Friday, October 15, 2010

My Ten Answers to Every Writer's Favorite Question: Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

(A few years ago, I participated in a writer's night at the local public library, where about a dozen writers were given twenty minutes each to talk about their writing. This is how I stayed within the time limit.)

In No Particular Order:

1) Let odd impulses lead you.
I got the idea for the pivotal clue (“UDJ”) in Irregardless of Murder from a license plate. Sitting in traffic, I started mentally tinkering with what those letters could mean. Turns out, the letters have several meanings, and it became a tantalizing part of the ultimate puzzle in the book. Don’t trust your memory when these ideas strike, though. In a coat pocket, I recently found a long-forgotten paper packet of Splenda with the words “You’re killing him!” scribbled on it. It was to remind me of a plot twist I thought of for the second book in the Miss Prentice series, Death Dangles a Participle. If I hadn’t written it down, it would have lost forever in a matter of minutes.

2) USA Today.
If I were teaching writing, I’d have my students take that back page from today’s USA Today—you know the one with the thumbnail news stories, designated by state?—and have them pull an idea from the stories there. There’s at least one good story idea per day, guaranteed. One was about a guy who was arrested for throwing baseballs at passing cars. A writer asks himself the question: Why? What led this man to do this? Is there a humorous or a tragic reason? Where did he get the baseballs? Is he a former player? Or a fan? A disappointed wannabe? There’s GOT to be at least a short story in that!

3) Suggestions from friends and family.
“You gotta write about that!” Whether it’s a distant long-ago relative who made a dramatic escape from marauding Creek Indians after the Fort Mims Massacre or a local criminal with a colorful M.O., sometimes your family members have great stories to tell, especially (but not always) the older ones. My daughter suggested that I base a story on a particularly colorful drug dealer who was caught while we were living in Texas, and I ended up with the basic idea for Another Think Coming, my Texas novel/mystery.

4) Research your past.
When I was a little girl, I loved riding on the Lake Champlain ferryboat that ran from NY State to Burlington, VT. I inserted that enjoyable experience in Irregardless. For drama, had one of my characters fall in the drink. But what would the crew do in such a situation? Fortunately, while on a visit to my parents, we took the ferry once again and I was able to get information from a prominently displayed poster on emergency procedures. I looked a trifle strange, taking notes before a sign reading “In Case of Man Overboard.” The information I gained, though, helped add verisimilitude to the scene.

5) Take a class.
A number of years ago, I took an online mystery writing course through AOL. I found the information extremely helpful. I was in the process of writing Irregardless, and expressed to the teacher that I had difficulty “getting into the head” of my villain. I just couldn’t identify. He responded with some very valuable advice: “Just remember,” he wrote, “a villain NEVER thinks of him/herself as a villain.” It was just what I needed to create my villain and make it believable. Not all writing classes are as helpful. You need to find and instructor who is familiar with the genre you wish to write in. Someone who specializes in romances may not be much help to a person who wants to write science fiction. Still, a basic course is a great help if you’ve never tried your hand at writing before.

6) Model your characters on real people, sort of.
Initially, the character of Lily Burns was based on my late, beloved Aunt Nellie Ruth Lynn, but as I wrote, Lily’s character took on her own unique qualities. Lily was more sarcastic than my aunt, more self-centered, much sharper-tongued. But Nellie Ruth did provide a starting place as a chic, attractive middle-aged widow. Currently, I’m working on Murder in the Past Tense, the third in the Miss Prentice series. My character, Nimrod Rabideau, an Adirondack hermit, is based on John Favreau, an actual hermit who wrote a book about his life in the North Country. Needless to say, the real man never tried out for a musical on Broadway or wrote about witnessing a heinous crime as did my fictional hermit, but again, he was a starting place. In reading about the real man, I learned that it’s possible for such an individual to be articulate, well-read and self-educated.

7) Check out your own area.
About seventeen years ago, the only supermarket in our tiny Texas town, Eastland, burned to the ground on Christmas Day. That is a genuine fact. The acrid, black smoke could be seen in the sky for miles around. Much of the town’s population abandoned their holiday hearths to gather and observe the admirable but fruitless efforts of our volunteer fire department. We took pictures and speculated what an amazing thing it was that the only day the store wasn’t open all year was Christmas! Coincidence? Mebbe? Mebbe not!
I haven’t used that incident in my writing yet, but I might.

There are all kinds of crazy weird things to write about in your town, big or small. In Birmingham, AL, there really is a huge statue that stands above the city and literally moons half the population. You can read about it in the hilarious works of Anne George.
Check around. Find out why that big old farmhouse just off highway 55 has stood abandoned for so many years. Or why there’s a post office window in that very old feed store in Carpenter, NC. (These are all actual things I’ve observed.) Can’t you just feel the wheels of your imagination start to turn?

8) Plagiarize, sort of.
When I worked as an advertising copywriter, I had a boss who highly approved of plagiarism. By that, I mean, if somebody hadn’t written something very, very similar in a successful commercial, it hadn’t been road tested and wasn’t valid. Needless to say, the creative department found this frustrating, but it is true that virtually all plots are based on a handful of basic ones. One source I read said there are only 15 basic plots. Think about it; Alice in Wonderland and Bob Newhart are both based on a very basic plot, one that I call “The Only Sane Man in the Room.” I’m sure you can think of others that have this same premise. The basic plot of my novella, The Applesauce War, was based on a musical comedy called The Fantasticks, which in turn was based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Sure, many of these plots have been used before, but as a character in Sunday in the Park with George remarked, “But not by you!” Just make sure you put your own spin on things, and they will emerge fresh, no matter where you got your idea.

9) Draw from personal experience. (Duh.)
Everyone, from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Lauren Weisberger (The Devil Wears Prada) has written about their own experiences. It’s especially helpful when you’re stuck for an idea. For instance, I needed a kind of old-fashioned disease for my heroine to experience in The Applesauce War. Fortunately, (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it) I had once come down with a rip-snorter of a case of Pertussis (whooping cough) at the age of  twenty-two. This totally freaked out the university infirmary staff where I was at school, but they consulted the CDC for information on how this nearly-eradicated disease was currently being treated in Third World countries and I recovered. Thanks to this, my character Verity had a medically accurate experience. (The trick with whooping cough is to remember that eventually, after you’ve coughed like mad for about three minutes, you’ll eventually get a chance to breathe, so try not to fight it.)

10) Write, and let the ideas come to you.
While working on Irregardless, I decided that my character Amelia would call a taxicab. I only intended the taxi driver to be an incidental character, but once I named and described him and gave him a couple of lines to say, I learned that he was related to another main character and that he had much to contribute to the story. Vern Thomas, grad student, part-time cab driver and nephew of Gil Dickensen, is now a continuing character in the series.

Writing fiction can be like that. There are times when I can’t wait to see what I come up with next!


  1. These are wonderful tips, not only for mysteries, but also adaptable to historicals like I write. Thank you, Ellen! Very entertaining and informative!

  2. Ellen,
    I so agree with USA Today. It's a great resource!
    Also, LOVE the picture of the wooden shed over water. Can I rent that for a writer's shack? :-)