But where do you get your ideas?

Every writer gets this one: people wanting to know where those ideas come from. It’s led to snarky rejoinders about the idea of the month club (said to be operating from assorted odd locations around the world but never actually sighted in the wild), weary responses along the lines of “How do you keep them out?” and a whole lot of confusion.

For me, it’s not a direct line. I’ll have a thought related to something else, then I’ll read something else which will set off a different chain of thoughts which hook up to the first one, and so on over a period of months or years. Eventually something that works for a book emerges.

Of course this is the kind of subconscious-heavy process that makes people nervous. We don’t know what’s going on in there so how can we rely on it to deliver when we need it?

Which is why I trawl weird news sites and check out conspiracy theories every now and then.

You do need to be careful with these. They can suck you in and chew through what passes for sanity in record time. But for story fodder? Priceless.


How many conspiracy theories are there about alien abductions being hushed up? I grew up hearing them. They collided with a stray thought along the lines of “Wouldn’t it be awesome if an alien abduction accidentally got a bunch of trained knights instead of an average joe and the knights went on to form an interplanetary empire?” There may have been some interesting fan fiction mixed up in there as well. And maybe a little Humanity Fuck Yeah.

The con vampire books had a similarly mixed start. I’ve read vampire fiction for years and I know all the tropes, even the (ugh) sparkly ones. The stray thought that the SF con scene was perfect for vampires because there’s one damn near every weekend most of the year and as long as they can manage not to go killing dinner, nobody’s going to bad an eyelid at pale, avoids sunlight, and has bad teeth. That kind of mixed up with my sense of humor and led to Jim Hickey and his werewolf best buddy. Everything else in those books is a combination of “it seemed like fun”, “it wanted to be there”, “Make me a reformed succubus” and the like.

Hell, even Impaler started life with the combination of being fascinated by Vlad’s life and wondering what the world would be like if he hadn’t been murdered just as he’d reclaimed his throne. I made a few attempts at writing his story over the years, none of them going more than a few handwritten pages, then I tried writing him first person just to see if that would work better.

That’s what I mean by the subconscious process. Any kind of odd tidbit can set off a chain of thought that leads you to a working story. I usually have several bubbling around, although lately they haven’t been able to push past the damn narcolepsy that well (she says as she sleep-types – I’m still recovering from the medication interruption, alas). They’re still there, just not screaming at me to bloody write them. Although I could do without the infinitely spawning Harry Potter alternate universes. Those are just irritating.

So go and read all the weird shit, try to stay out of the black holes of conspiracy mania, and ask the magic question “What would happen if it were true?”, then you too shall never be without ideas again. Just don’t come crying to me when your mind won’t shut up and it’s too weird and scarring for words. I’ve been there. I have no sympathy.

71 thoughts on “But where do you get your ideas?

  1. I blame Sunday vignette prompts. Partially… I have so many ideas that it’s hard to keep up sometimes. Characters pop up scream their story, then go back to sleep for a bit. Then the next idiot pokes me and whispers what’s going on with him or her, or it.
    Where do they come from? Wish I knew sometimes. I blame my years of RPG’s (tabletop not computer) and a GM that awarded points for good back stories. Then there’s all the reading I have done. Show’s I have watched…
    Alright they just aggregate and finally I have to shut them up by documenting what the hell is going on.

    1. Nice to hear I’m not the only one. When I write it down, it turns into history and I can stop worrying about it.

      1. When I write it down, it turns into history and I can stop worrying about it.
        HA! If only. Once it becomes history it becomes reasoning for the next step sometimes. Or, it’s “written” wrong and someone else goes digging. It’s a feedback loop I tell ya.

        1. Sometimes mine stop when they’re written down. Sometimes they come around in another form, variation on the first. Sometimes they the proceed to the next scene, and once I’ve written that, then the next, like a serial in my head that only gets one episode at a time.

          Sometimes they go away on their own, too. *shrugs* Is subconscious. Is not logical.

    2. Vignette prompts are just practice fitting small ideas to small stories for me. Either I come up with a new idea that is small enough, or I shave down part of an older one.

      1. Sometimes a vignette is just a vignette. Other times, it’s a precursor to a story or piece of another story. Depends on if I need anything to work with or it strikes me as I write it that there’s “more here to be explored”. Good practice for coming up with something on the spot at least.

    3. Heh. I just finished the story that the vignette prompt spawned… It would help if I could actually write to 50 words! Fortunately, the rest of the commenters at According to Hoyt are pretty easygoing about my verbal sprawl…

      1. I’m finishing up one. It contains a number of vignettes, in fact, and is probably going to need a lot of smoothing out.

  2. I’ve been deliberately trawling through the ‘creepy’ or ‘strange’ sections of some sites because of exactly that bit of advice. That, and I’ve always found it fun to read such things simply because of the ‘what if?’

    There was a fairly entertaining History channel doco (I was feverish, but needed to be close to the door to await package deliveries) that noted with interest that examples of vampire killings from different eras and cultures (Greek, East European and Celtic) had rather similar methods, despite being separated by a few hundred years to a millenium difference. They were pointing out skeletons found with metal objects impaled in their torsos, broken limbs and rocks jammed into mouths, etc. Unfortunately, I fell asleep and don’t know what else they brought up, but I remember thinking that you’d probably have found it interesting too.

    1. To quote one of my characters when asked “do you die when someone drives a stake through your heart?” “Don’t you?”

  3. Harry Potters to the left of me, Harry Potters to the right of me, here I am, stuck in the middle with you? Sounds like a hall of Harry Potter mirrors, reflecting, reflecting, reflecting…

    1. Reading a lot of fanfic is one source of many ideas, often for fanfic.

  4. “How do you keep them out?”

    Seriously, this is the thing. My brain won’t shut up. I can look at an article about electrons and get buried in an avalanche of ‘what if’.

    Currently my characters are raging at me to finish the war, because they want to go shopping. The snarky spiders are dying to take the medieval farm kid and the giant wolf demon out to shop for… I’m not sure. Food? Pants? Emo band t-shirts at Hot Topic? They needs them some Black Veil Brides and Palaye Royale merch? Charlotte is raising her eyebrow at me again. She wants a t-shirt.

    Somebody, turn down the gain on this brain thing. Its drowning out Reality(TM) half the time.

    1. “How do you think up that stuff?”
      “How do you not?” or “Spare cycles gotta do something.”

      It’s exasperating when one comes up with all sorts of seemingly random associations and comments… to someone who very clearly has few, if any, cycles to spare for dealing with anything NOT at default settings.

      1. The true curse of high intelligence is not that it makes you smart. It makes you “normal” and everyone else stupid.

        There are times when I feel like I live in a world of idiots. But then I come here and feel better. 🙂

        1. That’s it. I never considered myself ‘smart’ (hey, I had to *work* to learn stuff!) but, gee, how come these smart people seem unable to understand me? And then say I use fancy words when I am just using the words with the best-fit meaning? Self-deprecating humor is not self-loathing, but a survival skill.

  5. Hrm, it might be soon time to acquire the second Vampire/Con book (Just finished a different work and really need to be in a different world for a while before returning to that world). And well, my kind and furcons are natural, so… I get it.

    And oh yeah, crazy conspiracy theories are way too easy to get wrapped up in. I once started going on about how silly the hollow earth thing was, but kept coming up with semi-plausible stuff for it. (Oil wells going dry? Oil is being sucked out from underneath! Global warming? Internal industry generates heat, vented at the poles – ice caps melting. More CO2 from Underneath, etc. Not sure I had anything for earthquakes, but I wasn’t actually aiming for fully plausible.) I do like the idea of a moon landing conspiracy. No, not the “we didn’t go” one, but a “we didn’t stop going, just changed methods” one where the space program as we know it is a huge distraction.

    And as for ideas forming oddly (Oddly?)… it does seem to happen more when tamer ideas collide and stuff mixes. It happens outside fiction as well, as said in the great line, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” The preparation is having many bits to bang together and occasionally seemingly preparation is having many bits to bang together and occasionally seemingly disparate bits stick together… and get noticed before they decay apart again.

  6. It’s not any less strange when writing HF – the darndest things can get you thinking – “Ohhh, that would make an awesome story!”
    Wondering how to revamp/relaunch the Lone Ranger franchise as a straight historical … reading a blog entry about the Fred Harvey company … even wondering what certain historical figures were really like as people…
    And there you go down the rabbit hole, and emerge six months later with another book…

    1. Researching proper forms of address for a minor English Lord for a story set in the roughly modern era, and while doing so noting that the original Byron home was in Nottingham near the Shire Wood. Cue Robin Hood, and an alt history of the Lords Byron. *glares at characters*

  7. So there I was, at breakfast in a former patrician’s residence in Hamburg, and the radio was playing modern classical music. A character appeared in my mind’s eye, medieval costume, early medieval, standing on a ridge looking across a broad lowland toward the sea. He’s the king’s half-brother, an acknowledged bastard, and loyal to his brother. The protagonist’s former-viking blood brother stands off to the side, making a snide comment about people who stand on ridges with the sun behind them. Before I finished my breakfast broetchen, I had a chunk of characters, setting, and story running around, Now, to get them onto paper before I had to set out for the day…

  8. My latest book series was born while browsing a premade cover site. I found a very striking Space Marine-oriented cover and next thing I knew my brain was cranking its gears to generate a story to match it. Of course, that meant setting aside the other two hundred story ideas vying for room inside my head.

    The people that annoy me are the ones who approach a writer and say “Hey, listen, I got this great idea for a novel (and let’s set it aside the fact that the idea usually ain’t that great); tell you what, why don’t you write it for me? We’ll split the money!” Because in their universe coming up with an idea is the hard part…

    1. And, I try to NOT mention story ideas as such. Not that I figure they’d be bad, nor do I expect them to be “stolen”[1] – I’d love to see them take proper form, but it’s Simply Not Done, even without any expectation of anything beyond the story.

      [1] Anything worthwhile isn’t stolen, but forced up, for ages, no matter what it might be.

      1. Yeah, that’s probably a wise policy. For one, writers can be scatterbrained, and the guy whose eyes glazed over when someone was telling him about some idea might subconsciously dredge it up from the chaos that is his long-term memory and use it without meaning to steal anything.

        For another, it’s like the “don’t tell me about your character” t-shirt I wanted to wear when attending to gaming cons. The story/character/campaign might have been fascinating and entertaining for the people involved, but the experience rarely translates over a fifteen-minute (or longer) monologue about them. 🙂

        And one more reason: it’s best not to talk about something you’re working on because doing so can make it more difficult to actually write the darn thing. Once you tell your story to somebody, a part of your brain decides you’re done with it *hey, you already told this story, dummy!), which will add another roadblock on the road to putting it down on paper/hard drive.

        1. If something I say sparks someone else, more power to them.

          I try to keep stuff to myself unless I can relate it in an entertaining or informative way, because I bore people to death enough normally.

          Execution is where the value is. I’m good with ideas, I’m good at coming up with ideas of how to do something you might think is undoable (or at least very difficult), but the real challenge is execution.

        2. “don’t tell me about your character”

          I’ve never been much of a gamer myself, but I do hang around them, and one time I sat in on a competition game that I’d drawn the characters for. Mind you, they’d based two of the characters directly on the stars of Absolutely Fabulous, and the spell caster was one of them… so he’d “taken the labels off all of his spells” and whenever he cast one, the GM had to roll dice to figure out which one it was.

          They actually fulfilled the quest, much to their surprise. They’d always died horribly in practice.

          Another game I sat in on had the immortal moment of “how you make a paladin cry.”

    2. Based on everything I’ve read here and at other sites, it sounds like, “Where do you get your ideas?” is the wrong question for a writer. The real question is, “How do you take your idea and turn it into a novel?”

      1. Bingo. Ideas are easy (and worth their weight in gold). Talking about writing is way easier than being in a quiet room and actually getting the words down. Starting something is much, much easier than reaching the part where you type ‘The End.’
        Not to mention the drudgery of going back and making sure you didn’t change a character’s name or hair color halfway through the novel, or that your gave away the villain’s plan during the first act (or made it impossible to thwart/carry out), or fixing the issue of having your fairy princess and your hardened warrior both cursing like stevedores (and worse, using the same curses – seen that in one best-selling trad pub novel and annoyed the crap out of me), and all that other pesky stuff many people that wish they’d already written something don’t like to think about.

  9. A party goes through a magicotechnical portal into a time-shifted alternate world equivalent to the Pliocene epoch to study a band of Australopithecines. Unfortunately, they don’t know enough to shut their portal behind them, and at midnight *something* black, sinister, and deadly comes crawling out of the void between realities.
    (I’ve never had any interest in horror, so I have no idea where this came from or why it presented itself.)

    1. “…at midnight *something* black, sinister, and deadly comes crawling out of the void between realities.”

      I’m writing that story right now. The thing that crawled out of the dark is getting well and truly shot in the ass by Valkyries. Stuff that crawls out to bother us should be sent running back as hard as it can run. That’s my theory, and I’m going with it. 🙂

      1. Well. I always thought the Creature from the Black Lagoon was badly misunderstood.

        Black sinister and deadly is not always a bad thing. Did you offer it a cup of tea? Maybe it’s on your side?

        1. I can’t answer for Phantom’s black and deathly thing, but mine is decidedly unfriendly. It’s not on anybody’s side.
          Although, if you did offer it a cup of tea, first it would drink the tea. Then eat the cup. Then…It’s better I save it for the story.

          1. “Phantom’s black and deathly thing”

            If people knew what it was and what it had done, they would be lining up for a turn to shoot it.

            You know the Great Voids in the universe, where there’s no galaxies in a three million light year sphere, and in the middle of it the cosmic background radiation is colder than everywhere else? They’re not natural. This thing makes those. My girls are kicking its ass.

            Where did that idea come from? I was flipping through an article on the large scale structure of the universe, filaments of galaxies with roughly spherical voids separating them. And I thought, what if something nassssty made those holes?

            1. They’d be lining up to shoot mine, too. Not that it would do them any good. Kinetic energy is not the right tool for the job, here.

        2. The water bath was almost up to temperature when Sari heard a knock at the front door. “Hey, it’s open! Come on in!” She yelled, and kept pouring the syrup into the second batch of pears. Without looking up (or she’d spill boiling sugar all over the counter and herself), she asked “So, was it rum, brandy, or vodka after all?”

          When Autumn didn’t thump a box down on the kitchen table, or even respond, she looked up. “Autumn? Do you need help carrying….” Her voice trailed off as she stared at the matte black power armor standing there, with her own face reflected, distorted, in the featureless helmet. “You’re not Autumn.”

          The voice that came back through the speakers growled like he was about to rip her head off. “I’m not. And your pot is boiling over.”

          “Ah!” She turned away, turning down the flame, and set the tea kettle to boiling in case she’d lost too much water to the stovetop, and tried to keep the panic from blinding her like the rising steam. Her voice was almost level when she said, “Thank you. Would you care for a cup of tea?”

          See what you did, there?

          1. Almost – but I have to point out that *matte* black armor isn’t going to reflect anything. That’s the point of it being matte. 🙂

            1. True! I’ll have to add a note that the helmet’s smooth. First draft, first draft… I didn’t even mention the railgun. Or why the alcohol’s incoming. Um… I’m supposed to be at work, not figuring out exactly why he wants to use her back porch for a sniper hide, anyway. Darn ideas! So much more attractive than paperwork!

              1. I know the feeling. I’ve heard of people whose second drafts are smaller than their first. I am willing to believe them but it’s pure trust.

              2. Glinting and reflections on a face-plate would be bad for a sniper. He would have a netting or a cloth of some kind to hide it.

  10. My usual spiel is that the question is ‘how’ not ‘where’, and the answer is habit of trained pattern matching.

    In the new Vampire playtest, one of the pre-gens is a rather improbable pedophile vampire affiliated with the European right. “Dude, if you can’t afford to depict rightwingers as sane, you could have just made her part of the crazy vampire clan and under the delusion that she is some general of Austria-Hungry.” Boom, idea even if one that bores me right now.

  11. “Wouldn’t it be awesome if an alien abduction accidentally got a bunch of trained knights instead of an average joe and the knights went on to form an interplanetary empire?”

    It worked for Poul Anderson’s “The High Crusade” sixty years ago. It’s time someone else took a swing at it.

      1. Didn’t work. I could space out into my own little world (and did…as often as possible). Story ideas flow constantly, beneath the surface, like minnows in a rural irrigation ditch. Catching one, writing it down, feeding it, and growing it into a satisfying meal is another craft or two or three.

        1. Oh yes. I was not a very good student. But my Mom insisted that I do my homework, and that was enough to pass tests and . . . get to a place where I can totally encourage those worlds of my own.

    1. Oddly enough, read fiction. At least for me, fiction drowns out my subconscious. When I read non-fiction, especially things I’m not quite so familiar with, ideas bubble up, or I feel story bits starting to connect like puzzle pieces into a hint of a plot.

      1. if the story is engaging enough. However, it all goes into the compost.
        At one time I recall thinking “I think I’m going to do straight historical fiction”. My muse rumbled out of the back cave, “The hell you will”.

        1. I can’t do enough research to write straight historical fiction. It would be like, oh, doing my dissertation again but with fewer footnotes and more dialogue. [insert fleeing badger GIF] No! Oh no, nope, no, nope nope, nope.

  12. Sometimes things that annoy me will inspire me. I glance at what seems to be a promising new novel and find its dreary SJW virtue-signaling, and I think how I would do it better and . . .

    1. Bad fiction can be really inspiring. The one time I was seriously displeased with P.G. Wodehouse, I perpetrated Were I You to use the clever solution that I had thought he would use.

  13. I like the conspiracy/alternate history theory of ancient batteries as a source of incredibly advanced technology in the ancient world.

    Just subtract the industrial revolution and make the tech more arisan-based, so the tech didn’t spread that far so it’s easier to imagine nothing of it would have survived into the present day.

  14. Right now I’m tired and have a drought of ideas. My last, a hard SF story based on metallurgy, went in three different directions. It’s so bad that my last complete story was in March. March. My last fictional character was Matilda the Muse and she only had a few things to say

    Times like this is when you question things. Hard. And no, that’s not another version of Gloom, Despair, and Agony on Me. It just is. It’s coming up on load forecast, anyway, and that’s guaranteed brain drain time.About 4:00 PM I learned I have another type of government form to fill out, and reading the requirement led to the discovery of another consideration we’re going to have to address. There’s not going to be any fiction until all this is done.

  15. dreams, dissatisfaction with how other stories are handled (esp mainstream SF), and what ifs…

  16. Ideas are not the problem. Well sometimes they are, but mostly it is the hard work of writing that stonewalls me. And plots are impossible. I can imagine a character and a situation, but I have no idea where the story is going, or why it should go that way.

    Ex girlfriend kicks you out, all your stuff on the sidewalk, and you are standing there wondering where you go. “And that is when the fight started, your Honor.”

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