It’s the most common questions writers get asked when talking about their work. Everyone wants to know: where you get your ideas? Do you have some kind of magical power to conjure up these strange worlds and characters? Do they come from some secret “idea depository” that only writers are allowed to access? Does Santa leave them under the tree for you on Christmas morning? It’s a mystery to so many people that I decided to take a moment to address the question of where my ideas come from, in an effort to answer that question for readers, but also to help new writers out there who may be stuck on how to start their story or take it where it needs to go.
The answer to this question is a simple one, really: the ideas can come from anywhere—as long as you keep your eyes open for them. That probably sounds kind of vague, so I’ll try to explain. Story ideas are all around us, every day; we just need to notice them, and then turn our imagination loose on them. It might be an idea that comes up in everyday conversation. For example, I might be talking with a friend about what happened to them over the weekend, and something about their story stands out to me, sparks an idea in my mind that I can then extrapolate on and turn into something of my own design. That story they told me about almost getting their fingers bitten off by a giraffe when they took their kids to the zoo is interesting, but what if that giraffe—along with every other animal at the zoo—was possessed by evil spirits and trying to kill them. Now, I have a story.
It could be a show that I’m watching or a book that I’m reading that sparks the idea. The show may be interesting on its own, it’s fun, it’s engaging, but I suddenly find myself thinking: “That’s cool, but what if it happened this way…” and I take the idea, transform it with my own thoughts and ideas, and turn it into something very different than what it started out as.
Or it could be a real-life place or person that ignites the idea. I could pass a creepy, run-down building on my way to work and imagine it filled with crazy, homeless cannibals who prey upon their neighbors after dark. Or maybe I see a strange person shambling around downtown that looks suspiciously like a zombie, and suddenly I have the workings for a story.
Many writers have admitted to using people they know in real life and turning them into characters. While I have never actually done that, I have used traits and habits from people I know and worked them into characters I was creating.
Granted, a lot of these examples are pretty crazy story ideas best reserved for horror and fantasy, but the same principles can work for any genre you happen to be writing. The point is that ideas for stories are all around us, all the time—we just have to be on the lookout for them. And if all else fails, I can always sit down and just start brainstorming on a particular idea or writing prompt, and write down everything I can think of. Writing it all down is the most important part. Even if an idea doesn’t work on its own, I might eventually be able to pair the idea with another, completely unrelated idea, and BOOM—a new creation is born, greater than the sum of its parts…kind of like that whole thing of putting chocolate and peanut butter together.
So there you have it. The mystery of where a writer gets their ideas finally solved—at least in my case. I’m sure other writers have addition places and ways they get ideas (and feel free to comment on them here), but for me, I just look to the world around me. It’s already full of brilliant, wonderful ideas, just waiting to be plucked from the air and used in my story.