Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

Some days the rabbit gets you and some days you have rabbit stew.  It’s like that in writing.

I don’t usually experience the blank page syndrome, but I do struggle to develop characters who can take me (and readers) through the whole story.  Filling out that character sheet is a fabulous help.  We’re told to work with these characters, fleshing them out so well that we absolutely know what they’ll do in any given situation.  Through workshops and writing books, as well as my own observations over years of reading great authors, I know this character stuff is essential.  If the reader doesn’t care about the character, she’ll put the book down.

Coming up with a great character to star in book three of my historical trilogy has been tough.  I sort of knew the time period, the  general setting, and even the extended family.  But, I didn’t have a main character.  Until Sunday.

Sunshine filled Ontario’s blue skies that day so that we just had to drive out and meet it.  Where could we go?  First, the sugar bush beckoned and we came away with a litre of liquid gold to have with hot cross buns, a seasonal must.  Then my husband and I drove a few miles to a family cemetery where I needed to get some pictures and information for my research.  Personal research, that is.  I just like to know my roots.

Then I thought I might show my husband the farm about which I had learned just last week, if I could find it.  We struck off meandering westward until I thought I had the right road.  This is rural Ontario, you see, and a few years ago the higher-ups changed the names of all the country roads.  They said it was to facilitate the introduction of the 911 emergency system, but I still think someone needed some new ways to spend our tax dollars.  But, as they say, I digress.

We found the place where my brother and I had lunch last week before he showed me what was two roads north up the gravel road.  And my husband drove as I anxiously scanned the countryside, looking for the land, the land where my great great great grandmother, Catherine, settled eons ago.  The land was in her name because her husband, William, was dead by the time the British government rewarded with land the Loyalists who fought in the War of 1812.

We found it!  Two one-hundred-acre parcels of land straddling the river, the only road at that time.  Catherine got a very valuable piece of property because of that river.  And I spent the day thinking what it must have been like to strike out for this unknown, unsettled, tree-covered expanse, her husband dead, and her  future such an unknown.  I began to see Catherine and her children with their government-issued implements and their few possessions as they landed in the wilderness and built a life.

Ever since I first saw that land, green with 6-inch winter wheat, prosperous modern buildings, and smartly flowing river, I’ve wondered what kind of boat they took, how many came, and how did they ever start from nothing.  And that all got me thinking about the story.  I wished they had written it down and I still do.  But now I’ve figured out how I might proceed.

Catherine will be my main character in book three.  And I can research and imagine and wonder and decide and make it up and use old family stories and create my book, just as those pioneers built their lives, from scratch.  And in this way I can preserve the story, not just for my family but for all the families whose ancestors fought the wilderness that was Canada.

As the title asks, where do you get your ideas?  Is there a character who just demanded that you write his or her story?  Have you had similar epiphanies in your writing journey?  Consider leaving a comment to tell your story.

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27 thoughts on “Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

  1. I’m sorry to say I have not had such an epiphany but I certainly enjoyed your article. I felt like I went on that ride with you. Of course I saved a few calories on the liquid gold, sounded so good too!

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    • My husband just tried it and he said it’s wonderful! Of course, I wanted to finish the store-bought one first, but it was not to be. How nice of you to say you felt you were on the trek with me. Wouldn’t it be good if we could do that? I guess that’s why we writers like to go on weekend retreats and sign up for writing conferences. We have to talk with others who love the same thing. Thanks so much for your comments, Crystal!

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  2. My ideas comes from many places, a snippet of conversation, a turn of phrase, tiny seeds that take root and develop into a mighty tree I never could have imagined at the outset. Most of the time, I’m not even sure how a storyline came into being, it was suddenly there.

    What You Wish For is one of those stories. I remember where I was the moment the story came to me (though I did not know the ending until I got there). I was driving a stretch of highway near Blind River, Ontario, in mid-winter. I wasn’t thinking about writing, wasn’t thinking about typewriters or magic or flea markets or cousins. Just an idea, a tiny germ of an idea: What if something rumoured to be magic turned out to really be magic?

    Poof! The characters took their places, my imagination shouted, Action! I had the story in my head (except for the ending) by the time I got in front of my computer.

    Sometimes, writing really is magic!

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  3. So confused on the liquid gold. Is it honey? Or maple syrup? From the picture and the sugar bush reference, I think not.

    Love how you came up with your latest character. So many family stories that would be interesting to write about, but you’re right, no one wrote them down. Glad to hear you are hard at work on creating book three. Three books are a great platform to start with. Sounds like a lovely day in the country with your sweetie!

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    • Ah, but maple syrup comes from maple trees. The syrup can be boiled to the syrup stage or further to the maple sugar/candy stage; hence, the name sugar bush. So the pictures in my blog don’t refer to the maple syrup. Perhaps a little more explanation might have been appropriate for my non-Canadian friends.
      As for book three, it will have to wait till book two is fleshed out, but at least I’ve got the road map now. Thanks for your comments, as always, Jessica!

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  4. Wish I had ancestors close enough to research – going home now requires a cross-country trip which doesn’t happen often. But when I do get back to New England, I soak in the atmosphere, take lots of pictures. One time when I drove, I filled a camera’s film with pictures of old barns taken along the way. Another time, I roamed the streets of a city nearby taking shots of the old Victorian houses. Have no idea how any of this will enter my writing, but isn’t research fun?

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    • I have a theory that we are innately connected to the geography where we grew up. Sounds like you get that feeling, too.
      The barn pictures reminded me of an artists tour here a couple of years ago. One of the many excellent artists had his home filled with amazing pictures of old barns, with subtle yet vibrant rainbows of colour seeping through the wood. I had always thought they were just made of grey boards, but he made us see the nuances that existed there. Beautiful.
      Have you been to Cape May in New Jersey? We saw amazing old Victorian style homes there. Those days gone by had their uglies but they also had some stunning beauty. thanks for sharing, Gay.

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  5. It’s funny. I never thought about this until I read your post.

    The ideas for each of my stories comes from constant character chatter, or the need to see if I *can* write the story. More often than not it’s the challenge of writing something new that makes me take up the freshly birthed idea and run with it.

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    • Welcome, Mirriam! And thanks for your comment. I checked out your site and see you’re in sunny California. Ontario has given it a run with our very mild, sunny winter this year.
      I do hear your idea about something new. I am that way, too, another reason why I got so excited when Catherine jumped into my writing brain. Trouble is, book two is still in the research stages so it will be some time before I get to her in book three. Just letting her percolate for now.

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  6. I’ve been developing a characterization booklet for just this process, Elaine, because I was having trouble determining not physical details, but my character’s attitudes and beliefs and voice.

    If I can hear their voices in my head, I have a much easier time writing them. I find some characters speak louder than others. I need to spend time on their backgrounds before they come alive for me. Usually, it’s a distinctive behaviour in someone that sparks a character for me.

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    • I am so glad I’m not the only one, Sharon. And, by the way, I was rereading the material from our Ottawa weekend to get the process started. Thanks again for that stuff. It does point the way. I think getting the voices into your head is good, too, as then you can hear their dialogue and peculiar voice inflections. Do you watch strangers and wonder what’s in their heads? I’ve started doing that and hope I don’t get taken for a stalker some day!

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  7. It’s exciting developing new characters. It’s like making a new friend. I definitely hear their voices in my head. That helps in remembering their favourite expressions and, also, their attitudes come through in their speech. I not only hear them, I picture them in my mind. It makes storytelling so much easier!
    Happy writing!

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    • Be careful with that hearing voices stuff. The people with the white coats might be after you. Just kidding, Phyllis, 🙂 Sometimes I imagine myself in situations and develop a character who is part me but more someone else. The way that character reacts to situations is so engrossing. Happy writing, right back at you!

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  8. Hi I found your site through Linkedin. I just did a post of where do you get your ideas. I write for children and I love putting family, past and present, in my manuscripts. I love putting a little fact into my fiction. This is one of the things that makes writing fun, putting a little of your family into your story. Good luck with your manuscripts and your researching.

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  9. Elaine, I get my ideas from story prompts and practices, snippets in magazines, ads, just every where. I story I want to write is “A cold and Snowy January Day.”

    One of my best works came from a writing prompt called “A shopping spree” and turned into a full-length science fiction novel called Energy Weaver because the characters were fascinating and the world gripped me.

    I am currently writing a historical novel that came to me like I was THERE: light, sound, smells, feel, everything. Really almost out of body experience. I simply had to write the scene and then explore who that person was and why they were walking across the street in Victorian Manhattan. I’m near the end of this 150K word WIP. One more chapter and I can wrap it up.

    Just look around you. Ideas are everywhere.

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    • A historical! Woo-eee! Someone else who likes my genre. Isn’t that that amazing the way the ideas come to you. Speaks volumes about your openness to your imagination. My first historical came that way, too, and then putting it together was easy. Book two is being resistant but book three already has a main character and plot lines streaming out of my brain. Back to the research to force book two out, I think. Thanks for your comments, Habisha!

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      • I wish you the best with Book 2, Elaine. If you have a three book series, book two is the “middle” and middles are always the hardest to write. I’m in your corner. Just lay back, close your eyes and listen very carefully to what your characters want to say and where they want to go. Bet they meet right up with book three. If these are stand alone books, book two is still going to be a “middle” book, hard to write, but ultimately pretty fabulous.

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  10. Good advice, Habisha. Thanks. I am a bit of a controller so maybe I need to let it happen a bit more. Meanwhile the research is so interesting I could just keep reading forever. Again, thanks for the vote of confidence. 🙂

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    • I love research and can get lost in it. I have drawers full from around 1886-1890 (Manhattan). It won’t go wasted, but finally had to ask myself how much was too much. I already knew what I wanted to say, but the research was just so fascinating! Finally I just said “enough!” and started with the blank page (somethng that terrifies me whether it’s at the beginning of a book or the beginning of a chapter) and went for it.

      I still hate blank pages at the beginning of chapters and haven’t figured out how not to have one! Writing Chapter Thirty (or whatever) at the top of the page helps, because there is something on the page. Maybe I just need to write through my chapter end into the next chapter, then repaginate.

      Perhaps all writers have phobias and things that stop us. I’m sort of at that spot now; I ran out of pre-plotted material and suddenly feel soooo lost. Not that I can’t write, it’s all in my head. I will fight through this today and let you know what happens.

      Let me know how you go with the research.

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      • I keep researching until stuff starts to form in my head and I get ideas of how the research might be used. Then the plot details start to emerge. Already I have a general idea as this is history but getting the fiction part is up to me and that’s the fun, fitting it to the history.
        I got the idea to use a spreadsheet for research from one of my followers, Jessica Aspen, so I am doing that and it helps with seeing the historic timeline. It helps me see immediately where I am weak with history and where I have loads. Right now I so want to start writing the story for book 2 but I have a bunch of blank years in my spreadsheet so am persevering with it. Soon the story on the pages. Soon!
        Do you have a website, Habisha? I want to see more of your stuff, if possible.

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  11. What fun to read about how other writers come up with their stories!
    In my case, the characters usually come to me as if they are a real person, and ask me to start writing them. I know nothing about them until I start to write, and only have to trust my fingers and my imagination to fill in what the ‘writer’ part of me already seems to know. It’s amazing fun, like a long running interview with my characters, who are, of course, only different facets of myself.

    Sometimes I think writing them is a way for me to confront parts of myself and my world that I couldn’t otherwise. Either way, there is usually a story waiting to be told.

    Actually, that sounds quite similar to what happened to you with Catherine! Good luck with your third book! I can’t wait to hear about your progress.

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    • Thanks for commenting here, Kirsten. And thanks for sharing your own writing experiences. Sometimes I wonder if we’re all schizophrenic and these are our other personalities pushing their way out. Oh, that is just too weird, eh? I think I’ll retract that statement lest people think writers have problems! BTW Friday I started writing chapter one of book two and it felt so good to just start. Enough with the research and the planning. I loved it!

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