Where do writers get their ideas? If you have to ask…

Am I the only one who, when I have to use porta-potty in a remote area (it’s surprising how many times I have to do this), expects a murdered body to be jammed in there?
I suspect I am not. I think most people who write mystery novels think that way.
I’m not sure which came first – my thinking that way, or my liking mysteries. Both have been with me my since my earliest memories. It may be a chicken and egg thing – people who think that way just naturally gravitate to mysteries. Or people who like to read and write mysteries just naturally think that way.
Mystery writers are frequently asked where they get their ideas. I’ve seen writers, famous and not so famous, asked this at almost every question and answer session I’ve ever been at.
My feeling always is if you have to ask, you’ll never understand.
Some of the more seasoned writers have a nice, smooth obviously well-used response. Others seem flummoxed and stammer through what to the listener is probably an unsatisfactory answer.
It’s a hard question to answer, because in my experience it’s like asking someone how they breathe or walk or blink their eyes – it just is.
Here’s what I’ve learned about ideas:
• Ideas are everywhere. They come to me day and night. I jot them down, rip stories out of the newspaper, send myself emails. It can be something in the news or as simple as a remark someone makes. Today I read a quote in a newspaper story, an innocuous aside someone made, and it spurred an idea.
• Wish I could remember what that quote was, because now I have to go through the newspaper and find the quote again and hope I remember the idea because I didn’t write it down. Ideas are like fruit flies. If you don’t make note of them immediately, they will probably die. There may be some residue left where they once flitted around and landed, but it will definitely not be a living, flitting fly. Ideas are important and when a writer gets one, she needs to hold onto it. That’s why there are scraps of paper and legal pads all over my house with phrases and paragraphs on them that would probably give investigators fits if I were ever one of those bodies found stuffed in a porta-potty.
• You can start generating an idea with the beautiful question “what if?” That’s a great way to get the pump primed. But you have to let it grow, let it take hold in your brain and get bigger. Sit back and allow it to happen and then other ones will come without the prompt.
The ability to see ideas – the big ones that a book will be based on and all the little ones that go into making that book good and interesting – is often overlooked when the tools of writing are discussed. I’m not sure it can be learned or if it’s something a person just has.
My guess is that it’s like a lot of other of those intangibles that go into being a committed writer – some people have it in spades, others a little bit, some have to work at it. Those who don’t recognize it or understand it, who muse “Gosh, I wonder where writers get their ideas?” as they sit down to write, probably are not going to have a lot of luck with it.
I’m frequently appalled at the lack of curiosity, creative thinking and observational skills I see in people around me. Those are the seeds from where ideas grow. But like ideas themselves, I couldn’t tell you where they come from.

About Maureen Milliken

Maureen Milliken is the author of the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. Follow her on Twitter at @mmilliken47 and like her Facebook page at Maureen Milliken mysteries. Sign up for email updates at maureenmilliken.com. She hosts the podcast Crime&Stuff with her sister Rebecca Milliken.
This entry was posted in Craft, Maureen Milliken, Of Interest, Writers, Writing, Writing resources. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Where do writers get their ideas? If you have to ask…

  1. Fun to read this, Maureen — and I love playing with “what if?”!!

  2. orpheusword says:

    Interesting article. Finding story ideas, we all have our own way of doing that. For me as a writer of medium length stories, it normally starts with something I have read in the news. I just need the first line of a subject, and hopefully I am on my way.

  3. I must be a heathen. I generally use TV as an inspiration. 🙂

  4. Karen says:

    I remember reading some successful horror novelist (Dean Koontz, perhaps?) said that he constantly asks the question, “What if?” for inspiration. He related the story of how he was driving with his wife and child in the back seat once and he would look up at them in the rearview mirror every so often at them and he thought, “What if I looked up and they were gone?”

  5. Pingback: Writers: Keep your brain — and your ears — open | Pen, Ink, and Crimes

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