Of all the questions published authors are asked by aspiring writers and readers one query solicits eye-rolls above all others and it is: “Where do you get your ideas?”
Some of you might be wondering why this question is infamous in author circles, so let me explain. I think the most honest and simple answer is this: coming up with ideas for novels is something that most authors not only take great pride in, but also consider foundational to being a good storyteller.
But the thing is, coming up with new and fresh ideas for a novel is hard. There are so many brilliant, creative authors churning out brilliant, creative books that for an aspiring author the prospect of cooking up something innovative and unique is daunting. And as a published author who also needs to come up with a new concept for each and every new book, I can empathize.
So whether you’re working on your first book or your fifteenth, the next time you find yourself stuck and without a clue what your book should be about, give this five step process a try.
Mine Your Personal Experience
“Write what you know” is the oldest piece of advice in the industry, but it’s amazing how easily we authors forget it. You don’t have to be a Navy SEAL to have novel worthy experiences. Every human being born on this planet has faced pressure, conflict, loss, and heartache. What challenges have you faced? When have you struggled?
Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans…the same applies to our characters.
Don’t be afraid to open your closet door and unpack those skeletons. Think about your childhood, your adolescence, your adult life. What educational, interpersonal, romantic and professional adventures, failures, and successes have you experienced? Harness the emotion from those experiences and weave it raw into your character’s narrative.
Pay Attention to Current Events, Trends, and Scientific Discoveries & Breakthroughs
I write thrillers, so it should probably come as no surprise that most of my book ideas are born from current events, new developments, and geopolitical change. The interesting story ideas aren’t necessarily about the new “thing” itself, but rather the unforeseen consequences that impact tomorrow’s unwritten history. Let’s extrapolate:
Example 1: The invention of a quantum computer is interesting, but using the technology to defeat any and all existing encryption schema used by banks and governments around the world without countermeasures to stop it is downright terrifying. The former is news worthy, the latter is source material for a thriller.
Example 2: The discovery of an asteroid with a core of solid platinum is cool, but a story about space miners competing to make a claim and be the first to capture this trillion dollar bounty in the asteroid belt beyond Mars would make an awesome story.
Find Inspiration in Literature, History, and Film.
If you’re like me, you can probably rattle off a half dozen books that were so moving, creative, or thrilling that they inspired you to become a writer. By reading the masters, aspiring writers learn the craft of good story-telling. By studying the plotting, dialogue, twists, subtext, prose, and structure of best-selling novels an author learns how to improve these elements in his or her own work. Applying other writers’ techniques is not plagiarizing. Being inspired by another author’s ideas, plots, or characters is not plagiarizing either. I’ve met too many aspiring authors that are so hung up on not imitating any other author or story that they’ve stopped reading other authors books in their genre. This is a mistake.
Imagine if Arthur Laurents didn’t write WEST SIDE STORY because he didn’t want to be criticized for being inspired by Shakespeare’s ROMEO & JULIET.
It is okay to borrow, adapt, modify and evolve ideas from the history books, from novels you’ve read, and movies you’ve seen. Creativity is an iterative process. If it wasn’t we’d all be stuck reading the same five books until the end of time. There are thousands of titles published each year that reimagine classic novels, fairy tales, Biblical stories, and mythology in a different time, place, or world. If Romeo and Juliet speaks to you, then don’t pass on the opportunity to write about ill-fated lovers just because others have before you—adapt it, modify it, reimagine it and make it your own.
Keep a “What If…?” Journal
If you’ve never met “what if” let me introduce you to him now, because he’s going to be one of your best friends from now on. In my humble opinion, “what if” are two of the most powerful words in the English language. How many inventions have been born, journeys taken, and books written thanks to what if?
If you’re at a loss for book ideas, I can virtually guarantee you the answer to your prayers is to start a “what if” journal. Every time you think back on your personal experiences, encounter an interesting piece of news, or read an inspiring new book try to jot down any and all “what if” questions you think of no matter how weird, silly or obvious they might seem at first blush. Do not limit yourself. Do not filter. Mix them, mash-them, combine them, mutate them and you just might find a golden nugget for a future NY Times Bestseller.
Let me give you some examples utilizing the previous three sections:
Example 1: Personnel Experience: What if I hadn’t broken up with my college boyfriend, what would my life be like now?
Example 2: Current Events What if Covid had a 25% mortality rate instead of a 1%?
Example 3: Inspiration from history, film, and literature.What if Adolf Hitler was reincarnated as woman born in America in 1984?
These examples were just off the cuff brainstorms that I came up with stream of conscious as I typed this blog post, but you can see how each has a feeling of momentum for a possible story in only one sentence. That’s the power of “what if.” What if is all about framing; it turns any idea into a book idea.
Put All the Pieces Together
The idea for my first novel, THE CALYPSO DIRECTIVE, came to me in 2002 after I read an article about the Human Genome Project and the audacious goal of sequencing all the DNA in the human body. The article sparked a “what if” question in my mind:
“What if someone was born with a genetic mutation that super-charged their immune system?”
The “what if” question reminded me of my elementary school years, and how my school principal handed out an award every year for the student with the best attendance. I remembered how this one kid won the award three years in a row because he never took a sick day.
Combine the two and I suddenly had my protagonist—Will Foster—a guy who never gets sick because of genetic mutation that allows his T-lymphocytes to function like an antibody driven skeleton key.
Next, I took inspiration from Robin Cook’s famous novel COMA (medical experimentation), John Grisham’s THE FIRM (corrupt corporation doing bad things), and the campy TV series THE A-TEAM (team of high functioning misfits working off the grid) to guide my plot. My first novel, THE CALYPSO DIRECTIVE, unfortunately did not turn out to be the best seller I’d hoped, but it won me representation, my first publishing contract, and was the foot in the door to the industry and profession I love.
If I could come up with my first book using the above techniques, so can you!