Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Where Story Ideas Come From

One of the questions most frequently asked of writers is: “Where do you get your ideas?” It’s not a popular question among published authors. Maybe they consider the question too silly to answer, or maybe they don’t want to share.

I don’t think the question is silly, but I can’t always explain where my inspiration originated. It's amazing how new ideas weasel their way into my conscious mind. The process works in many different ways. Here’s one example.

I belong to a local face-to-face critique group that meets every other week. One of the things we do is exchange thoughts on writing in general. Last week our conversation went like this (with lots of paraphrasing):

M: Did you know Willa Cather is going to be here? I thought she was dead.

Me: Blank look.

M: My Antonia is one of my favorite novels.

B: Willa Cather? She’s dead.

Everyone laughs.

Me: I’ll bet it’s one of the historical presentations where someone acts the part of Cather. (I checked the next day, and that’s exactly what the event will be).

Our discussion focused on My Antonia for a few minutes and then wandered onto other books until someone mentioned Lord of the Flies.

Me: Lord of the Flies is one of my favorites. I thought the movie was excellent as well. I always wondered why no writer has taken the idea and substituted girls for the boys.

B looked at me for a moment. I could almost see the little wheels turning in his head.

Me: I think it would need a horror writer to do it justice.

B: Definitely a horror writer.

This might seem an amazing coincidence, but B writes horror. The idea was taking hold. We spent the next few minutes discussing how young the girls should be to make the story work. Will B take off in a frenzy of writing? We'll see.

There was another idea embedded in that critique group discussion. What would happen if the real Willa Cather's ghost showed up during the the actress Willa Cather’s performance?

If anyone who writes paranormal romance or mystery wants that one, it’s all yours.

There are many other examples of writers changing up a well-known story with a unique twist. Colorado author Paula Reed teaches high school English, and one of her favorite novels is The Scarlet Letter. Her book, released in February, 2010, is called Hester: The Missing Years of The Scarlet Letter. It's a fine story, especially since she abandoned Hawthorne's unknown omniscient narrator.

Ideas are everywhere. For a different approach, read Shon Bacon’s excellent February post on Ideas for Writing.


Patricia Stoltey is a mystery author, blogger, and critique group facilitator. Active in promoting authors in several genres, she also helps local unpublished writers learn the critical skills of manuscript revision and self-editing. For information about Patricia’s Sylvia and Willie mystery series, visit her website and her blog. You can also find her on Facebook (Patricia Stoltey) and Twitter (@PStoltey).

Bookmark and Share


  1. Patricia, you are so right! As I say (probably all too frequently for my family), EVERYTHING is about writing! Those ideas are everywhere, just waiting to jump on our heads like anti-zombies and enrich our brains. Now THERE'S a plot germ for your horror-writer friend!

    Marian Allen

  2. If anyone wants story ideas, I can lend them my kids. Just listening to them talk will give any writer dozens of ideas. Unfortunately, as their mother, I can only either manage them, or write!

    Fantastic post, Patricia. As you say, story ideas are everywhere- you have to pick the one that suits you best.

  3. This reminds me. When I was trying to write screenplays, I read: Take an old serious movie plot and turn it into a comedy, and vice versa. You can put a twist on ANY story that's out there. There are story ideas everywhere!!!

  4. Writers 'hear' things differently. Everyday comments take them to fantasy, murder and other worlds. It's so much fun when that happens.

  5. Patricia - Thanks for your thoughts about where story ideas come from. They really do come from just about everywhere, and one of the things that I think makes a good writer a great one is being open to those ideas....

  6. Brainstorming ideas is so much fun. I've picked up a few more just from your comments so far this morning. After reading Ann's words, I immediately thought: Key Largo as a comedy? Hmmm.

  7. Fascinating topic, post, and comments. Funny you should mention Lord of the Flies. I've been re-reading it with my granddaughter, who is reading it in her English Lit class. I had forgotten how frightening parts of it were.
    At my critique group yesterday one writer mentioned she keeps a dream journal and another writes down random thoughts and images on sticky notes.
    Donna Volkenannt

  8. Writer's minds are strange things, aren't they? I think what we are great at isn't COMING UP WITH ideas so much as mixing up really odd collections of ideas. We are puzzle masters.

  9. Now I know one other reason I miss my critique group. We used to have similar experiences and it was always fun to help brainstorm an idea once it started taking hold.

  10. One of the most interesting plays I was ever involved with is "Blood Relations" which has the ghost of Lizzie Borden interacting with the actress portraying Lizzie Borden in a play.

    Brainstorming with others can be a great source of ideas. I've never done it - but it sounds fun.

  11. I love all the interesting comments today. A dream journal is a great idea. The manuscript I just finished started with a dream, progressed to a first person short story, and is now a multiple POV novel.

    The play idea with Lizzie Borden's ghost is very intriguing. I'll have to see if I can track down a copy of that screenplay.

  12. Pat; FYI, it's a play, not a movie. It's called "Blood Relations" and it's by Sharon Pollock. I think there's a movie by the same title, but it's not the same story.

  13. Ideas really are everywhere. In your head, coming from the comments of others, in the characters you see in other people, on TV, in music, fellow passengers on the train, everywhere. You have to be open to the ideas and have a good imagination.

  14. I think the reason why it's not a popular question among published authors because they already KNOW that it's almost impossible to answer. :D Because ideas are everywhere. Most of mine come when I'm either trying to sleep, in the shower, or in the car. They fall out of the sky.

  15. Many of my ideas come from conversations of various types with various groups. Great inspiration.

  16. Great post! Ideas bombard us, but it's interesting to see that wether they are of value depends on the person who uses them. I often brainstorm character lists and then actions and then randomly tie them together as an exercise in the classroom. One time I ended up with 'Time-travelling Dog' and thought it useless - what could a dog even do if it did time travel? But, a sci-fi friend of mine had a use for him and promptly adopted that dog.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...