And when you really start to focus on what interests you, connections fall into place that you didn’t even know were there.  All it takes is listening to those quiet voices that perk up when you find something to which you’re drawn. 

Let me give you a few examples.  In 1998, I visited New Orleans for the first time.  I fell in love with the city – the music, the food, the rich history.  I was particularly taken with a photograph on display at the New Orleans Jazz Museum of the lakefront camps at Lake Pontchartrain.  There was something about the idea of an entire summer community on stilts that thrilled me.  I filed that away as something fascinating and didn’t think twice about it…until….2005.  In 2005, the lakefront camps came rushing back to me.  Perhaps it was all the news coverage surrounding Hurricane Katrina, but I couldn’t get them out of my head. That same summer, we visited my husband’s hometown in Indiana and found an LP recorded by Louis Armstrong in 1923.  I had no idea that Armstrong recorded in Indiana – let alone in my husband’s hometown.  Shortly thereafter, I read an article in Smithsonian magazine about Rudolph Valentino.  Now Lake Pontchartrain and Gennett Records might fit together for the average muse, but throw in Rudolph Valentino, and where does that leave you?  For most people, nowhere.  For me, I was suddenly hit with the idea for my first musical.  By listening to those tiny itches in my brain, the connections began growing.  Now I have a work in progress due to be completed in 2012.

An exercise that helps this process along is to brainstorm a list.  Author Holly Lisle, discusses this on her blog and in her course, How To Think Sideways.  She recommends six lists, but the one I like the most is “I am drawn too…” My list is over 100 items longs but some of the more interesting ones that tumbled out were:

  • Insane asylums
  • Coincidences
  • Teenagers who travel in packs
  • Round barns
  • Caste systems
  • Houses on stilts
  • The exchange of artistic ideas
  • Clouds lit up by the sun
  • The effects of psychotropic drugs
  • British accents
  • Fire lookout towers
  • Things that glow in the dark
  • Moments of honest admittance
  • The few people who are homeless by choice

How’s that for a random list of ideas?  I specifically chose two to share because once I got this list down on paper, the muse started making wild connections.  Fire lookout towers and moments of honest admittance started swimming in my brain incessantly.  On a late-summer ride on the Georgetown narrow gauge railroad in Colorado, I learned about powder monkeys, the kids who carried the bags of gunpowder when they built the railroad in the late 1800s. Combine this menagerie with a story I heard on NPR about a lost lake in the mountains near Crested Butte, and I had the genesis of a new novel project. 

Each of us as writers has our own way of finding inspiration. Some have a dream, write it verbatim and turn it into a bestselling novel.  Others turn their childhood experiences into award-winning memoirs. And still others overhear a snippet of conversation on the train and create an entire television series.  The common theme with all of these examples is that the authors are drawn to their subjects.  And not just their overriding themes, but the characters, textures or locations that move them.  Good writers infuse their work with things to which they are drawn.  Things that fascinate them, things that repulse them. Things that keep them coming back to the page every day for as long as it takes.

So start with a list.  Then focus on tuning in to the things that make your brain itch.  You just might have the makings of a novel right in front of you. 

How about you?  Where do you find your best ideas for fiction?

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24 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ratan Kaul #

    Hi.

    I am an author based in India. I chanced upon to view your blog which is very interesting as it has valuable and practical tips about developing ideas for fiction writing. It was also good to know that you’ve been interested in writing historical novels.

    Two years back I had also been looking for ideas for my debut historical romance novel, which is now ready for publishing on Amazon/kindle. For my thought process , particularly regarding the seeding of the story, you may like to view my blog http://ratankaul.blogspot.com/

    It feels good to be sharing thoughts with you. The colors and the setting in the picture on the top of your “About Me” post are indeed captivating.

    Thanks

    Ratan

    October 29, 2011
    • Thanks for stopping by, Ratan. Congrats to you on your debut novel. I’d love to hear more about your writing process. Have a great November.

      October 31, 2011
  2. My inspiration and ideas come to me randomly. I have quite a vivid imagination and it’s constantly running so even the tinniest thing, such as seeing a spider crawl across the floor, can spark an idea in my brain.

    Great post and look forward to your first musical! 🙂

    October 29, 2011
  3. As primarily a memoir writer, my inspiration for my first fictional piece comes from life. The best part is being able to tell what I wish would’ve happened instead of what actually happened. Quite freeing and therapeutic I might say!

    October 29, 2011
    • Writing can be some of the best therapy, ucanpreschool. I love the idea of rewriting your reality to make it how you’ like it to be. Have a great November and happy writing.

      October 31, 2011
  4. Current and historic news stories, odd and strange stories I read on the ‘Net and personal stories of people who had certain adventures or experiences. There’s so much out there from which stories can be created.

    October 29, 2011
    • I completely agree with the news stories suggestion, Werner. I find it hard to listen to the radio in my car without hearing something that plants a literary seed. Happy writing and thanks for stopping by.

      October 31, 2011
  5. I can relate to your post. I find it easy to write non-fiction and memoir. But fiction is a tough one. Next month with NaNoWriMo, I’m attempting my first novel (which is really a fictionalized account of a memoir). I’m scared and excited at the same time. We’ll see where it leads. And I love the idea of the “drawn to” list. Will have to try that soon.

    October 29, 2011
  6. I write mystery’s best which is weird because when I was a kid I thought I would never be able to figure out a good plot, I’m still not good enough to publish but your post has given me some great ideas to help improve my writing so thank you!!

    October 30, 2011
    • I understand what you mean about complicated plots in mysteries. How great to explore that genre. Good luck with your writing, lindacee.

      October 30, 2011
  7. I was having trouble coming up with a novel idea for NaNoWriMo, so I tried making lists. It worked! I put a few of the bullet points together and came up with a workable plot! Thanks for the idea!

    Sarah

    October 31, 2011
    • I’m so glad that the list helped, Sarah. Keep me posted on your NaNoWriMo progress.

      October 31, 2011
  8. osozereposo #

    Great post! Ideas are everywhere, especially in strangers and overheard conversations. My sister (who is an actress) and I play “find the inspiration” when we’re out places. Actors steal characters too. They meet an interesting or strange person and work his or her mannerisms or quirks into their performances.

    October 31, 2011
    • You’re absolutely right, osozereposo. I met a woman who was accepting donations at Goodwill ten years ago, and she has appeared in one form or another in three of my stories. Thanks for stopping by.

      October 31, 2011
  9. Ooh, I got to try this. I recently discovered that I’d rather write an exciting pulp novel, than a horrible literary one – which is what I’ve been producing over the last years. Seriously, I can’t help being drawn to fantastical creatures – preferably of my own creation -, now can I? ^^

    October 31, 2011
    • You have to go with your gut, linebetween. If it’s telling you that pulp fiction with fantastical characters is your thing, I say, go for it. Have a great November.

      October 31, 2011
      • It’ll probably still be a long time coming, this fantsy/detective novel of mine, but I don’t mind that. I know not to force myself.

        By the way, I’ve tried your list idea, and it certainly sparked some interesting connections – whether they are workable or not, remains to be seen. I have this thing for certain statues of saints that might give some depth to one of my more problematical characters. And a couple of my monsters, too, come to think of it. See, it’s working already. So, in the spirit of your blog post about thankfulness: thanks, and you can expect me to keep reading this blog.

        Good luck with your November writing project!

        November 1, 2011
      • I love when those random connection start to take shape It really puts the meat on the bones of a good story. And the statues of saints is awesome! What a great visual! Keep up the good work, and I look forward to hearing more about your writing.

        November 1, 2011
  10. I was at a Cheryl Wheeler concert five years ago. That day my 17 year-old son came up with a sing-song rhyme for my dogs. Cheryl played the Ghandhi Buddha song; I heard Dan’s silly song in my head and the unfolding of a story happened for the duration of the show as if I was downloading from a combination of what tugs at my heart and some canine muse patroling the ethers. This is my first attempt at fiction and NaNoWriMo…I’m a journalist for God’s sakes!
    Wish me luck.

    October 31, 2011
    • Isn’t it amazing how ideas strike you at such crazy times? Have a great first NaNo, dogontherange. We journalists need to stick together. Let me know how toning up those fiction muscles work for you. Thanks for stopping by.

      October 31, 2011
  11. How funny. I started my blog a few days ago with a short piece on what inspired me: walking past an odd-looking man on a bridge. That afternoon, ideas suddenly started flowing. I loved what you wrote here, and really resonate with the comments about thinking you had no muse and settling comfortably into your own skin. I look forward to reading your posts this coming month.

    November 1, 2011

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