Have you ever been asked, “Where do you get your ideas?” 

 Where do your ideas for writing fiction come from, and what makes them worthy of the time, effort, and creative energy we expend to bring that idea to full fruition—to craft a well-written story from it? 

One source of story ideas is from real-life experience.  Whether we are retelling a chapter of our own life, or something that happened to someone else, we must have come to the conclusion that that idea was worthwhile and that others would be interested in it, as well.

 Gleaning ideas from actual happenings can be tricky.  For many years, I taught a series of classes on “writing your life story.”  You can’t imagine how popular those classes have remained, especially with the older generation.  The idea that one’s life is unique or different suddenly takes on new meaning when others say, “You should write that down!”  It comes to mean, “Your life has been fantastic!”  It may well have been fantastic but when you stop to think about it, many, many people have had unusual, one-of-a-kind experiences at one time or another.  What would make a person believe that their life story would be the one people would rush to Barnes and Noble to pluck from the shelves and lay down a twenty dollar bill to buy?

 Many times, we, as writers, can draw from our life experiences as a bank of ideas for our fiction. But to write our own life story in full would generally prove to be a project that might, in the end, be a disappointing failure.

 Characters we’ve met in our lives also give us ideas for the characters we create.  Although we might not think of our sourpuss Aunt Betty as a “character” in real life, once we begin to write the fictional story we’ve been plotting, we might see one of the secondary characters begin to take on attributes of Aunt Betty–someone we haven’t been around for the past five years.  People we’ve met casually, or known in a family context, can firmly insert themselves into our stories–much to our surprise.

 Books, poetry or movies that might have influenced our thinking during our lives also can have an impact on our ideas.  I once read a book based on a song that was popular in the early 1970s about a young woman who was in love with a sea captain.

 Other forms of mass media can also add to our treasure trove of ideas. Articles we’ve read in magazines or newspapers spark ideas.  True stories that are fictionalized have become one of the most popular genres ever created.  Truman Capote’s best seller “In Cold Blood” was the book that became the catalyst for and set the standard of this type of fictionalized reality.

 Historical events from the past can also provide us with ideas that can either stay fairly true to history or take a wide turn around the actual events. Alternate history is a new up-and-coming genre that encompasses all types of fiction writing, from science fiction to historicals, including certain genres of romance, mainstream, and political fiction.

 Now that we’ve talked a bit about where some of our ideas might come from, how we know whether an idea is “story-worthy” or not? Have you ever started writing on a manuscript that you loved the idea for, but suddenly…the plot fizzles?  Maybe you get to a certain point and don’t know where to go next. (This has happened to me, since I’m more of a “pantser”, not a “plotter.”) Does that mean your idea is no good?

Or does it mean you are just in need of some brainstorming to re-direct your plot, punch it up, and keep the middle from “sagging”?

 Someone once said, you can wash garbage, but it’s still garbage.  Learning what is garbage and what is salvageable is the most important thing we need to know, as writers.  If you begin with an idea that you love, chances are, there’ll be someone else out there who’ll love it, too—your readers!  If you have an idea that’s “sort of” good, the question is, will you care enough, as a writer, to see it through to the end?

 Of course, everyone who has ever written anything for pleasure has had self-doubt.  Remember Miss Smith’s third grade class?  If the assignment was to write an essay, or a short story, you didn’t dare let that smirk of anticipation cross your face.  What would your friends think of you if they knew you were looking forward to actually writing a paper?  While everyone else wrote a paragraph, you couldn’t help yourself:  you wrote two whole pages!  And the secret was out.  Self-doubt set in the very moment one of your classmates asked, “Gosh, why’d you write so much?”

 So, you see, self-doubt has been instilled in us since we were in Miss Smith’s class.  It will never leave us.  We have to practice introducing ourselves in the bathroom mirror:  “Hi.  I’m (insert your name here.) I’m a writer.” This takes some practice for most, and is one of the most difficult stumbling blocks.

 One of the best idea-getters is the “what-if” game (one of my favorites.)

What if there was a man and he had a beautiful daughter.  What if he fell in love with a woman who had two daughters of her own.  What if they married.  But, what if the woman wasn’t what the man had believed her to be?  What if she hated his daughter and was jealous of her?


 I love this game because it leads to all sorts of possibilities.  Our stories can take flight in directions we never imagined, becoming a joyous surprise even to ourselves, the authors!

 Though we must battle our self-doubt on two fronts (a, will the story idea be interesting and good; and b, will I be able to write it, finish it, bring it to fruition through publication) reminding ourselves every day that we are professional writers and that our ideas are worthy is one way to combat that doubt.  I’m not a fan of critique groups normally, but finding other writers who are supportive through other venues is a great confidence booster.

 Something to think about:  The greatest “what-if”?  What if I wasn’t a writer?  That would have a terrible outcome—my stories would have never been written! 

 I’m curious as to how other writers come up with their plots and ideas. And how do most readers see them, once they actually “come about” and appear in a novel or short story? I’ve told you some of my ways of coming up with ideas. I would love to hear yours! And for our readers, what kinds of ideas would you like to see more of? What are you tired of? We’re listening, and we love to hear what you think!