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.

idea

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.

Dreams

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.

Books

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?

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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?

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Opening Chapters

Throughout my years as a published author, I’ve participated in various mentoring programs. This past weekend at the Space Coast Writers Guild Conference. I was assigned to mentor three writers for a total of six hours. This being my first such experience at a conference, I wasn’t sure what to do. Guidelines would have been helpful, but I was out there on my own. So I started by asking my subjects how far along they were in the writing process and what they wanted to learn.

The eager writers were nearly done with their manuscripts and wanted to hear writing tips and how to submit their work, where to find agents, what to do in terms of author branding. So we talked about all of those topics. Then they gave me about 30 pages each of their work to read. It would have been helpful to have had those pages emailed to me before the conference, because after going all day from around 9 to 7 or so, I wanted to relax. But I diligently read through and critiqued their manuscripts that evening.

Sunrise (800x600)
SUNRISE ON THE BEACH
Lois Winston (800x600)
LOIS WINSTON AND NANCY COHEN

Each person wrote fantasy or science fiction so we had those elements in common. That was up my alley since I write sci fi and fantasy romance in addition to cozy mysteries. As for the basics of fiction writing, it doesn’t matter what genre you favor. The principles are the same.

When I read their work, I found the world building blocks to be solid. The problems they shared involved pacing in the first chapter.

Either I found too much backstory repetitively entwined through the current action, with snippets of dialogue from prior conversations running through the protagonist’s head in the middle of a fight scene, or prolonged chit chat between characters that could be shortened. In a couple of cases, I suggested moving up the beginning to the point where my interest really kicked in.

These are not uncommon problems. I’ve revised my own openings endless times, haven’t you? And nowadays, when on Amazon potential readers can sample your first chapter and determine on that basis if they’ll buy your book, these first few pages are critically important. This experience also shows why it’s good to work with critique partners who can view your opening from an objective perspective and tell you if it works or not. So here are the basic points I’d like to reiterate about first chapters:

  • Start with action or dialogue. If you absolutely must begin with a description, make sure it is emotionally evocative from the main character’s viewpoint.
  • Leave backstory for later or weave it in with dialogue. Or drop it in a line or two at a time in the character’s head if it relates to the action.
  • Make sure all conversations serve a purpose.
  • Remember to include emotional reactions during dialogue between characters.
  • Make sure your characters are not talking about something they already know just so the reader can learn about it.
  • Keep the story moving forward.

Are there any other points that you would add?

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Opening Chapters

Throughout my years as a published author, I’ve participated in various mentoring programs. This past weekend at the Space Coast Writers Guild Conference. I was assigned to mentor three writers for a total of six hours. This being my first such experience at a conference, I wasn’t sure what to do. Guidelines would have been helpful, but I was out there on my own. So I started by asking my subjects how far along they were in the writing process and what they wanted to learn.

The eager writers were nearly done with their manuscripts and wanted to hear writing tips and how to submit their work, where to find agents, what to do in terms of author branding. So we talked about all of those topics. Then they gave me about 30 pages each of their work to read. It would have been helpful to have had those pages emailed to me before the conference, because after going all day from around 9 to 7 or so, I wanted to relax. But I diligently read through and critiqued their manuscripts that evening.

Sunrise (800x600)
SUNRISE ON THE BEACH
Lois Winston (800x600)
LOIS WINSTON AND NANCY COHEN

Each person wrote fantasy or science fiction so we had those elements in common. That was up my alley since I write sci fi and fantasy romance in addition to cozy mysteries. As for the basics of fiction writing, it doesn’t matter what genre you favor. The principles are the same.

When I read their work, I found the world building blocks to be solid. The problems they shared involved pacing in the first chapter.

Either I found too much backstory repetitively entwined through the current action, with snippets of dialogue from prior conversations running through the protagonist’s head in the middle of a fight scene, or prolonged chit chat between characters that could be shortened. In a couple of cases, I suggested moving up the beginning to the point where my interest really kicked in.

These are not uncommon problems. I’ve revised my own openings endless times, haven’t you? And nowadays, when on Amazon potential readers can sample your first chapter and determine on that basis if they’ll buy your book, these first few pages are critically important. This experience also shows why it’s good to work with critique partners who can view your opening from an objective perspective and tell you if it works or not. So here are the basic points I’d like to reiterate about first chapters:

  • Start with action or dialogue. If you absolutely must begin with a description, make sure it is emotionally evocative from the main character’s viewpoint.
  • Leave backstory for later or weave it in with dialogue. Or drop it in a line or two at a time in the character’s head if it relates to the action.
  • Make sure all conversations serve a purpose.
  • Remember to include emotional reactions during dialogue between characters.
  • Make sure your characters are not talking about something they already know just so the reader can learn about it.
  • Keep the story moving forward.

Are there any other points that you would add?

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Inspiration for Writers

Readers always ask writers, “Where do you get your ideas?”
Ideas for novels can come from anywhere. The inspiration for my paranormal romance series arose from a ride at Disney World’s Epcot theme park (Epcot = Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow). In World Showcase stands the Norway pavilion and a ride called Maelstrom, one of the best attractions in the theme park, in my opinion. You board a boat and enter a dark tunnel up a steep incline. At the top, staring down at you, is a glowing eye. The boat takes you into a misty forest where a troll pops up (or is it three trolls? I don’t remember). This evil character casts a magic spell on you to “Disappear…disappear.”
Suddenly, you are whisked backward through time (and literally backward as well). Then the  boat glides past a series of historical panoramas depicting Norse history. But then, uh oh, it appears as though your transport is about to plunge over the edge of a waterfall. Instead, after a slight turn, your boat does plunge downward but at a much less scary angle, landing with a splash amid oil rigs at sea. You’re back in the present and disembark at a seaside village.
From here, guests are herded into a theater for a film about Norway. Here’s a tip: if you do not wish to linger, walk directly past the seats and out the door on the opposite side before the film starts. You’ll exit in the shops and can browse the expensive wool sweaters, fanciful troll dolls, books, and jewelry. The Norway pavilion also has a sit-down restaurant and a fast food café. A little known gem is a tiny museum with lifelike figures depicting ancient kings and warriors.
From this experience was born my fictional Drift Lords series with a band of warriors who come from outer space to save Earth from an invasion of Trolleks (my term for trolls), who arrived through a rift between dimensions (think Bermuda Triangle). They join forces with a group of Earth women whose special powers are just awakening. An ancient prophesy says history is repeating itself and Ragnarok, the destruction of the universe, approaches and only our heroes and heroines can prevent disaster.
My story is based on Norse mythology. I bought some books at the Norway pavilion on Vikings and Norse gods, studied up on the mythology, and watched some movies involving trolls. By now I’ve completed two books in this trilogy with one more to go. I put that aside to work on later because I’m working diligently to finish a mystery, first book in a new series, inspired by a reader at one of my book signings who said, why don’t you write a mystery about xxx−and so I did. Again, inspiration hit from an unexpected place.
Where do our ideas come from? They’re out there. We have only to latch onto them and turn them into our fictional worlds. And world building is a topic for another time.
So fellow writers, what inspired your current project?
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