The writing business · Writer basics 101

Where do writers get ideas for novels?

I’m hatching a new novel.

It doesn’t yet have a title, but I know its setting. So until something better comes along I’m calling it The Venice Novel.

I have a main character. He doesn’t yet have a name. I don’t know what he looks like or how old he is, who his friends and family are – except that these people will cause as much conflict as comfort, of course. They can’t be in the story if they don’t. Some of them will change, some will not.

For some reason he’s male because it feels right. This is not the time to interrogate my instincts, so male he shall be. If later he feels insistently feminine, I’ll switch him.

In any case, his gender is insignificant compared to his problem.

This problem is the touch-paper waiting to be lit and I understand it very clearly. At the moment, this simple-but-complicating problem is germinating the whole novel.

It’s too early to write formal scenes yet. I don’t know much of the plot. But certain essential beats have come to me in flashes. I’ve written them in a file called ‘Rushes’. One of them may even be the opening scene. Whether they make it to the final cut or not, they’ve told me a lot about him.

Ideas are everywhere. Each day, some part of The Venice Novel changes drastically. The next day it might change back. But even that increases my understanding of what the novel will be.

I’m reading other fiction with an altered brain, my invention function in overdrive. I’m second-guessing like mad. I read four short stories the other day and – without even meaning to – invented alternate endings for each one.

While driving, I surf radio channels for random ideas. I do that anyway because I hate being bored, but now I am on a purposeful hunt through the chattering spectrum of songs, interviews, reviews, current affairs and the whacky community radio station that sometimes plays recordings of trains. An undercover soundtrack is taking shape. The latest addition is Howard Jones. (Don’t ask. Yet.)

Today I left the house an hour late, and happened on a programme that gave me a sub-plot. It was a missing link, an extra lens for examining my theme. Less loftily, it’s a welcome source of humour and characters. A chance gift from the ether, because I left the house an hour late.

Where do novels come from? How often are writers asked that?

They come from moments as random and unrepeatable as snowflakes.

Thanks for the girl pic grisha_21

What do you do when you’re gathering ideas for a novel? Share in the comments!

If you’re hatching a novel too and are wondering what to do with all those ideas, you might find my book helpful – Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books And How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. Book 2 is in the works!

37 thoughts on “Where do writers get ideas for novels?

  1. “If later he feels insistently feminine, I’ll switch him.”

    That, in a nutshell, is why I enjoy writing so very much. It is the one single thing in my life I have total control over.

    My story ideas tend to be character driven. The one I’m planning right now was sparked by banter with my son, which introduced the title (Unprotected Sax) and the main character’s name. Because I’m a thriller writer, the story had to be one with elements of danger, single-handed rescues and high tension. THAT part we’re still working on.

    Locale was easy. I’ve written a couple of books based in Miami (my favourite American city) and this one will be there also, with characters from the previous books (cops, FBI guys, mobsters) all having their place.

    So now we just need to build the story. The why. The What if. The fun part.

    1. hi tony! Unprotected Sax is a brilliant title – what fun. And you’ve identified the ingredients you need – another few boxes ticked.
      It’s a little more tricky with literary fiction because there are no boxes to tick. So instead I have to look at what boxes I’d like ticked – really trying to guess what would please me if I found it in another novel. Perhaps that means each non-genre writer is in fact a micro genre of their own making. But exciting times. Good luck with yours.

  2. I’m stuck in the 1800s and with an historically fixed timeline so to start with I look for themes.

    The next story idea began when I wondered how difficult it might be to get a letter from the UK to a village in Portugal in those days. Then I look for real events which are poorly covered by historians, in dispute or which don’t quite make sense, so I can insert fictional characters without altering accepted fact too much. I guess that’s how most historical fiction is written.

    1. Jonathan, what a simple idea – but full of possibilities. Especially if we think of something we take for granted now – such as communication – and what hinges on this. Historical periods are a gift for exploring these ‘what-ifs’.
      I especially like your approach of looking for events that seem to leave unanswered questions. You can literally slip between the cracks of what people know.

  3. I feel you here. I’ve been fighting to get more words down on my (working title) Sleeping Lady novel. Then I wrote an email to a friend to give her a more in depth critique than comments should have.

    In the email, I wrote something like ten sentences about a woman and a zombie as an example. Now I can’t get her out of my head. Zombies won’t fit in my WIP. So I’ve been jotting down characters I’d like to meet, scenes I’d like (and hate) to write, very general plot ideas (I’m not a plotter), and basic world building. I wrote more about zombies yesterday than I’ve added to my WIP in two weeks.

    I’m convinced that there are zombies in my brain devouring every idea which isn’t about them. Sometimes, I think, the ideas find us.

    1. I like your working title. Perhaps you might even keep it… And how exciting to have developed an idea while critiquing someone else. But while you go with the zombies, are you worried you might drift too far away from your WIP? It’s tricky because you don’t want to lose touch with the novel you’ve got established.
      Ideas don’t respect these concerns. They just happen, or don’t.

      1. I’m really not too worried about it, honestly. I tend to work better with lots going on. So I plan to bounce back and forth as I feel the urge. Sleeping Lady needs to stew a bit anyway. 🙂

  4. The girl pic is gorgeous. Reminds me of Girl of the Limberlost which I probably read about 12 times. Weird, but there must be something in the ether re: Venice because I’ve also been afflicted with a Venetian theme but for a short stories/poems collection (some of which I might have, most of which do not exist). But I do have a title… So its a start.

    1. Hi Consuelo! I’ve wanted to write a Venice novel for many years, ever since I read Robert Girardi’s Vaporetto 13. It’s not that I liked it; although there was some fine writing I didn’t warm to the story much, or even believe in it. But something in it kept nudging me. Then this summer we did a short trip to Venice so I reread his novel – and began to see what I wanted to explore.
      Good luck with yours – I’d like to say great minds think alike…

  5. Your process sounds very much like mine. Ideas pop up from everywhere, characters start turning into real people, their motivations and conflicts start to appear, suddenly a vague idea turns into a story. I’m about where you are right now, working out a novel idea for NaNoWriMo. It’s an exciting time.

  6. Thanks for the insight in to your process. I’m amazed at how many different ways writers approach a story.

    My first book started with a well-defined character and a vague notion of a story world. I developed the plot based on what I wanted the character to learn about himself. The subplots emerged as I started adding more characters with their own histories and agendas. Before I started writing, I laid out the basic structure of the story with the major beats/scenes. Although I can’t start writing without an overall plan, I don’t plan the entire book down to the scene level. The connecting scenes are where I discover *how* the characters want to get from one point to another, and I love that process of discovery.

    The fiction writing books I’ve read describe writers as “plotters versus pantsers” and “character-driven versus plot-driven.” Overall, I’d label myself a character-driven plotter. But as far as I can tell, there’s no right way to write fiction: you do whatever works for you.

    1. Hi Daniel! You’ve certainly given an excellent description here of character-driven fiction. Everything – the main story and the sub-plots – come from people and their agendas. Sometimes I work in the reverse direction too – if something has to happen, I find someone who has a very good reason for needing it, or for doing something that might have that result as an unintended consequence.

  7. Is it hatching a novel or incubating a novel? There’s a difference. Hatching is the moment that the ugly little darlings break out of their shells and start demanding food. We could go further back and speak of fertilization, further back, encounter — further – attraction. And nowadays – putting an ad in an internet dating service. OK, gone too far. You, Roz, seem to be able to live with a high level of uncertainty which allows the creative juices to flow. The best advice I got from Nail Your Novel is: don’t let these wild ideas escape. Write them down and throw them in a box.

    1. Actually, Fredrica, I wondered whether to use the word ‘incubating’ or ‘hatching’. 🙂
      It’s interesting that you mention uncertainty. I don’t find it reassuring, because I’d rather know where I’m going. But I can’t decide that until I’ve worked over an idea thoroughly and something has emerged that fits with it.
      Glad you liked the box advice from Nail Your Novel. I’m still doing that….

  8. My novel, We Shall Overcome, published by iUniverse in July of 2007, was inspired by the beginning of the Iraq war in 2003. While reading a news story about a demonstration protesting the war downtown in my home town of Sheridan, Wyoming, I got one of those what if moments I get as a writer. What if a visually impaired woman like me was involved in such a protest, was threatened with arrest, and ran away because she was afraid of going to jail?

    I then remembered an encounter I had with a policeman several years earlier. He had stopped me to ask if drivers were obeying the white caned law. I thought, what if this visually impaired woman has a similar encounter and ends up falling in love with the policeman. Thus, We Shall Overcome was born.

    I have written numerous short stories, the ideas for which I got from dreams, television news stories, songs, and other sources. Lately, I haven’t had any novel or short story ideas. I’ve been concentrating on poetry and my new collection of poems that was published in December of 2011.

    Abbie Johnson Taylor, Author of
    We Shall Overcome
    How to Build a Better Mousetrap:
    Recollections and Reflections of a Family Caregiver

    1. Abbie, great origin story! And it shows that you often need a ‘this meets that’ element. What if this happened to me in a more dangerous situation? What if I was thrown into this situation with someone I can’t imagine getting on with? What if it was complicated by x, y and z and a bit more x?
      Even better, if you keep a note of it, you have an easy way to introduce the completed novel when you need to talk about it.

  9. “I’m reading other fiction with an altered brain, my invention function in overdrive.”

    Love that part — that’s exactly what happens to me! And though this sentence is specifically about how it alters your perception of fiction you read, I can tell from the rest of the article that it alters your perception of your entire life. That’s how it is for me.

    Things I see on TV, things I overhear on the bus, songs on the radio, news stories — my brain starts to consider everything potential story material. I’m confounded how these seemingly “random” inputs somehow become integral parts of the plot or characters. What would this story have looked like if I’d started working on it three years ago? Totally different, right? Because everything around me would have been different. Different “random bits” would have become central.

    Or would I have found similar things upon which to hang the story? Different details, but still somehow made of the same essential elements?

    Who knows! I love the process, though.

    1. Hi Teddi! Love this comment! That random element is part of the magic and the wonder. As you say, the bus conversations, the books picked up seem impossibly haphazard, but would I have found similar inputs from other quarters? Who knows. Certainly there are types of idea that are always going to stick with me and others that would probably never make an impression on me at all. There’s also the question of whether I would have chosen that story years ago, because if an idea appeals it’s because of the person I am at the moment.

  10. My story ideas are always a mixture of the familiar and the unknown. I’m passionate about biology so I will always see things through that prism but often my best ideas come when I’m researching something completely unrelated. Something catches my interest and then I start thinking about how that ‘thing’ could be taken to an extreme. Somehow a story evolves from those flights of fancy. 🙂

    1. ‘Taking an idea to the extreme…’ that’s a great way to start a story. Science is an interesting starting pint – when I was at school I adored chemistry, biology and physics chiefly because I could play ‘what if’. It’s probably what gets most science-fiction writers going too. If you could do this, then what…..? (Stroke chin and enjoy….)

      1. Exactly! I’m no scientist but I know enough to see possibilities. I guess most science fiction writers fall into that category unless they’re Isaac Asimov 😀 And those possibilities can open up all sorts of interesting problems for characters, problems most of us will never have to face.

        As a reader I love putting myself in the shoes of those fictional characters to see what /I/ would do if faced with that particular problem or dilemma.

  11. This is all fascinating – thanks so much for another great post, Roz. I’m hatching/incubating a novel at the moment, so I found all the comments really interesting as well.
    I’ve got a title, Two Minutes from Eros (bit worried I might be skewing the story because I like the title!), a theme and my three main characters. One of them is male, but I feel I know him fairly well. But another one is a young woman who was brought to England as a child from Ethiopia. I don’t know why Ethiopia – it’s calling to me – but I think it’s going to present me with difficulties.
    I’ve written a few chapters but got stuck, so now I’m writing detailed story lines for each of them and that process seems fruitful. I feel a bit overwhelmed at the moment but determined to keep going until I get a clearer sense of what’s what.

    1. Lindsay, what an interesting point about the title. I can see why you like it and why skewing the story would be tempting. Is it skewing or is it guiding you? The only way to find out is to try, and to see if you can keep it up without feeling like you’re being contrived. Very interesting question, though. Has anyone else found they’ve been ramming a square peg into a title-shaped hole?
      I also like your point about Ethiopia. It’s like my male character – and indeed Venice itself. I can’t explain them, they just are.

  12. This is a great question. It all starts with a character for me. Then it moves on to an area, a location. I build from that. As of right now I am currently working on a great story that takes place in Ireland in Killaloe and it takes a lot of research of the area. So I am stuck in research land. Thanks for this wonderful post and feel free to follow me as well on both of my blogs.

    1. Is it significant that so many commenters here start with a character? That seems to be a good sign. Thanks for coming over, Gab, and sharing some of your inspirational fairy dust…. (as you see I just hopped over to your blog)

  13. Thanks for your reply, Roz. I must admit to being limited initially by the title – seeing it as setting – but possibly suggesting love. Then someone mentioned the two minutes from … angle and I think that’s opened up some thoughts for me.
    And meant to say in previous comment, a definite Venice thing happening! I love Venice – I went for my sixth visit in May. I’d like to set some chapters in Venice, so might go for slightly extended stay next year.
    Do you think the fact that we all want to write Venice means it’s overcrowded at the moment?!
    But definitely agree with previous post – it has to be about character because people is what it’s all about.

  14. I just try to pay attention to all the little things around me. You never know what detail from real life will be perfect. Even in the midst of a rewrite (where I am now) I still find little things, overheard conversations, an ice cream truck, a beautiful building, that fit in where I need them.

    1. Little things that fit just when you need them… Connie, isn’t it funny how it happens that way? Once a novel begins to invade your life, everything seems to be related to it. Or maybe we become so monomaniacal that we only take notice of what’s useful. (That can’t make us easy to live with….)

  15. I’ve been working on a short story. It was inspired by an image I saw on a geeky sci fi website I like. In this particular image, its a massive arc like space ship hovering over a planet. From there, I just began asking myself questions, as if I was interrogating myself. This is where my best and most honest plot ideas come from. I question and argue with myself until I’m satisfied…in other words, I am functionally insane :).

    1. Hi Kevin! We’re all mad here.
      Your comment reminds me of a meeting I had with a publisher and ‘author’ I was ghosting. We were kicking around an idea for a story, and I was spotting the holes and flaws. Eventually, I was saying ‘What is the bad guy trying to do?’ ‘What is going to stop him?’ ‘Why is he doing it?’ ‘No, that’s not good enough, what about this?’ I was asking all these questions and getting the others to run around flinging ideas at me. Great fun.

  16. A snatch of conversation comes into my head and I see and hear the character. Place follows, then the problem. Little comes with rational thought, ideas float in and out, sometimes in the shower, sometimes at night, on a walk, in the train, mostly when I’m not thinking about them. Then I have to start the planning. The formalising of it all into a structure with chapters and finally the writing, although already there will be snatches of dialogue on scrappy pieces of paper in a pile on my desk.

  17. Mine usually starts with a single image, a place or a snippet of conversation between two people. I currently have a steampunk novel sitting in the doldrums, trying to figure out what to do with that. That started life as an image of a city sitting on top of a volcano.

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