Ideas And How To Get Them

Perhaps no area of writing baffles new writers as this one does. I've been asked so many times the exact same question - 'Where do you get your ideas?'

There is no real answer. I cannot put it into a single phrase and say 'There you go - that is how I get my ideas!' I wish I could - I'd be a rich man. The truth is that my ideas - and most writers' ideas for stories - come from many different sources. Many writers get their ideas from their own life or career - someone who is a lawyer, for example, may write courtroom-based crime procedural books. A garage mechanic might write about how someone battles against all odds to tune his car to win a motor race. In both cases, they are using what they know to write about something they think might happen.

Get into the habit of listening - and carry a notebook everywhere! Why? Read on . . .

If you have ever listened to anyone say something along the lines of 'I had this most amazing dream last night - but I can't just remember what it was about' you may start to guess where I'm coming from.

Firstly, it's not about writing about dreams! I just used that as an example of the nature of memory. Sometimes your memory is sharp and clear, usually about significant events. Ideas, however, can flutter off down the wind, never to be recovered. Just think about it and tell me you have never had an idea for a story that was gone ten minutes later! So how to overcome this and retain those great ideas and thoughts that flit across your mind? Well, you could enroll in a memory-boosting course or practice mental control. Me? I use a notebook!

How simple is that? And yet so many writers don't resort to this most basic of aids. Many writers keep different notebooks for different projects - they aren't used to write the actual story in, just to record thoughts and ideas, plotlines and character points and such like.

However, the notebook I'm talking about is, to me, the most important of all: I call it The Idea Book. Mine's nothing special to look at - just a small spiral-bound notebook about four inches by three. It slips into any pocket and the spiral binding is great for holding a pen or pencil. It can be used anywhere, anytime. I leave it on my bedside table at night and if I have a vivid dream that wakes me, or I remember in the morning, I write it down quickly, before the mental imagery fades.

Some people think that notebooks are old-fashioned and use modern digital dictaphones or the like. I've tried them and yes, you can leave notes on them just fine. The problem I found was being in public and using one. Unless you're a pretty out-going character, the attention you draw to yourself using such a device can be intimidating - especially if you've just had an idea about a juicy love scene for your new romantic novel! Notebooks, on the other hand, are anonymous. Drag one out at the bus-stop and you could be writing your shopping list for all anyone standing nearby knows - not the case with a dictaphone. Budding writers are often very shy concerning enquiries about their writing and your trusty notebook will allow you to keep your ideas and thoughts private.

And don't worry if your handwriting isn't too good. As long as you yourself can read it, it doesn't matter. By all means transcribe it into a word processing document later but keep your notebooks! You'll be amazed when, leafing through them in the future, you find odd snippets and pieces that, when you wrote them, you just didn't bother copying into Word. That's one of the real values of a notebook - it's a repository of nuggets that may well lay undisturbed for years.

The very first short story I had published came about that way. I was flipping through an old notebook and suddenly spotted an idea. I couldn't even remember writing it down! I developed it, wrote it up, and got my first sale in a National women's magazine. If that had been the only time my notebook paid off, it would have been worth carrying it. I can tell you where my notebook is right at this instant - it's on the desk by my side.

So I would advise you to get a notebook as soon as you can. Go into your local stationery suppliers. Take your time about choosing one - it doesn't have to be expensive but it must 'feel right' for you. It's going to be with you for some time - until it's full, in fact - so make sure it's not too big or too small. Also, try to make sure it's a common make. Why? Well, swapping notebook types can, believe it or not, be very irritating (as I found out). Once you've found your ideal notebook, you'll want to stick with it.

And lastly - use it. This might sound obvious but using a notebook has to be habitual, not something you do to impress your non-writer friends, and the only way to form a habit is by repetition. Use it every day - even if it's only to scribble a few notes about how your day has been. In less time than you think you will wonder how you ever got along without it - and all your thoughts and ideas are captured forever.

So back to the original question - where to get ideas? I can only recommend doing what I do myself. Different things work for different people and you may find your ideas coming from elsewhere but here are a couple of things that work for me:

Listening to random conversations.

By this I don't mean snooping. It's just that often - maybe in a cafe, or on a bus or train - you can't help hearing what people talk about. If you pick up a conversation in the middle you can catch it 'out of context'. Believe me, I have heard people talking about things that I thought at first truly bizarre - later, they became mundane when I understood what they were talking about but I jotted down (notebook, remember?) what my first impressions were - sometimes ideas will spin off from that.

Newspapers 'fillers'.

These can be a rich source of ideas, as the subjects of these short-short filler articles vary from the amusing to the alarming. Again, try to jot the first thing down that you think of - it's the impression you get that's important. Maybe the slugline for the article catches your eye. The same thing is true for newspaper main headlines, some of which don't really make any sense at all!


Here I am definitely not alone. Charles Dickens trudged the street of London for hours on end. Reginald Hill also walks a lot and came up with an idea when once out walking that was eventually made into a movie. I think it has something to do with the mindless repetition, the automatic action of walking, that settles the mind and opens the ideas tap wide. It sure works for me - give it a try!

Keep quiet about things.

Oddly, many writers are loath to talk about ideas they have had - not from fear of plagiarism or 'idea-burglars' but from the notion that they might somehow evaporate or somehow 'go flat'. I'm not amongst their number but it can't hurt to keep your ideas to yourself, I guess!


I've found that, if I'm trying to develop the germ of an idea into a storyline and get stuck, a good night's sleep can work wonders. I don't know if it involves the subconscious mind clearing away the conscious rubbish to find the gem within but this also seems to work. Again, it can do no harm and may well work for you as it has for many others.

Keep a scrapbook.

Keep newspaper cuttings, magazine articles, in fact any printed matter where the idea of what's been written about interests you. It doesn't have to be in your genre - many books have been written on the basis of an idea from a totally unrelated source. It's an extension of your notebook that can be trawled through in the future, maybe on one of those days when you sit staring at a blank screen wondering just what to write about next!

Get ideas from out-of-copyright works.

Let me make this clear: I am not suggesting you plagiarise (copy) any work, out-of-copyright or not. It's illegal and does you no good anyway as it simply is not creative. DON'T DO IT. However, there is a huge repository of work where copyright has long expired and is a source of inspiration. Some examples: Shakespeare, Milton, Homer, Bunyan, Pepys, Dickens and of course The Bible (especially the Old Testament, which is a veritable mine of high adventure!). If you don't think The Bible an interesting subject for spinning a story from, try reading Robert Heinlein's 'Stranger In A Strange Land' - a massively powerful story that was an absolute tour de force in its day and really makes you think. Still one of the best books I ever read.

So - I'm sorry but there is no magic 'ideas shop' where ideas are racked on a shelf for you to choose as you wish. If there were, everyone would be writing bestsellers! The best advice I have is to try my suggestions - they do honestly work for me. The idea for a story is a seed and, just like any seed, it must have fertile ground in which to germinate. That ground is your mind and your imagination - and no-one can give these to you, simply because they are there already. What you must do is adopt a method to let the idea-seed grow - the ones above are just a few of them. So go for a walk, read the papers - heck, talk it over with your cat if that's what works for you - and sooner or later the ideas will come. They always do.

Next topic.

Index page  1. Necessary equipment.  2. The importance of the workplace  3. Choosing the right book for you to write.  5. How to plan a story.  6. How to make characters come to life.  7. Plotting your story.  8. Self-editing and the final draft.  9. Agents and Publishers  10. Writers' groups.  11. Writing competitions.  12. Reference works.