Where Do You Get Your Story Ideas?

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Author, Suzanna J. Linton tackles the tough question of story ideas — Read on!

One of the most common questions a writer receives is, “Where do you get your ideas?” Now, there are four ways to answer this. The smart aleck way: “I get mine at Sam’s Club.” The BS way: “Well, it’s all a part of my process, you see…” Or, the evasive way: “LOOK! A penguin!” writer runs away


Finally, there is the radical fourth way: answering honestly. And, the truth is, we don’t really get them from anywhere.


“Well, then, how do you know what to write??” you may be asking with a flabbergasted look upon your face.


There seems to be this crazy mythology about a writer and his story that either depicts the writer as either a mystic, a hermit, an intellectual hipster, or as a drug addict/alcoholic. And a writer may be any of those things, a combination, or none of them. Writers are as individual as, well, individuals. We aren’t some kind of strange breed of human.


Sometimes, a writer can point to a specific moment of inspiration. This could be an image or a word that sparks the mind. For example, Charles de Lint and a couple of other writers once wrote stories based on specific Brian Froud paintings as part of a series called Faerielands. Sometimes, a writer reads or watches something that interests them that spawns an idea days, weeks, months, or years later.


But this is only the idea. An idea is like an embryo. We don’t really know what it is yet. When people ask me where I get my ideas from, I find that I start talking about my process of developing an idea. That I can track and describe.


Ideas are also very fragile. If we begin to doubt the idea or try to force it in a particular direction before it’s ready, then the idea could die or come out malformed, never fully reaching its potential. But how does the idea become a story? I wonder if when people ask that dreaded question concerning the source of ideas, they’re really asking about how ideas become stories.


This is where the process begins. And, again, writers are varied. I can only speak of my own process.


I let the idea germinate. I think about it for a while, on and off. How long varies. Both of my novels sat in my mind for years before I wrote them as stories. The ideas are fed by a steady diet of movies, books, and life experiences. Books and articles on writing may help to begin building a frame but nothing is set in concrete.


The idea feels ready when I can’t stop thinking about it. When excitement makes it feel as if the top of my head is about to come off. In the same way that a pregnant woman knows it’s time to go to the hospital because of the pains, I know it’s time to head to my computer because the idea has outgrown its little room in my mind.


At this point, there is a character with a distinct voice and a distinct need. I may spend a few days or weeks ironing out exactly who this person is and what they need. And, perhaps I already know my ending, so I have to answer the question of how that ending is reached, though that ending will most likely change as I write.


First drafts are all about answering the really important questions of who, why, and how. The second and third drafts are all about making the plot work and make sense. Characters may be re-invented or quietly escorted off stage entirely. When it’s time, the book is given to others to read and the writer has a time to rest before more editing. (Writers spend more time editing than actual writing.)


By the time a book reaches someone, it has gone from a tiny idea in the back of the mind to a full-fledged story. And many parts of its journey are a mystery. The writer himself doesn’t even know how it got pushed in certain directions. The ending may even surprise the writer.


So, next time you’re tempted to ask a writer, “Where do you get your ideas?”, don’t. Restrain yourself. Instead, ask, “How did you write this?” That’s much easier to answer. Besides, don’t we all prefer a little mystery?

Suzanna J. Linton is a self-published author of fantasy and urban fantasy and has been writing since she was a little girl. She lives in South Carolina with her husband and their two dogs, cat, and Betta fish. Her latest novel, WILLOWS OF FATE, is now available in both print and as an ebook. She also rants and prattles on her blog at suzannalinton.com.


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