The Getting and Keeping of Ideas



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I was thinking about the way people ask me where I get my story ideas. It’s a classic but awkward question, especially if my ideas are at a low ebb right then and I’m certain I’ll never have another idea for a story. It’s like when my son complains and complains that we never have anything interesting for dinner, and I ask him before I go to the grocery what he would like me to make. Usually he can’t think of anything right at that moment and gets frustrated. (The answer is, more often than not, tacos. Something I make frequently.)

There are times when I can’t come up with an idea to save my own life. It’s embarrassing to admit, especially because I also have to write all of my ideas down quickly or they’ll slip away and eventually find some other writer to express them.

A writer I admire once told me that if you can’t keep an idea alive in your head, then it’s not actually a good idea. While I can see a vague point to this–some ideas demand to be written immediately–I mostly disagree. People sometimes get obsessive even with bad ideas. I frequently consult my banked story ideas in both the fallow times and the flush. I find that I can pretty much make a story out of any of them. And that’s reassuring.

My usual answer to anyone who asks about where I get my ideas is:

“Oh, everywhere. I never know when I’m going to run across a crime story online or see something on the news.”

What’s going through my head:

“Dear God, do you know how much time I spend making notes on or bookmarking stories? There are crime and news websites that I stalk relentlessly.  Or I’ll be reading a book someone else has written and a character says something that catches my imagination, and I stop reading and start daydreaming. Then there’s my childhood. Someday that gorilla in the Pepto-Bismol pink bathroom I dreamed about when I was five is going to have its own kid’s book. And I was the proverbial little pitcher with big ears, soaking in the stories and gossip around the grown-ups card table. Throw in emotions, dreams, overheard personal dramas, the sociopath I went on two dates with before things got super weird and I eventually had to leave town for good. Don’t forget the divorce played out in my kid’s carpool line, and the woman with the severely bitten nails in the waiting area of the therapist’s office.”

Here’s one of my favorite character quotes. It’s from Ariadne Oliver, a writer who shows up in several Poirot stories.

“I mean, what does one say about how one writes books? You just think of an idea and force yourself to write it.”

Just think of an idea. No biggie.


Do you keep files or idea banks of ideas, or do you wing it? How do you approach the where do you get your ideas question?


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About Laura Benedict

Laura Benedict is the Edgar- and ITW Thriller Award- nominated author of eight novels of suspense, including The Stranger Inside (Publishers Weekly starred review). Her Bliss House gothic trilogy includes The Abandoned Heart, Charlotte’s Story (Booklist starred review), and Bliss House. Her short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and in numerous anthologies like Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads, The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers, and St. Louis Noir. A native of Cincinnati, she lives in Southern Illinois with her family. Visit her at

25 thoughts on “The Getting and Keeping of Ideas

  1. I scribble ideas everywhere … on the corner of envelopes, in my notebook, on the back of business card, napkins, etc. Strangely enough, though, I rarely use the ideas I write down. It’s the ideas that haunt me that turn into stories.

    When asked the standard question, Where do you get your ideas? Unless the inspiration is unusual or fascinating, it’s easier to just say everywhere. If someone asks at a book signing, however, then I feel like I should expand my answer to illustrate what I mean.

    • How amazing that you rarely use the ones you write down. But noting them is probably a really good way to keep them flowing–almost like clearing them away to get to the haunting ones.

      I always have an origin story prepared when I take a novel out–it’s fun to share that specific one when I’m asked at signings.

  2. One famous writer (I believe it was Harlan Ellison) regularly said he gets all his ideas from a little shop in Schenectady. 🙂 When I’m asked, I usually steal that line.

    In reality, mine usually occur when a recurring series (or other) character pops into my head with a line of snappy dialogue in which a problem (not necessarily “the” problem) is introduced. Then I write an opening. If it runs (it usually does), I write it; if it doesn’t, I trash it and move on to the next idea.

    Like you, I also sometimes get ideas from headlines, what I see through the window of my vehicle, etc.

    This has worked for me through 30+ novels, several novellas and around 200 short stories.

    • Sounds like you have a great system, indeed, Harvey.

      Hmmmm. I think I’ll steal that line, too. Except change it to…Paris. Then add, Kentucky.

  3. I’ve written a bunch of stories based on the prompts at The Weekly Knob (a different household object each week). Focusing on something particular, like the pepper grinder on the kitchen table where I’m writing this, then Jim Bell’s “What if.”

    One of my favorite ideas came when driving the PA turnpike late at night during a rainstorm. I was noticing the pull-offs, and the thought struck me–what if someone had to get out of their vehicle (turned out to be a semi in which she was hitching a ride) and head into the woods on foot…

    What I’m finding harder is coming up with ideas that fit into my novel’s first draft as I struggle to fill plot and character gaps. Jim’s suggestion (somewhat tongue-in-cheek, I think) to bring in a new character probably isn’t apposite, since I’ve got too many characters already. So it’s back to “what if.” Or the pepper grinder, now (somewhat) constrained by the existing material.

    • Ack. Those plot gaps. They can be so stifling–happens to me often. That’s when I take a quiet hour and just daydream with the only boundaries being the world in which the story’s set. Sometimes I find that the best new ideas screw with the ending a bit. The key is not to be afraid of big changes. That’s what first drafts are for. For what it’s worth…

  4. As soon as an idea pops into my head I email myself a note and create a file folder on my computer–sometimes it later becomes a story, sometimes it just sits there, but at least it’s not lost. As to the question, the response is “everywhere, especially from research” since that’s where the bulk of my ideas come from in those ‘what if’ moments.

    It’s hard NOT to get ideas from everywhere. I was in a medical school’s back kitchen yesterday and they had a hard sided, deep plastic cart (think laundry cart, but without the cloth sides, but plastic instead). And there was some large type of pipe-looking thing leaning against the wall. It’s hard not to concoct ideas–a large cart, a medical school that not uncommonly has cadavers. You get the idea. LOL!

    • Kris, it’s like the medical school set that up, knowing you were coming!

      Great idea to link the email and folder creation. I’ve come to rely on the notes app on my phone. When I go back and look, some seem pretty wacky. (Wacky is still a word, right?!)

  5. The few times I’ve been asked, since I’m nowhere near published yet, I say dreams. It’s not entirely untrue. At some point, each of my stories make it’s way into my dreams and creates an integral scene.

    Whenever I find an idea, I can’t exactly jot it down because there’s nothing concrete about it. It’s a feeling, or an image, or a character trait. I have to envision a character first, some scenes, and if I get to the point where I’m looking up names for the characters, then I know it’s an idea worth pursuing. Actually, funny story, the WIP I’m working on, whenever my mind landed on it, I told myself it was a stupid idea and that it would never work, that there were already too many stories like it. I’m halfway through it now, already revising the first few chapters with a writing group, and I’ve never felt more confident about a manuscript in my life. This one might actually work for me.

  6. It’s chicken and egg with me–idea first or character first? It often starts with the character then I wonder how s/he would react in a peculiar or challenging circumstance I read or hear about. What gets me rolling more than the idea itself is what the character would do when faced with that problem.

    Another inspiration is an unexpected, out-of-place object. Years ago, on a deserted road in the Colorado high desert, I spotted a discarded wedding veil stuck on scrub brush blowing in the wind. For some reason, that image stuck in my memory. One day I’ll figure out the story behind it.

    Tacos for dinner is always a good idea!

    • Wow! The veil is intriguing—50 different writers would no doubt produce 50 different stories. Lucky you!

      I rarely have characters first. Always setting or situations before anything else.

  7. In”find” lines and ideas in all the usual places~ magazines, web-blogs, TV, the elevator at the day job~ I jot ’em on whatever’s handy (including the plan of my hand sometimes), and transfer ’em to a long, thin reporter’s notepad .

    I’ll reference and rummage when stuck, and sometimes mix a couple together to form a song, a poem, or that missing whatzit in a story.

  8. Small ideas I put on a list in the Scrivener file for each story. If it is an idea for a new project, I make a book cover in Photoshop, then a Scrivener file, then I have a form named Nine Points that has all the usual data like Summary, Place, Time, Cast in it.
    I include nine structural entries: Opening, Inciting Incident, 1st Plot Point, 1st Pinch Point, Middle Crisis/Mirror Moment, 2nd Pinch Point, 2nd Plot Point, Climax, and Landing. Most of you will recognize each of these turning points. Then I write.
    You can see a few of my covers at my website:

  9. I get ideas from things I encounter when I’m outside. If a woman’s shoe is on the side of the road, I make up a story about how it got there. Or if I swimming in a lake, is that lake grass that just brushed my feet, or is it human hair attached to a dead body that was killed by a sentient lake serpent? (I’m a little envious that Debbie found a wedding veil.)

    I’ve been doing this for years. It was great fun when my daughter was young and I had to drive her and her friends places. Twelve-year-old kids have fabulous imaginations. If the other parents knew my how’d-it-get-there story game, they would have never let me drive carpool.

    And yes, I write down my ideas in a writer’s journal so they don’t get away.

  10. Thank you for starting this discussion, Laura. I get this question also very often.
    I used to be afraid of running dry of ideas at some point. So I hoarded books and links for possible ideas. I rarely looked into them afterwords.
    Later I realized that ideas are always there. The key for me was to identify which felt most fun for me in that moment of my life. I call that now my Fun-Detecting Antenna.
    Elizabeth Gilbert talks about it in her book Big Magic and refers to curiosity. What makes you curious (not necessarily passionate; passion comes later) could be the idea you are searching for in this moment.
    So taking a moment, giving yourself a break, looking around and discovering what makes you curious could bring you to your next best idea. 🙂

  11. All ideas – I believe – are influenced by someone else or their work. B.B. King once modestly said, “We all borrow from one another.” While Ritchie Blackmore was probably a little more honest. “We all steal stuff from each other.”
    Newspaper articles, Movies (& parts of) other novels, non-fiction stories, places you’ve visited and people you meet all fall into this category in one form or another.
    Of course your imagination and what you do with it is the BIG factor.

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