How Do Writers Come Up With Ideas?
Where do You Get Your Ideas?
As a writer, I get asked a lot of questions. The most common one, aside from “Why are you like this?” or “What’s wrong with you?” is “Where do you get your ideas?” I’m sure most of you have heard this time and again too.
I mean though… where the heck do they come from?
I like to imagine they come from a colossal warehouse located in another dimension. Endless aisles of file boxes stacked infinitely high, sorted by type. Scurrying, gnome-like creatures with glasses bustle about, pulling down the correct box, extracting the exact file needed, and rushing to the pneumatic tubes that connect to writers’ brains.
There’s a command center where larger, more intelligent goblins track incoming requests for ideas, sent either directly from the writer, or their muse. They operate a massive switchboard, like something out of an Earth-circa-1960s telephone company, scrambling to fill as many idea orders as possible at breakneck speed.
Occasionally, there’s a bottleneck, or a goblin or gnome stumbles, drops the idea, spilling it everywhere. Production is drastically slowed, and several writers suddenly start complaining about “blockage”. If repairs aren’t implemented quickly enough, those writers could develop “imposter syndrome” or even despair that they’ll never write again.
That’s one theory.
Another good one is that writers put money under their pillows each night, and, when they wake, the Idea Fairy has taken the cash and left them with a wonderful story in its place.
We could buy ideas on the Black Market from shady characters in trench coats.
Or steal them from unsuspecting children. After all, they are practically bursting with ideas. They won’t miss a few.
In reality, of course, ideas are everywhere. Creative people are just more open to them. I think, like children, we haven’t lost that connection with wonder and awe. Sure, it’s probably dulled over time, with life’s experiences pummeling some of the joy out of us… I might be projecting a bit there. But even adversity doesn’t stop us. In fact, we use adversity to our advantage. I’ll give you an example: when my wife died back in 2018, I went through a period of unparalleled pain and rage, where I honestly just wanted to die so it would stop. Fun! The thing is though, even while I was in the thick of it, part of my brain was cataloging what I was feeling, filing it away (in that colossal warehouse full of scuttling gnomes) to be used in fiction later. Part of me is always doing this. It stays separate, aloof, detached, observing everything. This is not where ideas come from, per se, but it sure seems to be how they get used. At least by me. Your mileage may vary.
Let me toss an analogy at you. There’s a lake. There are fish in it. The fish hang out in certain areas. Who knows why? Fish have tiny brains and make tiny fish decisions I don’t understand. Anyway, the local fisherfolk know where the fish hang out. They have learned this through trial and error. They fish those spots, though not just one, because they know that you have to allow the fish population to grow back. Ideas are like fish. They congregate in certain areas, certain situations. We, as writers, need to hang out in those spots, so we can catch them.
Some of the best places to find ideas are in books. Seems obvious, right? Clearly, I’m not talking about plagiarizing other writers here. But, if you read, and you should, vigorously, you will inevitably be inspired by other writers. I’ve had stories come together based on two or more things I read and they somehow blended into something new. This is also an excellent way to learn more about the craft, but that’s a different topic.
Ideas can also be found where people are talking. Eavesdrop on conversations. Maybe don’t be obvious about it, as you’re likely to alienate, or in my case frighten, those talking. But you’d be amazed at the bizarre things you overhear by listening.
Walk. That’s right. Take long walks. This is a great way to get your brain working, and you might be inspired by the fall colors, or birdsong, or a car crash, or…it goes on and on.
Do some other kind of art. Sing. Play an instrument. Draw. Sculpt. Doesn’t matter. Do it badly even. Don’t try to impress anyone with it. Honestly, don’t do that with writing either. It’s going to ring falsely if you do. The point is, doing things outside your comfort zone, that are still creative, can spark ideas.
Most important, I think, is to remain open to possibilities. To embrace the odd. Don’t shut down an idea because it’s weird, or uncomfortable. Don’t walk away from a story because you wonder if anyone will like it. If an idea comes to you, via some natural manner or because the goblin at the switchboard shot it directly into your brain, write that puppy down. Get it on paper (or screen, or thumb drive, or whatever). Put it out in the world. Someone might just love it. Even if that someone is you. That’s enough.
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Ken MacGregor writes stuff. Sometimes, he edits stuff too.
He has two story collections: AN ABERRANT MIND, and SEX, GORE & MILLIPEDES, a young adult novella: DEVIL’S BANE (YA winner of the 23rd annual Critters Readers Poll), a co-written (with Kerry Lipp) novel: HEADCASE (available in serialized form), and is a member of the Great Lakes Association of Horror Writers (GLAHW). He is a somewhat regular contributor to HorrorTree with his column Brain Babies. He has also written TV commercials, sketch comedy, a music video, some mediocre poetry, and a zombie movie. Ken is the Managing Editor of Collections and Anthologies for LVP Publications. He’s curated two anthologies: BURNT FUR for Blood Bound Books, and STITCHED LIPS for Dragon Roost Press..
When not writing, Ken drives the bookmobile for his local library. He lives with his kids, two cats, and the ashes of his wife.
Ken can be found at the staggeringly egocentric-named website kenmacgregor.com.