Magic Box of Story Ideas and Character Creation

When browsing the archives of TKZ, I sometimes find two or three blogs on the same or complimentary subjects. Today we have three articles on story ideas and character creation. The link at the end of each section will take you to the entire post, which I encourage you to read.

Please feel free to comment on other reader’s comments and strike up a conversation.

One of the questions writers hear often is where do we get our ideas. Depending on the situation, my standard answer is that I subscribe to the Great Idea of The Month Club. And when someone asks how they can join, I have to tell them that members are sworn to secrecy and forbidden to divulge that information.

If I’m pressed for an answer, I say that I can give some sources away, but only if they don’t tell where they got them. If they want to write murder mysteries, for instance, I aim them toward THE MURDER BOOK 2008, a blog by Paul LaRosa that records all the murders in New York City during 2008. There’s enough material there to keep a writer going for years.

But in reality, our ideas can come from almost any source at any time. Writers’ minds are in-tune with their surroundings ready to see the telltale signs of that little spark that could be used in a story or even become the basis of a whole book. – Joe Moore, 8-27-08


Often, when I speak to book-loving groups, I tell the Klansman-in-the-store story to illustrate why I write thrillers. As an author I am always trying to make my readers feel some of what I felt when real villains crossed my path, and I realized that they could do me serious harm. And I also realized at some point that my father wouldn’t always be there to make the world safe again. I have met more villains than I can count, and I do my best to protect myself and those I love from bad things and evil people to the best of my ability. Some evil is obvious, but most of the time it lies just beneath an innocuous and seemingly harmless surface. And sometimes the most dangerous things come to us with open arms and a smile. But seeing evil first hand allows me to write about threat and fear. Evil isn’t usually all that well defined, and it certainly is not simple. Villains should be complex, and human, and understanding them well enough to adequately portray them (in words) remains the ultimate challenge for writers. – Joe Moore, 8-23-08


John Mortimer, creator of Rumpole, wrote that “most of the interest and part of the terror of great crime are not due to what is abnormal, but to what is normal in it; what we have in common with the criminal rather than the subtle insanity which differentiates him from us.” I couldn’t agree more – for me, it is the commonality rather than the abnormality that makes a villain truly villainous.

Take Doctor Crippen – an unremarkable man in real life, the least likely man perhaps to have poisoned and dismembered his wife or to have been pursued across the Atlantic with a young mistress in tow disguised as a boy. Part of the fascination with this case is the sheer ordinariness of the supposed murderer – and now, with DNA evidence casting doubt on whether the woman whose body was found was that of Doctor Crippen’s wife, Cora, the mystery of what actually happened may never be solved.

In fiction of course, some of the most fantastical crimes that occur in real life can never be used simply because readers would never believe them. Take for example the man who murdered his wife over an affair that happened 40 years before and then left her body as a gift beneath the Christmas tree. Writers have to walk a fine line with villains too, making them both believable as well as intriguing. Are they merely the flip side of the protagonist? Are they an ordinary person pushed to the brink? Or does some deep psychological wound create the monster within? – Clare Langley-Hawthorne, 8-18-08

What is your favorite place to find story ideas?

How do you approach character creation?

What are your thoughts on the subject?

What is the craziest story you have ever heard about how an author got an idea for a character?

Moving from Idea to Novel

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I was presenting at my sons’ school on Friday, and one of the questions I was asked was how I turned my ideas into novels. Part of my answer was that, although I have heaps of ‘ideas’ jotted down in various journals, only about a handful of these have (so far ) developed into complete stories. This is because the majority of my ideas aren’t ‘story ready’. They’re either too flimsy or under-baked at the moment or, as I tinker with the plot options for them, turn out to be incapable of sustaining an entire story. 

There are many reasons an idea fails but one question that keeps coming up is – how do you know when an idea is sufficient to carry a great story? I think the easiest way to answer this is to ask the reverse – when is it not a good idea for a story?
Like when…

  • You think it’s a good idea only because it fits in with a current publishing trend 
  • You like the idea only because someone else told you it would make a great story 
  • You like the idea only because you think it will make you lots of money

Clearly, you have to love an idea to turn it into a terrific story. You have to love it because you’re going to live with it for a very long time as part of the writing process. Merely liking an idea isn’t really enough to sustain the commitment required to complete a novel.

You also have to let go of some darlings, because sometimes, no matter how much you love an idea, the characters, story and plot line simply don’t come together to make a successful story.

I adopt the following process when converting my ‘raw’ ideas into novels.

  • Firstly, I jot down all my ideas. You never know which ones might stick with you or which ones, years later, suddenly resonate. That’s not to say I write down every half-baked idea I get in the middle of the night, but if I’m still mulling over it in the morning, it’s probably worth putting down in my journal.
  • Then I let a few of these ideas percolate, to see which ones I am most passionate about writing about, now. Some ideas I love, but still don’t feel quite ready to explore.
  • I then work through the ideas I’m most passionate about, summarising the overall premise of the story, characters, and plot overview in order to prepare a proposal (about 1-2 pages) for my agent and I to consider. Sometimes, even at this stage it’s clear I’m forcing an idea that doesn’t yet work.
  • Then, once my agent and I agree on which proposal seems to stand out as the story I should work on next, I draft the first few chapters and do a more detailed plot outline to see whether it all looks as if it’s going to hang together. 

Now I’ve had ideas fail at all these levels – either because the premise wasn’t clear enough, the plot was too unwieldy or, even after the first chapters and outline have been prepared, the idea still didn’t seem to work for a successful novel. (In this case, at least I discovered this before I finished the entire first draft!)

So what about you? How do you know when an idea is really ‘story ready’. How do you evaluate whether the idea is sufficient to sustain a novel? Do you plan it out or muddle through?

Five Key Ingredients to Nurture a Story


I’ve read and heard various posts/discussions on where story ideas come, but for me it starts with one foundational notion—maintaining a fertile active mind. An author’s mind should be a rich soil cultivated for the seed of a story. Many elements can inspire and pique the interest of the author, but it takes a keen sense of storytelling for the seed to germinate into a story the writer wishes to tell. The author must be willing to commit to the project because it will take blood, sweat, and tears to complete the harvest and finish the book.
Five Key Ingredients to Nurture a Story
1.) Cultivate Fertile Ground
An author’s mind must be open to many things, much like a scientist is inquisitive about the world. I’ve found that passing judgment is a barrier to creativity. (What do you think?) Often research nurtures leaps that bound from one topic to the next until something resonates with the writer and the germination of a book idea begins. The “what if” question is a great place to start. Even if an idea or research topic doesn’t seem likely for one story, that research or notion may work for another book. Stay open to possibility. Sometimes it takes several ideas to make a story. Only the author writing the book will know when the combination is “write.”
2.) Stay Thirsty, my Friends
Yes, I’m borrowing the words of “the most interesting man in the world” because the notion fits. An author’s mind must be fluid and should be a sponge for ideas and inspiration. A writer’s constant thirst allows a story to take root and grow. The thirst sustains the writer over a career, but it also enhances his or her quality of life by filling the mind with a passion for learning new things. Flexing the mental muscle keeps the author young, don’t you think? Maybe learning new things allows an author’s brain to fend off age like the movie, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”
3.) Heap on the Fertilizer
Yes, I’m going there. Compost and B.S. It takes a willingness to heap on the bull to push the envelope on what’s being published. Writers can look for trends to write and jump on an already established “band wagon,” but I believe every author has the duty to shove on the edge of the creative envelope. Make projects fun. A writer should be willing to write slightly out of their comfort zone to test their skill. It’s a challenge that can stir greater passion and a sense of accomplishment when the work is done. The story should drive the creativity, even if it takes the book and the author to a new place. If an author writes the type of book they want to read, with a good grasp of author craft, I believe they are the marketplace. Others will want to read the book too.
4.) Know When to Harvest
At some point an author will have to finish those interminable revisions and get on with it. Hiding out in revision hell too long stifles creativity. That never-ending book will become more of an albatross. Get your proposals out and do it in stages while you start something new to keep your mind distracted while waiting. Keep writing and finish what you start. Don’t walk away from writing a book because you lost interest or faith in the project. You will learn more from working out the problem than abandoning a book because that problem could turn out to be a chronic and recurring issue in need of a fix.
5.) Have Patience in Taking Your Crop to Market
Don’t rush the process. Hone your craft and put the time in to make your manuscript flourish. I see too many people rush to self-publishing. bypassing publishers and agents. (I’m in support of self-publishing, so please don’t read into my intent.) Some authors avoid the marketplace (selling a book to a publisher or seeking an agent) because they either don’t know how to do it or they wish to avoid getting that pesky pile of rejection letters. No one likes rejection, but it does build character and cultivates thick rhino skin, which comes in handy even after you’re published. Understanding the marketplace builds on your knowledge of the industry. Sometimes testing your worth in the market will give you much needed feedback. Avoid flying a charter helicopter over NYC and dropping query letters in a blanket snow fall. Be more selective and test a query letter. If it doesn’t provide a nibble or two, try something else and tweak your proposal until you get that “better” form of rejection or a sale.
What say you, TKZers?
1.) What triggers a story in you?

2.) What projects are you cultivating this year and where are you in the process of harvesting your crop?
3.) How do you keep the writing fun? The latest release from Jordan Dane – Crystal Fire (Harlequin Teen, Dec 2013) The Hunted series.

While Gabriel Stewart trains his army of teen psychics to stop Alexander Reese–the obsessed leader of the Believers–the fanatical church becomes more bent on the annihilation of all Indigo and Crystal children. A storm is brewing on the streets of LA.

Crazy-writer deadline syndrome

By Kathryn Lilley

I recently sent a note of apology to someone who had requested information from me. I had been extremely remiss with this person–not sending her info on a timely basis, and forgetting to respond to emails. In my apology note, I lamely mentioned that I’d just emerged from a writing deadline, which to me is the equivalent of a free-diver trying to surface from deep water without blacking out.

“Oh, I didn’t realize you were on a deadline, no problem,” she replied in her gracious response, as if the deadline totally excused my flakiness.

This poor woman has to deal with writers all the time, I realized then. She’s used to us.

Then I started thinking about all my other deadline behaviors that could be considered annoying, or even strange, by family and friends. My crazy-writer deadline behaviors include:

The Big Tune-out

It’s not that I deliberately don’t listen to people (Okay, sometimes it is deliberate), but I frequently tune them out. This mostly happens when I’m on a deadline, which means it happens a lot. I might even respond to someone during a conversation, but not remember it later. It’s kind of like brain on auto-pilot.

To Kill a Magpie

When I’m out and about with my husband, I frequently dive for a pen and write detailed notes about our surroundings: the full moon hovering between two palm trees at night, a bag lady sitting in a bus shelter, the timbre of silverware clatter–I take notes about anything I can use later in my writing. Inevitably, I have left my notepad at home, so I drag home notes scribbled on scraps of things: a napkin, a flyer, even the back of a business card. My husband must think he lives with a magpie.

Hair on Fire

It’s predictable: Six weeks before any deadline, I go on a tear. This means that I’m a) Constantly hunched over the laptop, muttering, b) Setting the alarm for 4 a.m., then groaning my way to wakefulness over the course of several Snooze cycles, and c) Bounding out of bed at odd hours of the night to tap out some problem-solving idea that struck me.

I do not talk very much during this time. And when I do, it’s not pleasant.

So there it is. I could go on, but the length of the list is starting to make me feel bad about myself. I would like to feel that I’m not alone in my crazy-writer deadline syndromes. Have you any to share?

Take the crazy-writer quiz

Just found a fun quiz that tells you what kind of writer you are. (You have to be logged into Twitter) I’m Tom Wolfe, per the quiz.