Columns > Published on February 16th, 2012

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.

About the author

Richard Thomas is the award-winning author of seven books: three novels—Disintegration and Breaker (Penguin Random House Alibi), as well as Transubstantiate (Otherworld Publications); three short story collections—Staring into the Abyss (Kraken Press), Herniated Roots (Snubnose Press), and Tribulations (Cemetery Dance); and one novella in The Soul Standard (Dzanc Books). With over 140 stories published, his credits include The Best Horror of the Year (Volume Eleven), Cemetery Dance (twice), Behold!: Oddities, Curiosities and Undefinable Wonders (Bram Stoker winner), PANK, storySouth, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad (numbers 2-4), and Shivers VI (with Stephen King and Peter Straub). He has won contests at ChiZine and One Buck Horror, has received five Pushcart Prize nominations, and has been long-listed for Best Horror of the Year six times. He was also the editor of four anthologies: The New Black and Exigencies (Dark House Press), The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press) and Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk. He has been nominated for the Bram Stoker, Shirley Jackson, and Thriller awards. In his spare time he is a columnist at Lit Reactor and Editor-in-Chief at Gamut Magazine. His agent is Paula Munier at Talcott Notch. For more information visit www.whatdoesnotkillme.com.

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