Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

Nancy J. Cohen

At book events, someone in the audience always asks the author, “Where do you get your ideas?” As a writer, I don’t understand why it isn’t obvious. Ideas are everywhere. It’s having the time to write them all into stories that is the problem. But if you really want to know our secret, here’s where you might pluck an idea out of thin air.


Newspaper and Magazines

Even in this digital era, I like to clip articles from print newspapers and magazines. Sometimes the subject is relevant to a current plot. Other times, I’ll file the clipping for later when I might need a motive for a suspect in a mystery or a scientific explanation for one of my paranormal romances. Don’t forget to look in the freebie community newspapers, too. Also check out your local library. Some of them have book sales where gently read magazines are available for a good price. Printouts from the Internet can serve a similar purpose, but they’re not the same as discovering random articles in a magazine. Instead, you’ll have to search for a specific subject, unless you have one of those applications that compile daily news for you on selected topics. Or you’ll have to scan the headlines. If so, you’ll be missing the thrill of turning pages in a print publication and discovering an article of interest. I always read the Sunday newspaper with scissors in hand.

Television and Movies

A TV show can stimulate your train of thought. For example, you may like the premise of a particular episode, but if you wrote the story, it would turn out differently. Or maybe the social issue or theme of a show inspires you. A news report might elicit an emotional response that makes you want to include the topic in a story. You never know when inspiration will strike.


Do you dream in detail with color and dialogue? If you can remember your dream, write down the sequence of events as soon as you wake up, before reality pushes away the cobwebs of sleep. I used to have story dreams that were detailed enough for me to write several pages. A dream inspired my first published novel, Circle of Light. Lately, my dreams have been a continuation of thoughts or concerns I’ve had during the day, so I seem to have lost this source of creativity. If you have a good dream, write it down. Or consciously direct your thoughts at bedtime to a plotting problem you are having, and let your brain work on it while you sleep.


Do you ever get an idea for a story while reading someone else’s work? Or maybe their book stimulates a new plot thread for your storyline. Ideas cannot be copyrighted. How you develop your characters and plot will differ from anyone else and will be unique to your voice. If you find that a story fires your imagination, scribble down notes and then return to the book you’re reading.

People You Meet

Friends, relatives, and even strangers can provide inspiration. They might generate an idea for a plot twist or give you thoughts on character development. A woman whose bearing and clothes I’d admired on a cruise became the Countess in my cruise mystery, Killer Knots. People who helped me with my research for Peril by Ponytail, my next Bad Hair Day mystery, serve as the model for some of the folks in this story. And I’d better not mention how real life experiences inspired Hanging By A Hair. The lesson learned here is that if you befriend a writer, you might become fodder for her stories.

Personal Experiences

Our life experiences cannot help but influence our stories. With the exception of murder, many of the incidents in my mysteries stem from real life. Naturally, you have to alter the people and the settings, but the actual events might remain similar. Certainly the antics of my late dog are reflected in Marla’s poodle, Spooks. And many of the other things that happen in her life have happened to me. Infusing these experiences into your stories will enrich them. You cannot better describe events than having known them first-hand.

Suited up for copper mine like in Peril by Ponytail

Writing Techniques

If you’re totally stuck for ideas, various writing tools can help. You’ll find each writer has a favorite how-to book or software program for generating plot ideas. Check out the reference section in your local bookstore or library, or go online and ask on your writer loops for what other authors use. You’ll get as many varied responses as there are subgenres.

So where do we writers find inspiration? It’s everywhere—in the air we breathe, in the people we meet, in our dreams, and in the stories we read or see on the big screen. The problem isn’t finding ideas. The problem is having enough years of good health and peace of mind in which to write them.

So where do YOU get your story ideas?


And Introducing my New Release!
Hanging By A Hair, Bad Hair Day Mystery #11 

HangingbyaHair (414x640)

Marla and Dalton Vail move into a new neighborhood and discover a murder next door.

Amazon Hardcover: http://www.amazon.com/Hanging-Hair-Nancy-J-Cohen/dp/1432828142
Amazon Kindle: http://www.amazon.com/Hanging-Hair-Bad-Day-Mysteries-ebook/dp/B00JJ2XVUQ/
Barnes and Noble: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/hanging-by-a-hair-nancy-j-cohen/1116603785

How well do you know your neighbors?

22 thoughts on “Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

  1. I believe in intentional, focused creativity time. As the great Wild Bill Armbrewster put it: “Up here, boy. You’ve got a muscle between those big pink ears of yours. A brain, with an imagination already included. But you’ve got to work your imagination, like it was training for a distance race. You’ve got to run it around the track, every day. Do that, and it’ll get stronger.”

    • I think we all start with an idea, a character, or a story premise, but that’s when you need to sit down and flesh it out. And that’s where your targeted creativity is essential.

  2. Yes, Nancy. All those places. Music seems to be a good trigger for me. Chatting with two old friends on Sunday afternoon is always a source for stories and characters. Sitting around waiting rooms and coffee houses eavesdropping works, too. You hear the strangest things. I keep a huge list of story and character ideas. Over time, the good ones bubble up to the surface.

    • Any of these activities can be fruitful. Not so music for me, though. I need silence to hear the music of my thoughts.

      Writer friends are always great for bouncing ideas around. Or another friend or relative might be a good source of plot ideas. My cousin in Arizona was infinitely helpful for Peril by Ponytail.

  3. I got an idea for my new WIP from a little book I stumbled upon in a Portland bookstore catering to the arts. How to Disappear in America – a book of tips on getting off the grid – was totally out of place on their shelves. I knew when I took it down and held it, that it was the start of a novel.

  4. I got my basic concept from a friend, who can’t be identified because s/he has a stalker, but once I got the idea, it wouldn’t let me go.

    At that point, I learned the joy of writing fiction. It was as if I’d opened a door to the other side of my brain.

    Now the ideas are a Great Flood.

  5. Fillii & Boffin, two of the Leprechaun’s that live in my crawl space, have a membership with the Idea Repository Exchequer And Lower Level Yearning Department Ubersmart Northwest Nonsequitorial Oder (aka IREALLYDUNNO). That’s where they get a lot of the ideas that are then passed on to the Sands Creativity Dept and Shellfish Co. for consideration.

    Once idea passes a majority vote of Leprechauns, Muses, Men in Dark Glasses, and my cousin Leonard it is then put into action…provided it is legal and my wife won’t get mad.

    That’s pretty much the best way to describe the process for me.

    • Recently a small family of shrews from under the shed have wanted to get in the came, but there was something about the bylaws of the Amalgamated Rodents Union, headed by a rather testy Squirrel named Robert, that prohibits them from working with Men in Dark Glasses on literary projects. I think he’s making stuff up myself, probably to get back at me for putting Tabasco into the bird seed feeder that he claims he has not been stealing from.

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