Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

Light BulbAuthors who’ve been around awhile, and have more than a few books out there, are often asked two questions.

The first is, “Where do you get your ideas?”

I like how Harlan Ellison used to answer that: “There’s a swell idea service in Schenectady. Every week I send them twenty-five bucks, and every week they send me a fresh six-pack of ideas.”

Every now and then someone would ask him for the address of the service, and Harlan would do to that person what Harlan always used to do all such folks, i.e., not suffer them.

The other question we’re asked is, “Which book is your favorite?”

The answer is complicated. There are books we love because we worked so hard on them. Others because they were so much fun to write. And still others because they helped pay the mortgage.

But when I am asked about a series, I pause a moment, then name my legal thrillers featuring Ty Buchanan. They originally came out in beautiful hardcover editions, then trade paper.

As Seinfeld would say, yadda yadda yadda, I am pleased to report that I’m now releasing all three books in new digital editions. And to celebrate, I’m pricing each one at $2.99 for this kickoff period.


Allow me to tell you how I got the idea for the series, and indeed for each book. It started with my regularly scheduled “creativity time.”

Back when newspapers existed, I would read either the L.A. Times or the L.A. Daily News, and one legal newspaper, the L.A. Daily Journal. I’d scan for interesting stories or legal issues, and clip them and throw them into a box. Every now and then I’d go through that box, seeing if the ideas still interested me.

One item kept vying for my attention. It was a tragic story about an L.A. man who shot his young wife to death, then drove to a freeway overpass, got out, shot himself, and fell 100 feet to the freeway below. He crushed a Toyota, killing the driver. How bizarre is that?

So one day I wrote this up as an opening scene. When I got to the part about the woman being killed, I made up a character: Jacqueline Dwyer, a twenty-seven-year old elementary school teacher.

And then I paused, switched to a First Person POV voice, and wrote:

This would have been simply another dark and strange coincidence, the sort of thing that shows up for a two-minute report on the local news—with live remote from the scene—and maybe gets a follow-up the next day. Eventually the story would go away, fading from the city’s collective memory.

But the story did not go away. Not for me. Because Jacqueline Dwyer was the woman I was going to marry.

Who was narrating? That’s how Tyler Buchanan was born. I made him an up-and-coming, hotshot lawyer with everything going his way, until this. And especially after a shady guy finds him and tells him Jacqueline was still alive after the crash … and someone murdered her.

That book became Try Dying.

Book #2, Try Darkness, was based on a story I clipped from the legal paper. It was about illegal evictions from downtown transient hotels. There was a trick landlords were using to get around the law, so I made one of fhs evicted a mother with a six-year-old daughter, who comes to Ty for help. And then she turns up dead, and the plot, as they say, thickens.

The last book in the trilogy is Try Fear. Again, this came out of a real story I clipped. One Christmas season the LAPD stopped a very large man on suspicion of driving under the influence. He was about 6’5”, 280 pounds. He was also wearing nothing but a Santa hat and a G-string.

I found myself thinking, This has to be Ty’s next client. So that’s how Try Fear begins.

The reviews were kind. Please allow me to toot two small horns:

“Engaging whodunit series … Readers will enjoy Bell’s talent for description and character development.” –– Publishers Weekly

“The tale equally balances action and drama, motion and emotion. Readers who pride themselves on figuring out the answers before an author reveals them are in for a surprise, too. Bell is very good at keeping secrets. Fans of thrillers with lawyers as their central characters—John Lescroart and Phillip Margolin, especially—will welcome this new addition to their must-read lists.” — Booklist

I’ve been asked many times if I might add another book to this series. I’ve considered it, but I also think the series ends in exactly the right spot, with exactly the right scene, and indeed, even the right line. I am hesitant to mess with that. But if you do decide to read all three books, I would love to hear what you think I should do!

The books are on Kindle and Nook, and soon will be on Kobo and in print. If you want to know when, you can subscribe to my email alerts and I’ll be sure to let you know.


Try Dying – Ty Buchanan Legal Thriller #1

Try Darkness – Ty Buchanan Legal Thriller #2

Try Fear – Ty Buchanan Legal Thriller #3


Try Dying – Ty Buchanan Legal Thriller #1

Try Darkness – Ty Buchanan Legal Thriller #2

Try Fear – Ty Buchanan Legal Thriller #3

Now we turn to you, TKZers. What is your favorite way to get ideas? And have you ever been to Schenectady?

29 thoughts on “Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

  1. I have read two of the three, out of order, but my OCD is comfortable with that (at the moment~), and I’m in the process of aquiring the middle one. I’ve recommended them to my reading family and friends.

    I like the short (and for the un-introduced, I mean SHORT) chapters~ literally keeping me turning the pages because, heck, it’s just another one or two…. (I’m an “analog”, reader~ I like the way the weight of the book shifts from the right to the left and how the bookmark drifts from the the top to the bottom).

    The courtroom scenes read technically and informatively without being dry and textbook (in both the “formulaic” and academic senses)..

    As to your question about continuing with Mr. Buchanan, I’ll answer by saying I’ll TRY AGAIN should you decide to…

    As to my idea file, I keep a couple of notebooks, one with bits and pieces of things that grab my ear~ conversations on the elevator, from the radio, or something I’ve read. The second one is where those that “stick” or demand attention, get fleshed out a bit more. And yes, I tear up newspapers and magazines~ much to my wife’s chagrin.

    Thanks for allowing me to ramble along here.

    • Thanks for the very kind words. I do make it a point to render courtroom scenes authentically, yet dramatically. I watched a courtroom thriller the other day and the “big moment” happened when a supposedly great, experienced lawyer did something such a lawyer would never do in a real trial: he asked a witness on cross an open-ended question to which he did not know the answer, then allowed the witness to go on and on with the damaging testimony.

      I’m glad to hear about your notebooks. Those are priceless repositories. One thing a writer of fiction should never have to say is, “I don’t know what to write next.”

      • ‘I watched a courtroom thriller the other day and the “big moment” happened when a supposedly great, experienced lawyer did something such a lawyer would never do in a real trial: he asked a witness on cross an open-ended question to which he did not know the answer, then allowed the witness to go on and on with the damaging testimony.’

        James Mason in the ‘Verdict?’

  2. I mine the newspaper for criminal motives or for an interesting tidbit of information that might kick off a stimulating thread of research. Or I get ideas from people I meet and situations I encounter. Ideas are everywhere. It’s having the time to turn them into stories that is the problem.

    • Right, Nancy. Ideas are everywhere. The fiction author should never ask, “Hm, where can I find an idea?” but rather, “Which idea should I develop more fully?” As I mention in the post, it’s usually when one of the ideas I find keeps pestering me. The Boys in the Basement are saying, “We want to get to work!”

  3. Congrats on the rerelease! I’m sure they’ll do really well. 🙂

    Re: ideas, I had to sit and think about that for a minute. Most of my ideas come during brainstorming sessions, when I’ve pegged down a genre I want to write. For instance, I’m plotting a sci-fi serial, and I’m still generating ideas for that, via brainstorming and research. It’s thrilling to me how much we don’t know about the universe. Lots of room for questions, questions, questions.

    • You mention research, Kessie, and that’s a great way to get ideas, not just information. Combined with brainstorming, that’s an especially fine method for sci-fi.

  4. Pingback: Best Fiction and Writing Blogs | M.C. Tuggle, Writer

  5. Congratulations on the re-release! I’ll download these babies now–they look very interesting.

    I get ideas from lots of places but the two most frequent are songs and watching a show and thinking about how I would do things differently. Not in the arrogant, my way is much better way, but in an attempt to get better at storytelling, I frequently try to figure out what happens next in a movie or series. When how the tv series worked with events differs enough from what I thought would happen, it starts the germ of idea. I combine this with many other ideas until the original inspiration is all but unrecognizable.

    Songs lyrics that make me wonder how someone got to the point where they would sing about those events are a gold mine for me. 😀

    • Thanks, Elizabeth. You just gave me an idea based on your post. I’m an ex-viewer of a television show currently on air (it has gotten so bad I just can’t tolerate it any more. Not worth it.). One of my beefs with the program was that the show missed an outstanding storyline for one of its female characters that they didn’t follow through on. It would be great to write something fictional along those lines, but of course it would take a tremendous amount of research. But I’m going to keep that thought on the back burner too–you never know! So thanks for poking my brain! 😎

    • I do something like this, sometimes I’ll take the other side of the story, either in fiction or songwriting and go from there~ like, what’s the guy’s point of view in a Taylor Swift song, for example…

  6. In another post, you said you get some of your best ideas from obits. That’s been a gold mine for me lately.

  7. I’m glad you hold the Ty Buchanan series in a special place in your heart because I’ve enjoyed many of your books but these were my favorite as well. Now a whole new generation of readers can enjoy them too.

    Since I write primarily historical, my ideas mostly come from research, though occasionally a news article will trigger an idea (especially when I get wild ideas about writing something contemporary). Sometimes a book title will pop into my mind, then the plot comes after. In one case, I’ve got a book title that still sits on the back burner of my mind for which the plot still hasn’t come through. But I believe it will at the right time and place in my life. I know I don’t get much control over titles if traditionally published, but odds are I won’t traditionally publish anyway. Besides, I think there are times you should fight for titles, same as you do key portions of your story.

    Creativity can be weird, but always fun. 😎

      • I get ideas for stories from other book covers and titles. I’ve taken a small notebook into a bookstore and looked at the covers that are facing out (especially in the SF section) and then, without reading the cover copy, I try to imagine what a story called “XXX XXXX” and with particular cover image would be about and how it would go. Then I make a note of it for a future story.

        (When I check to see what it’s actually about, I’m usually really far off.)

  8. As my memory becomes more sieve-like, I am grateful for all helpful hints.
    I have been using the writing journal every day I write ( life still intrudes so I cannot always be as consistent as I wish) and I have found it invaluable not only to remember my thoughts and ideas but as a place where my characters can ask questions and I can work out the answers. Now I see I’ll have to start a file for clippings for future stories.
    As ever, I am appreciative for what I learn here on TKZ.

  9. Jim,
    Happy re-release day! I look forward to reading your Ty novels. Love the summaries of each.

    Ideas, my story seeds, often come in the form of seeing a character in a vivid scene, with a strong vibe or attitude permeating the scene. Another favorite is juxtaposition–taking a cool idea and combining it with something else. You can have all kinds of fun with this. A third way is an old favorite, the story prompt. My first short story publication, “Dead Wife Waiting,” came from a prompt: “An encounter on a lonely road at dusk.” The story unfolded from that, a kind of weird western fantasy setting, a gun toting, hex slinging protagonist who finds his supposedly dead wife guarding a lonely road.

    • Dale, I often try to imagine my main characters in scenes of great intensity that will not even be in the book. I use that exercise to find different nuances.

      imagination. It’s a wonderful thing.

  10. Jim, thanks for the link to the Ty Buchanan series. Good luck with the release in digital. I just bought all three of them. I certainly enjoyed the Kit Shannon series.

    As to ideas: I find myself looking at all the medical technology I’m surrounded with and thinking of ways the antagonist could “high jack” that technology for nefarious purposes. The more complex and high tech the technology, the easier it would be to hide such misuse.

    As for Schenectady, I’ve never been there. But after searching Google, it sounds like a very creative place to visit – “The city that lights and hauls the world.”

    Thanks for another great post.

  11. The many fascinating people I was exposed to in 25 years working in high volume, high acuity ERs is the primary source for my ideas. It is definitely the wellspring for the creation of characters.
    So many profound life (and death) events involve the ER and one sees people dealing with overwhelming challenge. Patients, their loved ones and we, as caregivers, face a blast furnace of emotion.
    Additionally the ER serves as society’s safety net and one is exposed to people and lifestyles that others do not know exist.

    • I have an ER scene is my WIP. Used my memory, wrote the scene and made things happen. Then ran it all by an ER nurse and smoothed out rough edges. Fun stuff.

      • Happy to pitch in anytime if you need an additional medical/ER/trauma resource.
        Thanks for the always excellent educational input.

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