Where do writers get their ideas?

ideasSomeone asked me the other day where writers get their ideas. That’s a popular question, and one I have the hardest time answering because ideas come from everywhere at once and nowhere in particular!

It’s kind of a lame answer to a sincere question and I usually don’t admit in public that I don’t know, or I’ll give a vague answer. Most people don’t want to hear, “I don’t know!” And most writers are in the business of making people happy, so we come up with some kind of response.

Another pat answer might be that writers don’t find ideas—they find me. I’ve heard some writers say that, but it’s not true in my case. Also, that explanation sounds supercilious.

So where do ideas come from?

It probably helps to do lots of things that don’t involve writing to come up with good ideas. Vacuum the living room. Walk the dog. Make a pot of gumbo. Zap! You’ll get an idea, and you can tell a good one because it’s like getting Creole spice in that little slice where you nicked yourself chopping onions. Not exactly painful, but insistent.

I had a really good idea recently while watching a really bad movie. I mean, it was really an awful action movie without a hint of character development or humanity (but the explosions and special effects were pretty cool). So my mind was wandering … and Zap!

Exercise is always great for ideas. Walking and bike riding are good, but it helps to do them in a way where you are pretty much alone so that your mind churns away like the gears on a bike.

Sometimes I get great ideas when I’m driving, but I really try not to do that too much because, well, I’m driving.

The trouble is that writers don’t need one good idea, or even two or three. They need twenty, thirty, two hundred or three hundred good ideas. Some fizzle pretty quickly, while others go the distance.

One of my favorite writers, William Styron, once said something along the lines of, “Any idea that survives the hangover is a good one.”

I can honestly say I’ve never had a good idea as a result of alcohol. Of course, I’m not William Styron, who wrote “Sophie’s Choice,” so it may have worked for him.

Caffeine, on the other hand, sends thoughts bouncing around like a ping pong ball.

Agatha Christie one said that she got her best ideas while doing the dishes. There’s something charming about the thought of Dame Agatha thinking up the plot for “Death on the Nile” while rinsing out the tea cups.

Sometimes I’ll just sit with a notebook and a favorite pen, just to see what develops on the page. In my writing classes I often talk with students about brainstorming or pre-writing techniques such as clustering, listing and free writing. Sometimes my “brainstorming” uses all three techniques on the same page like an ultimate fighter mixing boxing and karate in the ring.

That’s OK. There is no right way or wrong way to figure out what to write.

In the end, I suppose it’s hard to explain to someone how it all works because it’s trying to explain a creative process that’s beyond explaining. You might as well ask electricity how it turns on a light bulb.

Have you ever tried to explain—really explain—to a child how electricity works? Now imagine trying to explain this concept to a time traveler from the Dark Ages. In either case, you’ll probably give up after a while and tell them it’s magic.


So where do ideas come from? Magic! That’s not exactly true, but it’s close enough.

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