I’ve read my share of author interviews, and inevitably the question comes up: Where did you get your idea for your story? I used to think that was a question interviewers used because they couldn’t think of anything else. 😆 But just this past week, an author (whose debut novel landed on the New York Times best-seller list) created a frequently asked questions page on her site, and she included “Where did you get your idea for …”

So I relent. Apparently people really are interested in where story ideas come from. I have a writer friend, in fact, who has expressed some interest in writing short stories but generally says she doesn’t think she could because she doesn’t know what she’d write about.

I’m familiar with the problem. When I was in fifth grade, I had a teacher who assigned us a story every Friday. My friends used to moan and groan. What could they possibly write about?

When I became a teacher and handed out my own writing assignments, the chief complaint I heard was, “I don’t know what to write about.”

Honestly, all this subject-matter angst has mystified me. In my own writing I’ve had questions about selecting subject matter for a non-fiction piece, but generally the issue is a non-issue for me when it comes to fiction. Finally I realized, perhaps I needed to tell other writers why.

As I see it, stories ideas come from everywhere. From an author’s dreams, his home environment, his work environment, from his childhood memories, from what he reads in the newspaper, from what happens in the grocery story or bank or gas station or library or church, from special days and from regular ones, from the hair dresser or from the dentist, from the generous friend or from the demanding neighbor, from his child’s teacher, from the Little League coach or the hot dog vendor or the ticket taker. I could go on and on, but you get the idea. 😀 Ideas are everywhere.

The key is in recognizing them when we see them. One way to recognize a story idea is by asking probing questions — things like, I wonder why she decided to finish college in a small school instead of the state university where she started? From there a writer can begin a list of “maybe” answers. Maybe she followed a guy she met. Maybe she got involved in a cult. Maybe she was following in the footsteps of her older sister. Maybe she was running away from her family. Maybe she wanted a simpler lifestyle. And on and on until the list begins to include the bizarre and improbable. The more outlandish, the more a writer is stretching her imagination.

Of course, each of these “maybe answers” comes with a “why.” It is in answering this that a writer begins to get a glimpse at which of these stories might be interesting to write.

So the real answer to the question, Where did you get your ideas, lies in observation and curiosity — and the great news is, with practice every author can cultivate and increase both.


Filed under Concept And Development

5 responses to “Ideas

  1. Kat Heckenbach

    Funny, I’ve always thought the same thing about that question, and when I’m interviewed I tend to cringe when I see it. But for me it has to do with not necessarily knowing *where* my ideas came from. Sometimes I can pinpoint it, but other times stories seem to pop into my head out of nowhere, and that doesn’t make for a good “story behind the story.” You know, “Well, I was just sitting on the couch and…poof.” 😛

  2. Right — not a particular interesting story behind the story, but in the end I think looking at everything as subject material will yield many more stories! If we wait around for a dream or for some other form of “inspiration,” well, it just may not come.

    Glad to know someone else responds to the question the way I do. 😉


  3. Henrietta Frankensee

    I agree. Stories are everywhere. It is difficult to keep them at bay, keep them from confusing reality. It is difficult to finish one with 20 others crowding for fulfillment. “And if I really told you where I got the idea you wouldn’t believe me because I might be making that up too.”

  4. Thanks for chiming in, Henrietta. You’re right—once we start seeing stories everywhere, it’s hard to imagine writing them all. Hahah, I like your quote. Do writers really do that? I suppose some might.


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