“Who knows where thoughts come from? They just appear.”
~Lucas, Empire Records
When I think about thinking, that line from Empire Records pops into my head. But do you ever wonder if it’s possible to reverse engineer the appearance of ideas to figure out a way to keep ’em coming? Is there a secret to making thoughts appear better/faster/more reliably?
The main character in my first book evolved from a writing exercise in Advanced Creative Writing during my senior year in college. A book I’ve been secretly scribbling on the side for the past several years (because my hobby is also writing), started when two songs in succession on iTunes shuffle created a “what if” scenario in my head that I couldn’t stop imagining.
My second book evolved after my first editor approached me with the basic idea that I could write a book about someone becoming someone else, and I spun that into a story about identity and self-actualization and a high school reunion.
My next book started with the first line. Staring at a blank page, pencil in hand, the words popped into my head and then I had to figure out who would say such a thing and why.
I know what I want to write next (and what I want to write after that, and after that, and maybe, just maybe, what I could write after that). I know that as we’re walking through our every day life, the “what ifs” can reach out and grab us. Writing exercises can be magic. Blank pages don’t have to be terrifying, because sometimes, if we stare at them with hope in our hearts, ideas just bloom. But even knowing all that, the thought of a future when I’ve worked my way through the ideas I have on deck leaves me feeling a little bit breathless.
If thoughts just appear, what if suddenly they don’t?
I also know, I can’t be the only one who has to wrangle that particular worry. So I thought I’d ask some other writers where their ideas come from.
“I’m journalist in my other life, so I’m constantly uncovering fascinating bits of research or interviewing people who are going through extraordinary things. The little nuggets or tidbits that I can’t stop turning over in my mind— they grow into my novel ideas.” ~Colleen Oakley
“While researching one book, I am always finding ideas for the next hundred. Fascinating facts I wish I had space to include, forgotten corners of history I wish I had more time to explore, amazing stories I wish I was writing. I jot each of these on a blank index card so that I won’t forget and add to a box where I have hundreds of these cards. Usually one persists in my imagination and I know just which card to draw when it comes time to start a new project, but I always pull out the others. I spread them all over the floors and tiptoe around each, seeing what else catches my eye. Then I see which of the cards I’ve set aside can be tied together to make an entire book. For me, plots are little pieces stitched together to make one character’s story.” ~Jessica Brockmole
“I get a lot of ideas from writing travel articles. My newest novel was inspired by a story I wrote about volunteering for the Champagne harvest.” ~Ann Mah
“My last several books have been a fusion of several stories that I’ve read about in newspapers or online. For instance, for Fractured, I read a judgment about neighbors fighting over ridiculous things. And then a few weeks later I read an article about a man who had been charged with manslaughter for running over his neighbor with his car. They had been fighting over recycling! These two things were the genesis.” ~Catherine McKenzie
“I appear to be one of the rare authors (the only one on earth?) who does *not* have 100 book ideas swirling in my head at all times. Rather, at any given time, I have a *single* idea — for the book I’m working on in that moment. Every time I draft a novel, I tell my family, “This may be my last one, because this is the only idea I have.” But once I’ve turned in the book, and have taken a bit of time to regroup, I find that the next idea always comes to me soon enough. It’s usually from a combination of (a) a sliver of an idea inspired by a public radio story or some non-fiction thing I’ve read + (b) a feeling/issue/life struggle I’ve thought a lot about and want to explore through writing + (c) an idea for a main character that comes from a composite of many people or is loosely suggested by one particular person. I have learned that if I am patient and open, a + b + c will happen, and usually quite quickly. And then I start drafting, and I tell my family, “This may be my last one, because this is the only idea I have.” (I’m reading Jane Smiley’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel. In it, she says she has had 16 ideas for books in her entire life, and she has published 14 books. That makes me feel better!)” ~Julie Lawson Timmer
“So far all of my books have been inspired by an article or true story. When I come across something that grabs me, I save it on a private Pinterest board of ideas. My latest was inspired by an article I read in Vanity Fair. Sometimes I’ll stumble across a person who seems interesting and I’ll pin their Wikipedia page, or something along those lines. Sometimes I’ll just take a picture of something myself and pin that.” ~Michelle Gable
“I usually end up doing a lot of brainstorming with my agent and editor and once we think we’ve hit on something, I’ll go off and do some preliminary research to make sure the subject has legs.” ~Renee Rosen
Where do your best ideas come from?