Storyville: Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

It may be one of the most common questions that people ask authors and teachers when they get them alone, or raise their hands at a conference, university or reading. Where do you get your ideas? Since we’ve already explored a lot of technical topics over the last couple of months (cover letters and Duotrope) as well as some craft (finding your voice) and some process (tracking my story “Rudy Jenkins Buries His Fears”), I thought that this time we could talk about something more inexact and abstract: where to get your ideas.

First, this is not an exhaustive list. I’m sure that there are millions of different ways to generate ideas, but I’m just going to touch on the ones that I use the most, as well as the ones that I’ve heard of most often over the years.

WHAT IF?

This one comes to me primarily from Stephen King and his book On Writing (an excellent book by the way). Basically, King, one of the most prolific authors EVER, says that most of his ideas come to him when he asks himself the question “What if…” and then follows that rabbit down the hole. What if there were vampires in modern times? (Salem’s Lot) What if your beloved pet came back from the dead (or worse)? (Pet Sematary) What if JFK was never assassinated? (11/22/63) And on, and on, and on. What he does is find something that interests him, and then starts to think (both vaguely and specifically) about what would happen if that time period, or situation, or epic moment of somebody’s life happened, and then often, he twists it. The reason this usually works well is that the subject matter already has your attention—you’re into zombies or time travel or the 1950s. Then you find a way to make it your own. And then you follow it down twists and turns, often reinventing as you go.

PERSONAL ISSUES

This is something that I often do. If there is something that is really close to me- a bad memory from my childhood, something fantastic, something that is just carved into my memory- I pursue it. Maybe your parents got divorced when you were little, your father turned into a drunk, and you ended up living with an aunt that smoked a lot of pot and left you alone when you were only ten years old. Divorce, alcohol, pot, abuse, alone—there is a lot to think about there. And it doesn’t have to be you. Did you know two kids that got killed in high school? Was there an urban legend about the pipes that ran under the local hockey rink? What are your hopes (being rich, having a threesome, winning the lottery) and how can those wishes be fulfilled (in a good and bad way)? Consider “The Monkey’s Paw.” What are your fears (spiders, needles, failure, dependency) and how can you write about them? Take whatever personal issues you can and dig deep to deal with them, on the page.

EMOTIONAL TRUTHS

Think about the philosophies and ideas and belief systems you have, and the events that you’ve witnessed in the real world, in both good and bad situations. Dig into those. I did a lot of this with the literary short stories I wrote in my thesis. We all have family, how do I feel about mine? (“Moving Heavy Objects”) I have children; what will I do when they get older and start to rebel, grow up, and turn into men and women? (“Sugar and Spice”) What about past relationships where my trust was betrayed—we all trust, we all have to in order to survive, to become close to somebody- what if the betrayal is real, or what if it’s all in your head? (“Chasing Ghosts”) Look for those emotional truths—we all want to be loved, to be respected, to be valued. We all want to find our place in the world, to create a family around ourselves (nuclear or otherwise), we all seek enlightenment, answers, and fulfillment. This is a tough one, but if you’re honest with yourself, you can create some powerful stories when you speak the truth.

STEP OUTSIDE YOUR GENRE

If you’re stuck and don’t know what to write, why not try a different genre? I write mostly dark fiction, but in order to complete my MFA I had to write “literary fiction.” Now what does that mean? I wasn’t sure, but I read a lot, altered the way that I focused on certain aspects of life (such as sex and violence) and dealt with those issues in a different way. When I wrote a few magical realism stories last year, it was the first time that I had done that (“Fireflies” and “Flowers for Jessica,” the latter appearing in Weird Fiction Review in 2012). I had to look at stories that I’d read that fit the genre, and then figure out what the “rules” were, and then see how I could make these stories my own. Do some research, find a new sub-genre, some niche that you never heard of before. Or maybe you’ve always wanted to write a western or something sweet and romantic for your significant other? Play around—it could generate a lot of ideas.

QUIET TIMES

Always be open to suggestions. Maybe it’s in the shower, or on the toilet (I’m not kidding here), or when you go jogging. Always keep a notepad handy. When you are doing other things and NOT thinking about a story idea, a new title, a way to use that new word or setting or character you’ve been holding onto, you’d be surprised what comes to you. Let your mind wander, let whatever abstract thoughts you have just float about. Maybe it’ll turn into the “What if…” game we talked about earlier. Just be open and aware and quick to write something down if it comes to you.

DREAMS

This is another way to get ideas. Keep that notebook by your bed and if you wake up in the middle of the night screaming because you thought you were plummeting to your death, write it down. Whatever you can, a few sentences or bits of dialogue. Or maybe it is a hot, sticky fantasy or some sort of horrible mash-up from your childhood—just jot down the basics. If there’s a good idea in there, it’ll still be there in the morning. Chew on it, maybe something will emerge out of the crazy stuff your unconscious mind kicks around in your sleep. Some people believe that in our dreams we tap into something more than just random garbage, that it’s a link or portal to something more. Who knows?

THEMED ISSUE OR CONTEST

If you’re really stuck, why not take advantage of an upcoming contest or themed issue or anthology to help you write something? I find that deadlines always help me write. Whether it’s a magazine or journal that’s going to close for six months or an anthology that is starting to fill up, a set date, a line in the sand, always helps me to get it down. And as far as ideas, what better way to get the creative juices flowing then finally writing that zombie western or that flash fiction horror story about alternative histories? Obviously if it’s a contest and they say you have to write under 1,500 words and it has to be about a machine that tells you when you are going to die, that’s a very specific prompt. If it’s just a crime anthology, it’s definitely more vague, but the combination of an established genre and a deadline could be all you need to get motivated to play around and see what you can come up with.

PERSONAL CHALLENGES

This is related to the emotional truths and new genre categories we talked about earlier. I found out that I had several crutches that I leaned on when writing my neo-noir stories. So for my literary fiction, I set up some new rules for myself. First, nobody dies, not in the beginning and not in the end. Second, there would be no graphic sex of any kind. Third, there would be no twist endings of any sort. At first I thought, no problem, but after a couple of false starts, I realized that I was in trouble. I really had to rethink the way that I wrote, and why—I had to explore the motivations of my characters. And besides, I wanted to write something that my mother could read. Seriously. So, give yourself some personal challenges. If you always write in first-person, change it to third-person. If you only write horror stories, write something touching and honest where nobody dies. If you always set your stories in Maine, try writing about the desert. The point is, figure out what your crutches are, and stop using them—at least, for a little while.

GET INSPIRED

This can come from a wide range of interests. If you see a movie or a television show, or go to a rock concert, or a play or an art gallery, and are inspired by something, let that be your muse. Don’t worry—you won’t be able to steal it. If the movie Inception got you thinking about memories and dreams and reality, write about that. If the television show Justified got you thinking about the south and rural areas where you grew up as a kid, tap into that. Put on music by Radiohead or The Cure or Arcade Fire or Lady Gaga as backdrop and see what seeps into your mind and your words and your settings. I listened to nothing but The Cure when I wrote my vampire short story “Transmogrify,” and paid homage to them with a line about a thousand voices whispering. Go to an art museum and study the surrealists or the cubists or abstract paintings or whatever it is that you like and see what comes of it. (I’ll expand on the painting idea in a second.) Just be open to what inspires you, what moves you and when those moments happen, tap into it, ask yourself why those stories and pictures and songs affected you the way they did. And then dig deep.

PHOTOGRAPHY AND PAINTINGS

This is really just a prompt, and I’ll get to those in a second, but if you really get stuck, just start looking for photographs or paintings and see what happens. When I was writing my second novel, Disintegration, I started Googling the word “disintegration” just to see what came up. One of the images that stuck with me (and I’m actually talking to the artist about maybe doing the cover for this book, if I ever sell it) was a painting of a disintegrating bear by Luke Cheuh entitled, “Disintegration,” of course. Because there was the element of family and loss that image always worked for me when I got off track. You can do the same with photography. If you have a title or a word or phrase that really exemplifies something you are working on, or want to work on, Google it and see what you come up with. Or, if you have a favorite artist, just cruise their work and see if you can find something complex that begs to be a story. You’d be surprised how easy it is to generate a story from a single image

PROMPTS

I started to talk about this in the photography and painting idea that I just mentioned, but if you really get stuck there are a million places out there that can give you a prompt. You can get these from a class you are taking, from a writer friend, or from one of those sites online that generate a plot, setting and theme. Personally, I don’t do this very often. I like to be more involved, closer to the idea, but I know many people that have found stories this way. I won’t even post up links since there are so many of them out there, but if you Google “random story generator” or something like that, I’m sure you can find plenty. There are also books on prompts out there, but again, I think you can find something more personal. But hey, if you’re stuck, you’re stuck, right? And in the end, it’s whatever works for you that matters, not how you got there.

CONCLUSION

In conclusion, what I’m trying to say with all of these ideas here is to just be honest with yourself, and open to the universe, and see what gets your attention. You’ll know when an idea clicks—you’ll get excited to write it. If you’re at work all day and can’t wait to get home to write that story about the couple with the amputation fetish, then you know it has potential. If you know that the story about your father that has been itching to be written for years just scares you to death, then you must write it. Embrace your fears, take all kinds of risks, and leave everything on the page. In the end, you’ll find that these stories will resonate and have a depth and honesty that nothing else can.

Good luck!


I wanted to touch on some of the previously mentioned authors.

This is one of my favorite Stephen King stories and it actually ran at The New Yorker. Hey, that guy can write! It’s called “Harvey’s Dream.” Did you see the end coming? I didn’t.

Another short I mentioned earlier is “The Monkey’s Paw,” a fantastic story written back in the early 1900s by W.W. Jacobs that I remember reading in my childhood. Be careful what you ask for.


TO SEND a question to Richard, drop him a line at Richard@litreactor.com. Who knows, it could be his next column.

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Richard Thomas

Column by Richard Thomas

Richard Thomas is the author of three books—Transubstantiate, Herniated Roots and Staring Into the Abyss. His over 75 publications include Shivers VI (Cemetery Dance) with Stephen King and Peter Straub, PANK, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Arcadia, and Pear Noir. He is also the editor of two anthologies, both out in 2014: The Lineup (Black Lawrence Press) and Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk. In his spare time he writes for The Nervous Breakdown, LitReactor, and is Editor-in-Chief at Dark House Press. For more information visit www.whatdoesnotkillme.com or contact Paula Munier at Talcott Notch.

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Comments

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading A lot of Brian Evenson February 16, 2012 - 1:06pm

Where do you get your ideas? also seems to be the question most hated by authors. Is this a preemptive attack? Or do you not mind answering the question?

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies February 16, 2012 - 1:29pm

I don't personally hate it. I just don't always have an answer, even though I just outlined several ways to GET ideas. They can come from anywhere, and many times, when I look back months later, I can't remember where the idea(s) came from. Sometimes I know for sure (it was for a contest) or there was a specific prompt or assignment or something that I can cite. 

For example, I do know how Transubstantiate, my first novel came about, as it was in Max Barry's class and I remember the assignment. The novel I'm working on now, Disintegration, the only thing that comes to mind is Christopher Dwyer telling me he wanted to see me do something straight neo-noir, one POV, in a relatively linear story. Where the rest came from, I have no idea. Notes I started taking on the drive back from my MFA program in Kentucky. The thought that I wanted to write something like Will Christopher Baer. Beyond that, no idea!

Funny, huh?

nathaniel parker's picture
nathaniel parker from Cincinnati is reading The Dark Tower ~ King February 16, 2012 - 5:40pm

Where one gets ideas is easy to answer. They come from Imagination. How one gets ideas is the real question. And, as far as I can tell, they come from how someone connects Thoughts together.

If Ideas are the molecules, then Thoughts would be the atoms. Nouns and Verbs, Electrons and Protons.

If someone wants to know how to get good Ideas, just learn as many different ways to string thoughts together. Study how other people put thoughts together. Once, you've gotten enough Thoughts, you've got your Idea. String enough Ideas together and you got your Novel.

EdVaughn's picture
EdVaughn from Louisville, Ky is reading a whole bunch of different stuff February 16, 2012 - 5:58pm

Another great article Richard. I haven't been writing seriously very long but I get my ideas from some of the places you mention. The What If, the Personal Issues and when I'm driving around on my stock picker at work and there's nobody flapping their gums in my ear, Quiet Times. Luckily I haven't needed to use any of the others yet.

Also, do you really drive all the way down here from Chicago?

Boone Spaulding's picture
Boone Spaulding from Coldwater, Michigan, U.S.A. is reading Solarcide Presents: Nova Parade February 16, 2012 - 6:04pm

The only thing I have in common with William Shakespeare: I too rip off the classics...

(Prompt? Get Inspired? "Homage"? [Plagerism?])

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies February 17, 2012 - 8:03am

thanks for the comments, guys. yeah, @redvaughn i did drive down to Murray, but after defending my thesis i don't have to do that any more. wasn't a bad drive.

it's nearly impossible to "steal" from anyone, IMO. even if i wanted to rip off the plot or twist or core of a story or novel, i'd still have to write it. unless you're copying words directly, you still end up putting your own words on the page. 

and process is different for everyone. @nathaniel parker (great to see you here, too), if you're a plotter, it might be a different process than somebody who just says "i'm going to focus on one word, and that word is DISINTEGRATION and i'll see where that takes me." so, in the end, the process is what works for YOU. and we're all different, yeah? i don't always see thoughts as translating directly to ideas. sometimes it's an emotion, a setting, the history of a character. and that's what drives me. but again, everyone is different. 

partly i wanted to post this column up to show people that if you get stuck, and don't know what to write, or where to go to get new ideas, here are some suggestions. some people have no problem generating new ideas, they pull them from the ether on a daily basis. 

good stuff, guys.

Amcii Cullum's picture
Amcii Cullum from Columbia, SC; now living in Atlanta, GA is reading currently, several source materials for JavaScript and JQuery April 3, 2012 - 11:14am

The "what if's" is probably my first favorite concept in the, "developing a theme-" idea.  I love Stephen King and there is a reason: he is brilliant and overly capable of doing the "what if-" style.  He is a genius.  Thanks for your ideas.  I hope these concepts are influential to my prose in the future.

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies April 3, 2012 - 3:23pm

thanks, @amcii. let me know if you have any other questions!

Tom Nicon's picture
Tom Nicon November 21, 2012 - 11:14pm

Musical Theater differs from opera or song reading in that the music serves and heightens the manuscript, and characterisation is fundamental. Actors on the extra hand may be rather certain of the subtest and quality, but may have a fewer than solid vocal method.

http://broadwaycheaptickets.blogspot.com/2012/08/beauty-and-beast-musica...

Murasaki_Ducky's picture
Murasaki_Ducky from Austin, Texas is reading Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan. August 13, 2013 - 9:16am

I needed this. I've been off my writing game for a few weeks now. Thank you!

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies August 13, 2013 - 11:32am

awesome. thanks, MD.