Where do story ideas come from?

Or, probably more importantly, how do we make them our own?

No, I’m not going to lecture you on how to find inspiration or how to file the serial numbers off of something to make it your own. What I am going to do is give you an example of how inspiration can hit without warning and when you aren’t looking for it.

Those of us in the United States just finished the Memorial Day weekend. This is seen as the official beginning of summer, a time when schools are let out for the year (or they used to be). A time for sales and picnics and family. It is also a time for remembrance and tradition. One of my family’s traditions is to watch the Memorial Day Concert from Washington DC.  The first concert, aired by PBS, was held in 1989.  The emotional impact of the concert comes not from the music but from the stories, real stories, read by actors, of the men and women who have sacrificed so much for this country. It is their story, and the stories of their loved ones, that remind us so powerfully of the reason behind this holiday.

This year, one of those stories was that of a young girl growing up in during the Viet Nam War. Her father was in the Army, a Green Beret if I remember correctly. She loved her daddy and missed him so very much. Every day, she wrote him. She waited by the mailbox for his next letter to arrive. Then, one day, her letter came back unanswered. She asked her mother about it and, like most of us would, her mother did her best to put on a brave face and reassure her daughter there was nothing to worry about.

Then the call came in one night not long after that. Her father had been on a mission and he, along with others, were missing. MIA. Missing in Action. No one knew what happened or where they were. They didn’t know if this little girl’s father and his squadmates were alive or dead. They were just gone.

The family waited, as so many others did during those long days of the war, for word of their loved one. When news came that the North Vietnamese were releasing a number of POWs, the little girl ran into her room and started packing her bag. She knew they would be going to meet her daddy. Finally, after so many long months and years, she was going to see her daddy again.

Only they didn’t make that trip. One of the hardest things her mother had to do was tell this lovely little girl, this daughter who never gave up, that her daddy’s name wasn’t on the list of POWs being returned. Their wait continued. When the girl’s brother was old enough, he followed in their father’s footsteps and joined the Army. I can only imagine the fear the girl, now a grown woman, and their mother felt as he was sent into harm’s way in service of the country.

But they didn’t try to stop him. They understood he was driven by the same values as the much beloved father had been.

That phone call, the one they’d been waiting decades for, finally came. The North Vietnamese had released remains and a tooth — A TOOTH — had been tested. It was their father’s. He’d been dead so many years. Their questions had been answered and yet, in many ways, knowing was no better than not knowing. At least before there had been hope, fading yes, but hope he might one day return.

The son, still in the Army, escorted their father’s body home. Daddy was laid to rest with all appropriate honors.

Their story became part of our nation’s history, and hopefully our conscience, with the reading of the letter that little girl sent and had returned unopened.Seeing Mary McCormack, the actor who read the girl’s letter and told us her family’s story, embrace that girl now grown, her brother and mother, brought tears to my eyes. It also reminded me of other stories I knew, some of which I’d forgotten. Stories of those I went to school with during Viet Nam, of those whose older brothers and fathers went off to war. Many of those returned, some injured some not. Others never returned. Each one had a story behind them, a story to remember and, in some cases, to tell.

It reminded me of my mother’s friend who opened her mailbox one day and pulled out the latest Life or Look Magazine and saw her son’s death in Viet Nam documented. It reminded me of my Uncle John who, during World War II, ran away from home to join the Navy at the age of 13. When the Navy realized what he’d done, they returned him home where he told my grandparents they either signed the waivers to let him officially and legally enlist or he’d run away again. He served from the end of World War II through Viet Nam. He was a POW more than once and, when he had the chance to leave Nam and return home, he refused as long as the rest of his men — he was a senior non-com — remained.

I remembered Uncle Joe, my father’s older brother. He who enlisted in the Army in World War II and served in both Europe and Japan. He was part of those troops who, as they pushed through the territory held by the Japanese, saw the atrocities we tend to forget. He came back changed and suffered from what we now call PTSD for the rest of his life.

Being a writer, as I remembered these stories, my brain went to work. By the end of the evening, I had not one but two novel ideas in mind. I hadn’t meant to do anything other than watch a concert with my mother and remember our own family and friends who have stepped up to serve the country the love so much. Now, I have two books to write and I pray I can do not only the stories but the inspiration for the stories justice.


  1. All story ideas start with a “what if?”. Inspiration strikes from many different realms.
    Thanks for the stories above.

  2. Mine come from odd things. One day a thought of Zig Zag Zell lamenting, in an interview, that dueling was no longer allowed, mixed with the idea of a man slogging through knee-high dew covered grass, pistol in his hand, as another man slogged toward him. That produced the story that should net me my next rejection slip. Or noting a statistical oddity in birth dates (Friday’s Children) or being asked to run for office the same morning I received a rejection slip. After laughing at the idea, thought of Hitler and Stalin, and that was where another story came from (The Graveyard Blues). Others came from a chance remark. Others just pop into my head.

    Problem is, they don’t pop in enough. My muse complains I don’t give her enough material to work with, and don’t jot down the ideas she sends my way.

    1. I’m trying to get used to using the sound recorder on the stupidphone to capture those random thoughts. (Yes, I know that Kevin Anderson uses his to do his actual writing. No, I don’t see myself ever doing that.)

    2. I carry a little notebook with a pen stuck in it everywhere, even at home. I will abruptly stop whatever I am doing and jot down the idea.

      Funnily enough, I got that from one of Tom Clancy’s characters; John Clark’s wife, a surgeon. Or was it the president’s wife, who was also a medical department head? One of them.

  3. The ideas come pouring in from news, books, movies, silly things on the internet . . . fortunately most of them get shrugged off, otherwise I’d be in big trouble.

    Making them mine? Oh yes. Many ideas start with “I wouldn’t have done it that way. I would have . . . “

    1. Same here … I look at historical events and think – oh, that would be cool to weave into a story. Or someone elses’ and think – no, I would have done it this way.

      1. *snicker* My current one is a short adventure based on Dances With Wolves, only in the southwest, twenty years before, and more historically accurate. Yep – how I would have done that story, and made it work more realistically.

      2. *grin* wanna get pissed off at the movie Assassin’s Creed? We couldn’t watch that movie without me snarling. Eventually, Rhys chimed in with “WHY IS THE GUY WITH THE BOW IN THE FRONT LINE?!”

        Great action, awesome stunts. SHIT at pretty much everything else, including historic stuff.

  4. Ideas come crawling out of the depths of hell and gnaw at your brain until you stake them with written words.
    As for the MIA story I highly recommend a TV movie from a few years back, Taking Chance, a fictionalized documentary of the escort of a fallen soldier back to his home for burial. Stars Kevin Bacon in one of his better roles. Caution, it’s a three hanky movie.

  5. Nothing that potent, but a recent conversation had me pondering a couple things…

    What would modern scandals be (re)named had the DNC HQ been in a different hotel or such in the early 1970’s?

    WHAT IF… the tape on the door to the DNC HQ had been applied “correctly” and thus NOT get noticed during the break-in/bugging? This strikes me as a fairly minor historical tweak that could have major historical changes. It’s not that there is NO scandal, but whatever it is, is at the very least delayed.

  6. The administrators of an online writers’ group I used to belong to (alas, it ceased to be) came up with an interesting writing inspiration game. They had an extensive digital collection of science fiction and fantasy art and would assign 52 images from this collection a card from a deck of playing cards. Writers who wanted to participate would name a card in the forum thread and the admins or one of the moderators would reply by posting the image associated with the named card. The challenge then was for the writer to write up a short story inspired by that image.

    It was great fun and also personally significant in that the stories I wrote for that game inspired a series of stories of years that I am currently working on turning into a *published* series of stories.

    1. I’ve run across “Rory’s Story Cubes.” I can’t swear to them, but they did help me out of a plotting pickle.

  7. Of my last three published works, one was based on the Russian meteorite strike, the other based on rumors about the Russian space program. So in my case, my stories come from . . . Russia.

  8. For me, it’s not the ideas that are the problem, but converting said ideas into a story that I want to write, and by that I mean have something more than just the ideas.

  9. I got one once from my work’s mandatory sexual harassment training. I spent the entire session getting more and more pissed off, composed the story on my way home, and wrote it down within an hour.

    So now if anyone asks me if I got anything out of that training, I can honestly say, “Yes.”

  10. I’m of the opinion that most ideas come from unusual juxtaposition. For instance, I’m sure that Sir Terry Pratchett crossed the ideas of the Smurfs and Braveheart when he created his Wee Free Men (and can find justification for that in the text, not always a luxury.) That’s often the way it works for me. I’ve also gotten inspiration from dreams, simply because I remember them pretty well and am such a dedicated reader that my dreams often come out in reasonable narrative format. (Once massaged into shape, of course. I do have one short story that is almost directly a dream I had, barring the middle bridging part.)

    1. Funny, in a sense, one story came to me about grieving the loss of a parent. A week later my dad died. That story almost wrote itself.

        1. Spooked the hell out of me to be sure. Still need to do some tuning of it according to one beta reader, and her comments made sense. Alpha reader was in tears. So I think I did good. 🙂

  11. One of my current projects had its start back in 2005 or 2006, when I saw a photo of Pope Benedict XVI talking with a frail, elderly cardinal. Suddenly a character comes to me: a cardinal who’d survived a terrible persecution in the backstory of a fantasy novel I was working on at the time. A minor character, a glimpse of heroism for my protagonist, whose story takes him elsewhere.

    Shortly thereafter I shelved that world for a number of years, working on more SF stuff, but a few months ago I was working on rewriting some stories in that universe and pulled out my notes. Suddenly I was getting a whole lot more interested in those stories again, and I got a contest prompt that this character’s story seemed to fit. Except when he went from minor character, a far tree, to the protagonist of his own story, ordinary torture by an ordinary nasty dictator’s goons seemed too prosaic for a fantasy setting.

    And then I realize the dictator’s got dark magic and likes to use it on dissidents and political enemies. Personally casting the spells, not using goons to pull triggers and swing truncheons. And my protagonist is now facing something very different from the various persecuted prelates behind the Iron Curtain back in the Cold War. He may still spend years in labor camps, but in a world where dark magic can alter the flow of time, where transformation magic can become nightmares of body horror. And where the tyrant enjoys mocking this character at every possible opportunity.

    And then I realized that, although the short story pretty much stands alone, his full story really needs to come after several other novels. So it looks like I’ve got a lot of writing to do if I’m going to tell it.

    1. Oh yes. Where one idea matches up with another, a long time later. I have one book that is still in development because I have a lovely strong beginning and a properly-sized host of characters and unfortunately, the central motivation of the pivot character remains obscure. (A little help here, muse!)

  12. In my case, I kind of absorb stuff and it’ll eventually end up in a story. You know how it’s said that most people don’t realize that all the random people and strangers around them have full, rich and detailed lives; I have the opposite. I’ll look at people and imagine what their lives might be like, what their story is. Whatever I come up with is very likely nothing like what it’s actually like, but it keeps me from getting bored.

    During my mid-teen years I took an entrance exam for the Philippine High School of the Arts – one was a drawing test (I will cheerfully admit I failed that one because I didn’t really grok the instructions), and the other a writing one where we were given a photograph to look at and come up with a story based off it.

    The photograph was of a lovely blonde woman staring up and beyond the photographer, clutching a boy wearing a cap to her. The photograph was black and white.

    I wrote a WW2 story of a 14 year old Jewish girl trying to flee Amsterdam with her 6 year old brother. Their parents had given their lives for them to escape and the children were hiding, cold and hungry. I described how scared they were, and how the girl was doing her best to be brave and clever and look after her little brother. She thought that it would be best if they could flee the city, as it was crawling with Nazis. Unfortunately as they were trying to dart across a bridge, they were spotted by a patrol. Fear, panic and hunger had them run, and subsequently get shot. The girl’s last thought was how odd it was that the snow felt more like a warm, thick quilt, being tucked around them. (I went with that ending, because I was running out of time. My original planned ending was they would find shelter in a church in a rural town, and escape the Netherlands.)

    The teachers loved that story. They asked me how I’d gotten such a vivid story, gotten into the head of the girl, described the era and the buildings with such detail that apparently one of the other teachers was in tears.

    I’d have gotten in on scholarship because of that story alone, if I’d not said I’d rather travel if given a choice between staying at the school (it had a dorm setup) and traveling abroad (my father was still alive, so his getting sent overseas was still a possibility); because that story was the fruit of my traveling to the places where such a scene might have happened. They were very disappointed; and I sometimes wonder what my life would’ve been like if I’d gone.

  13. Mine come from different places. I had written a lot of a story about a futuristic soldier awakened after a long sleep on a medieval colony world. I did nothing with it for maybe fifteen years until the title for it popped into my head. “Sleeping Duty” was just too good a pun not to use it. So I wrote a new version during a NaNo, never looking at the old version, just using what I remembered of the highlights.
    For Manx Prize, I had the character of Charlotte in my head for the longest time. She was an engineer who had something to do with orbital industry. I didn’t know what. I had no plot, just her. In the real world, organizations had been offering prizes like the Ansari X Prize that Burt Rutan won, I was working on orbital debris issues at work, and it suddenly came to me she was trying to win a prize for de-orbiting space junk. The weird thing was that it took me so long to put that together. I had her and the rest of it in my head for at least a year.

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