How do novelists find story ideas? It’s a great question and it is answered in a number of ways.
While you may be one of those lucky writers who have an idea popping into your head by the minute, for many of us it’s not always that easy. We struggle with ideas that we find interesting, wondering if readers will also find it interesting. It’s just as important for readers to find your storyline interesting and exciting to read as it is for you to love writing it.
Write What You Love to Read
Before we look at sources of inspiration, let’s look at what makes a good novel for any of us to write, and I’ll keep it simple: If you want to learn how to start writing a book, write what you love to read. This old adage is as true today as it’s ever been for three important reasons:
- Chances are that if you love to read a certain type of book, as a novelist, you will also enjoy writing that type of book.
- By reading many books of a certain type, a certain genre, you most likely will know what makes it a good story. Consider for a moment,
what enjoyment you gain from the books you read. For example, some people will recognize the suspense and excitement they feel when reading novels like those in John Sandford’s Prey Others will find that they enjoy the “other-worldly” societies found in stories like Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series. Still, others love being swept away by lust and love in Sandra Brown’s romantic suspense novels like Slow Heat in Heaven.
As a reader of a certain genre, you know what you expect to happen in the story, and if the story doesn’t deliver on your expectation, you are most likely disappointed. If you love to read mysteries, you know that the lead character had better solve that mystery before the book ends. If you love to read fantasy novels, you expect to be swept away to some mythical place or kingdom. And so on. You know what to expect from a story and are better able to write a novel that delivers the goods. And that’s how to start writing a book.
- By writing what you love to read, you are also pinpointing a genre in which to write your story. Unless you are writing a “mainstream” novel, which doesn’t fit into any particular genre, you will need to select a genre. When you target a specific genre, you must follow the novel writing guidelines of that genre. Publishers and readers have expectations that writers must fulfill when writing a certain type of book.
How to Start Writing a Book – Everything Is Fair Game
As you explore how to start writing a book, look for ideas from which to build a great story. A story should provide readers with entertainment, evoke strong emotions, make them think or shift their paradigm, etc. It must be an idea that you will love enough to spend many hours developing.
Many writers say that you can find a story anywhere, and I tend to agree with this philosophy. Stories ideas come from experiences, yours and anyone else’s. Your life experiences and those of your neighbors, friends, family, and strangers are all up for grabs when looking for inspiration.
How to Start Writing a Book – 9 Top Sources of Inspiration
- Your Life
Many novelists find inspiration from their own lives. Your work life may be an excellent source of inspiration. Author Michael Connelly, initially a crime reporter in L.A., turned many a journalistic experience into a best-selling novel with his detective Harry Bosch (Angel’s Flight). John Grisham is a lawyer who began his novel writing career with The Firm and A Time to Kill, both best-selling legal thrillers. Patricia Cornwell, an ex-medical examiner, created the character Kay Scarpetta, also a medical examiner, to carry out the plots of her thrillers like Body of Evidence. And in recent years, even hobbies have become popular fuel for novels as in the Scrapbooking Mysteries written by Laura Childs (Bound for Murder). Childs also writes Tea Shop Mysteries. Perhaps your career, hobby or interests will be the impetus for your novels.
Has anyone in your family had an interesting, over the top incident befall them? Perhaps your parents met in an unusual way that would inspire a romance novel (if that were your genre). Do you have family fighting over an inheritance that might make a good novel surrounding greed? Is there a great story in there somewhere?
Several members of my family are in law enforcement and I’ve heard some unbelievable stories from them. My brother, Roger, along with several other police officers was in an armed standoff with a criminal that seemed intent on killing him. My brother-in-law, Denny, was called to a house to investigate a man’s death. The man was lying in bed and when Denny bent down to check for a pulse the man sprang up into a sitting position – still very dead, however. Both incidences fueled my imagination.
A friend recently learned that her father, whom she thought had abandoned her when she was an infant, had, in fact, looked for her all his life, right up until he died. He’d hired detectives, contacted relatives (who lied to him), and never gave up looking for her. She is now over 50 years old and had spent her life thinking that she was unwanted and unloved. Now that’s a story idea!
- The Neighborhood
Walk around the block near your home, take in the neighbors, the activities, the oddities, and you may just return home with ideas for your next novel. Walking around my neighborhood, I saw a little girl, maybe 7 years old, walking down the street, alone. Perhaps this doesn’t seem odd to you, particularly if you live in a safe neighborhood – but I live in a notoriously safe neighborhood and it bothered me. (All right, yes, I’m an overprotective, hovering mother of not just my own child but everyone else’s too.) I wondered, where this child’s mother or father was, did they know their daughter was out on the street alone – perhaps allowing her to walk to a friend’s home nearby. Children have been abducted in this exact type of situation. So my mind starts turning, imagining stories about this child’s abduction, or her wild search for a parent that didn’t make it home. I see someone digging in a backyard and wonder, what is he going to bury there? What does your neighborhood offer for inspiration?
- True Life Stories
A novel can be inspired by true-life stories as were my novels Intimate Murder and Peripheral View (both also based on true family history), but the creativity is using the true stories and your imagination to create your own adaptation of a life, making it bigger than life, yet relatable to readers. Whose life inspires you?
Many people don’t remember their dreams, but if you do, you may find them to be a great source of inspiration. I have very strange dreams – Stephen King type of dreams – like the one when a circle of children holding hands spun around and around until they turned into wolves. I don’t write horror novels, but if I did, I’d probably look first to my own dreams. What kind of dreams do you have?
Be on the lookout for true incidents that have story potential in newspapers, magazines, TV, and radio. The “News of Weird” column alone has great potential as, of course, do many crime stories. I once followed a story about a young woman who went missing, to the point that I even went out with search teams looking for her – a surreal experience as I walked at arms-length with other searchers through swamps, creeks, and farmland with the thought at the back of my head that we were really looking for a corpse. A horrific case that ended badly, her bones found in the ashes of a campfire. Parts of her story have found their way into my work.
Not that you indulge in the spreading of rumors, but take note when you are listening to others spread them. Most gossip is interesting because it’s about some naughty person who has done some unacceptable deed. Heard any good gossip lately?
I live along the Mississippi River and one evening I was sitting on my deck when a motorboat trolled slowly by in the dark. I started to get goosebumps. I couldn’t see who was motoring the boat, but I began to wonder if they could see me. From there my imagination began to wander into “what ifs”. What if someone came by every night to watch – what would that mean, why would they do that, what evil intent lurked there? Now, none of this actually happened, but just that slow trolling motor got those creative juices flowing – or perhaps psychotic juices. That was an idea to build on. What gives you the creeps?
Keep Lists of Inspiration
By simply being aware of these inspirational resources, you may find yourself with a long list of novel ideas. So do keep a list, perhaps a small notebook that you keep handy for adding new ideas. Learning how to start writing a book is about finding ideas as well as maybe connecting one idea with another for a spectacular story; and if you have your ideas written down in one place, all the more easy to see great connections.
What sources of inspiration have you found helpful? I’d love to hear your insights – please leave your comments below on how to starting writing a book and get a discussion going!