How Do You Come Up With The Ideas For Your Novels?

By Mark Alpert

It’s Black Friday as I write this, and my daughter and I are protesting the annual capitalistic orgy by refusing to buy anything. Instead, we’re writing. She’s working on a paper about King Lear. I’m going to write about the sometimes frustrating, sometimes exhilarating process of finding new ideas for novels.

At this moment (4:23 p.m.) my daughter and I are doing our creative work at a salad place called Sweetgreen, mostly because we wanted to get out of the apartment for a while. Sweetgreen is a restaurant/takeout chain that’s spreading across Manhattan like a weed; it features salads with cute names like the Kale Caesar, which sells for the very uncute price of $13. Since this place opened a year ago across the street from our apartment building, I’ve dropped at least a thousand dollars on their artisanal greenery, so I’ve definitely earned the right to come here on Black Friday with my daughter and commandeer one of their tables for creative writing and not spend a dime. Because we’re protesting. We hate mindless consumerism. And yet we’ll continue to buy their overpriced salads on the other 364 days of the year.

Sweetgreen is actually a pretty good spot for writing, much better than any of the fancy coffee shops that have opened nearby (Joe Coffee, Joe & The Juice, Blue Bottle, etc.) It’s much less crowded at this place, and there’s plenty of room on the table for our laptops. The Sweetgreen chain has an organic, healthy-living philosophy that’s probably more strategic than sincere. It’s expressed with odd business practices such as refusing to stock sugar or any other sweeteners alongside the dispensers of Jasmine Green Iced Tea, Lemon Fresca, and Kale Gingerade. (Because sweeteners are bad for you! We’re not going to let you give yourself diabetes!) But more pertinent to my writing topic today is the inspirational message printed on Sweetgreen’s recycled-paper napkins: “Some of the best ideas have come from the back of a napkin. Ready to share yours?”

None of my ideas for novels has come from a napkin. I’ve written 14 books so far (nine of which have been published) and the process is still mysterious to me. I can’t remember how most of my plots and characters were born; their origins are clouded by a sort of primordial mist, and all I can do is make guesses about what I was thinking at the time. This is because the process of writing a novel is so immersive and overwhelming. Writing Chapter Two obliterates the memory of writing Chapter One, and so on. The process of parenting is much the same; the time-consuming task of raising a toddler mostly swamps the memories of feeding and diapering the same kid as an infant. When I look across the table at the brilliant 17-year-old writing about King Lear, it’s very difficult to recall the eight-year-old who lived for SpongeBob or the three-year-old who loved to dress up like a butterfly. I rely on photos and videos to remind me what she was really like back then.

But I have no photos or videos to illuminate why I started writing my books. My forthcoming novel, THE COMING STORM — scheduled to be published by St. Martin’s Press in January — was inspired by politics; I started writing it soon after Trump was elected, and all the outrageous events over the following year spurred me on. I made some obvious choices — one of the book’s characters is an unnamed U.S. president who looks and sounds very familiar, and the novel’s hero comes from an immigrant family — but I don’t remember how I composed the plot or selected the other characters. While waiting for that book to be published, I wrote a Young Adult novel that I’m still revising, and in the meantime I’ve started tossing around ideas for yet another book.

Like most novelists, I have certain obsessions I keep writing about. Mine are death, God, and the apocalypse, not necessarily in that order. For me, the key to success is finding an idea that taps into those obsessions, allowing me to work up the passion I need to write the book. But that’s easier said than done. Right now I’m at a loss. I’m still looking for an idea that grabs me.

When I was writing poetry in grad school, one of my teachers told us that writing a good poem was like getting struck by lightning. The great poets were the people who were willing to stand below a thunderstorm all their lives. I used to spend hours in Columbia University’s library, reading Berryman and Bishop and Roethke and Stevens, keeping my notebook open on the table in front of me just in case the lightning should strike. And these days I still follow that strategy. I read voraciously, devouring novels of every genre. This week I’m reading The Adventures of Augie March and trying for the umpteenth time to understand why Saul Bellow is so celebrated. I’m also plowing through the recently released third season of the television adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel The Man in the High Castle.

And my daughter is an inspiration too. In the two-and-a-half hours since I sat down at this table in Sweetgreen I’ve written about 900 words, but she’s written more than 1,800. I need to catch up!

By the way, an hour ago we broke our anti-capitalist promise and purchased a couple of Jasmine Green Iced Teas (for $3 each!) To circumvent Sweetgreen’s anti-sweetener policy, I ran back upstairs to our apartment, poured some sugar into a plastic baggie, and smuggled it into the place so we could sweeten our drinks. But I poured way too much sugar into the baggie, and now the bulging thing is sitting on the table next to our laptops, making us look like a couple of coke dealers.

Which explains the picture of our workspace, shown at the top of this post!

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About Mark Alpert

Contributing editor at Scientific American and author of science thrillers: Final Theory (2008), The Omega Theory (2011), Extinction (2013), The Furies (2014), The Six (2015), The Orion Plan (2016), The Siege (2016), and The Silence (2017). His latest thriller, The Coming Storm (St. Martin's Press, 2019), is a cautionary tale about climate change, genetic engineering, and Donald Trump. His website:

6 thoughts on “How Do You Come Up With The Ideas For Your Novels?

  1. My story ideas pop up when I’m busy writing something else. I’ve learned to keep a notebook next to me so I can jot down the idea before it flies away.

    I’m rather impressed at your daughter’s word count!

    Haha, funny about the baggie full of white stuff.:-)

  2. Mark, you have the neatest writing space I’ve ever seen. Sterile space has never been part of my writing life, I write within the space of a 1967 Airstream trailer, or a 1978 GMC motor home with two rescue dogs. I’ve been writing for my own enjoyment for years. Who knows I might want to discover myself and get one published one day.
    Looking back over my efforts to write what I know; I find that is the best place for the older you get in years, the better you remember the past. My decade of Captaining a charter Sailboat in the Florida Keys left a lasting impression on my soul, so it just popped up one day. That produced enough ideas to fill two stories, and the third came from the experience of driving to West Virginia to pick up this old Airstream I write in today, along with a four day visit to the National Story Telling Festival in North East Tennessee on the return. It wasn’t my fault the Airstream was stuck up on the side of a mountain for an observation post for bootleggers a few years back.
    I’m not a big believer in ever becoming a varnished author, but only regret not abiding in an offered idea of writing what you know early on.
    Merry Christmas out there.

  3. Sir, in order to protest your apparently-protest novel about President Trump:

    1.) I plan to go to Walmart today, stand in line, and purchase as much as I can.

    2.) I have proclaimed today sugar, meat and football Saturday in the Porter household. No salads. Anywhere. For any purpose.

    3.) I hope the apocalypse strikes your apartment in Manhattanabout and nowhere else in the world today, and that your daughter goes to the movies downtown. (And I hope you survive, but you have to sleep out on the street tonight.)

    4.) And, I protest your protest by not telling you where I get my ideals for novels from, because they’re mine, mine, mine, mine, mine.


    But I will tell you that I have an idea for a novel about a mine.

    It’s mine.

  4. Many of my major ideas have come to me in my dreams. I wake up and try to figure out what happened before and after. A case in point, I dreamed of a large wooden yacht breaching a bay and coming toward a dock on Lake Norman. The boat explodes, and I see the image of a woman with fire behind her as she dives into the water. That became the opening scene for my romantic suspense, GUARDIAN ANGEL.

    I buy oranges and grapefruits from a farm in Texas for the siblings, and Barnes & Noble gift cards for their kids. My local friends get books I think they will enjoy. I love the simplicity of that. Plus, I’m supporting authors.

  5. Pingback: How Do You Come Up With The Ideas For Your Novels? | Loleta Abi

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