Where I Get My Ideas

When I did my 100 Followers post, I asked for blog topics.  You guys are the readers, after all so I wanted to know what you want to read about here.  I have addressed a couple of topics and my next several posts will explore the other proposed subjects and questions.  This one is in response to my brilliant BFF Nancy Thompson's suggestion:

Where do you get your ideas? Do you have a list you draw from? How do you settle on one? How often do you start on an idea then give it up?

As you know, I write crime/suspense novels.  First I feel like I need to talk about why I write crime novels.  That's not exactly where I started, although when I was eleven years old I wrote a novel called "Black Summer" which was about three teenaged girls caught up in an elaborate murder mystery.  After that I wrote and/or started a number of books that were basically general fiction.  As an adult I took a stab at literary fiction. (See my post on That Book On A Flash Drive In My Nightstand.) 

I never even read crime fiction until I was in my mid to late 20s.  There were some things that happened in my life that first drew me to true crime books.  I devoured every one that I could get my hands on.  I was on a quest to try to understand crime:  how can a person commit a terrible crime?  Why do they do it?  How do people recover from horrible crimes? Who are these people who bring them to justice and how do they do it?  Sometimes the true crime books hit a little too close to home for me so I turned to novels which somehow seemed safer.  It was easier to keep my distance.  It was fiction, after all. 

And let's face it, whether we like to admit it or not, for many people crime novels are entertaining as hell.  People like to be kept on the edge of their seats, breathless with anticipation, wracking their brains trying to figure out just what the hell is going on and how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together. Crime novels, mysteries, suspense novels do that.  Just like all those prime time dramas.

Police officers and detectives, prosecutors, federal agents--they are all made glamorous in the mainstream media available to us via television shows, movies and books.  While in reality their jobs are not glamorous one bit, through my research I've met a handful of these people and what I can say with certainty is that the ones who do their jobs with diligence and vigor are indeed heroic.  Not because they dodge bullets or engage in high-speed car chases on a daily basis.  That is hardly the reality of their jobs.  But because every single day they stare into the face of pure evil, see the very worst that one human being can do to another, things that just to hear about them would make your hair turn gray overnight and they can still get out of bed in the morning.  In fact most of them remain pretty nice people in spite of what they are exposed to every day.

So writing crime for me is really an exploration of both sides of the crime coin.  I've always thought that fiction gives us a safe place to explore the things that nag us, the things that keep us up at night, the things that we are curious about, the things that make our heads spin, the things that make us stare blankly and say, "But . . . but . . . HOW?"

How do you survive a crime like that?
How do you catch a criminal like that?

So most of my ideas actually come from a combination of watching the news and asking questions.  I've talked about the genesis of Finding Claire Fletcher a few times.  That came from my long-held obsession with what happened to Jacob Wetterling.  We are the about same age.  When he was abducted at age 11, it was scary for me.  That news story stuck with me well into my adult life. Right around the time Wetterling was taken, the movie about Stephen Stayner ran and that kind of cemented the nagging question in my mind:  "What happens to these missing children?" As I grew into an adult, that question morphed into a new question:  "What if you ran into a 'missing child' and you had no idea who they really were?"  That scenario had been floating around in my mind for many years and one day I was between projects and I heard this voice in my head.  A woman. It said:  "First time in a bar?"

With that I sat down and wrote the first 65 pages of the novel.  Just like that.  It kind of created itself.  Once I had that, I had to build a plot around it.  I don't recommend writing in this fashion, by the way.  It's incredibly hard in the long run. 

For my "second" novel, I had just read John Douglas' Obsession (which I recommend for all females; I will make my daughter read it sometime during high school) and I thought, "What would it be like if you had this really benign stalker?" (I wrote one chapter which I may post on here one of these days.)  Well the obvious answer to that question is that it would be creepy.  I needed more than that for a whole novel.  So I spent a long, long, long, long time plotting something out.  It was a struggle.  I took that question another step:  "What if your really benign stalker wasn't interested in harming you but in harming people who had pissed you off?"  Since I had just read a bunch of John Douglas books, making my main character a behavioral analyst for the FBI was kind of an homage to him.  Also it made it more intriguing, I thought.

The long and short of it is that I get my ideas from reading about or seeing stories that get under my skin and nag at me and then I start asking weird questions.  What ifs?  I let the what-ifs float around in my head until characters or scenes materialize in my head.  Or until I hear a character's voice.  Mundane tasks are great for ruminating on my what-ifs.  Many a scene has come to me while I'm washing dishes or driving in my car. 

For the novel I am working on now, I got the idea from watching this special on prostitutes in Atlantic City.  Many of them were and are regularly assaulted in their line of work.  There was one woman in particular on the special who was mutilated and basically nothing happened.  Police were never involved.  No one was ever investigated or arrested or convicted.  The men who did it are still out there.  God knows what they've done since then.  That got me to thinking about how crimes against prostitutes are pretty much brushed under the carpet because prostitutes are high-risk victims and they are doing something illegal to begin with.  Then I thought what if there were criminals out there who committed crimes against prostitutes with impunity but their crimes escalated to the point that they couldn't be ignored?  What if there was one beleaguered police officer who would buck the system by trying to help these women?  What if she insisted to her colleagues that the crimes were going to escalate and no one listened?  What if some of the assaults were never even reported because the prostitute knew the police would not get anywhere or not put out much effort?  And it went on from there.  Questions, questions. 

I know, I know.  It's dark stuff.  I don't know that the WIP will go anywhere or will be palatable to any readers but I'm writing it anyway because the story is in my head and it feels like it must be told.  I think sometimes the dark stuff is important because whether we like it or not, it's out there.  When it comes to your front door, sometimes it helps to know that other people have survived it too.  Even a fiction writer can hit that nail on the head.

Since this post is exceedingly long already, I'll say that I do have a list of scenarios that I draw from.  I've got "blueprints" if you will for three more novels after my WIP is finished.  I will choose the one that is most compelling to me at the time.  If I find that I can't build a plot around it or that the characters are not coming to life in my mind, I will move on and return to it later.  Or if I've started it and the plot stalls midway through and I absolutely cannot figure out how to move it forward, I will put it aside for awhile.  I don't like to abandon something once I've started so I will try for several months before I give up.  Since I wrote my first full length adult novel (the one on the flash drive in my nightstand) there have only been two novels I started but did not finish and the primary reason was that the plot simply would not come together.

So if you've gotten this far in this post, tell me:  where do you get your ideas?


  1. First, thanks for answering my questions. As for where I get my ideas from, well, I only attempted and written one book so far, but have just started on a second. The first idea came to me from a song I heard on my iPod for the first time. I wondered, what would make a good man do a really bad thing, and could he ever find his way back to the man he once was?

    My next book is inspired by music, but I have no idea where the idea came from originally. I don't even know if I can plot it out, but I have about 50 songs that make up a list of chapters. Each song inspires me to find answers to questions like: How did the character's home become so dysfunctional? What is the root of his evil? Why, if he feels such remorse, does he do the things he does? And does he want to stop? Once he figures out why he is the way he is, what's he gonna do about it? Who is gonna get hurt? So, much like you, I suppose, I just keep asking questions and hope that each answer brings me a step closer to resolution and the end.

  2. Mundane tasks so often produce moments of brilliance! I’ve been in the same situation where I am desperately reaching for a towel so I can dry my hands to write something down, or—much worse—trying to make a note while driving. I’m learning to use my voice recording app for this so I can save lives, haha.

    As far as where I get my ideas… I don’t know. I’m one of those writers who feels things just pop into my brain and can’t always take full credit because I think some mythical creature or alien has put it there. On the other hand, I work in a psychiatric hospital, and sometimes listening to the COMPLETELY OFF THE WALL remarks from patients fills me with story ideas.

  3. Thanks for sharing this, Lisa. I really like hearing 'creation stories'. It interests me how different, and similar, we are.

    I've got three different works in various stages of progress. The one you're familiar with came about after a flippant comment I made to my daughter led me to a question: What would it be like to be this person? I created a character and ended up with something completely different than what I expected when I started out.

    The other two came from a hodge-podge of ideas that were stewing in the back room of my mind. Shameless self-plug here: http://doubtingwriter.blogspot.com/2011/12/back-room.html
    These two are in various stages of development.

  4. Very cool post. I would imagine that the news would be a great place to get ideas for suspense novels. I used to save newspaper clippings in a folder when they triggered an idea for a story. And my first novel attempt was actually a crime novel, but I never finished it (and never will). Didn't have a plot at all!

  5. Great post. I get my ideas from my cases, my interviews with witnesses, the news, and pure curiosity. I'm lucky that my job provides an endless stream of material, but finding out how a person became a criminal or victim is the most interesting part.

  6. My ideas come from life - stories I hear or read or experience. For me, the best stories are true - or based on truth.

  7. Melodie: yes, there are some true life experiences that you don't even believe are possible until you live through them.

    Prosecutor: I bet you have quite the wealth of interesting albeit disturbing stories to choose from for inspiration!

    L.G.: when I was in my 20s I used to clip stories too!

    JeffO: I remember that post! It was quite awesome.

    Lauren: Hah! I bet you are bombarded with inspiration where you work. It does seem sometimes like certain things come from outside of us somehow. I felt that way writing FCF.

    Nancy: You often talk about music inspiring your writing. I think it is so cool that a song or a single line from a song can set off a series of thoughts or questions that ultimately lead to a whole book--and what a fabulous book it is! That is really cool. And I think the asking questions thing is essential; I think as writers we are sometimes unable to shut off the questioning!

  8. I really have no clue as to where my ideas come from...lol. I can't really pin it down to anything.

  9. Great post, Lisa! If felt like a behind-the-scenes special. :)

    Where do I get my ideas? Well, STRENGTH came from a series of "What if?" questions. "What if there was a man who possessed unparalleled strength, but it kept him from the one he loved? What if he couldn't touch her without hurting her?" I'd already been toying with the notion of creating a supernatural race (or three), so it kind of snowballed from there. :)

  10. I love hearing about what inspires other writers!

    Where do I get my ideas? Nightmares, usually (I'm three for three on this). So cheesy, I know, and I hate to tell people, but since you asked so nicely... :)

  11. I get my ideas from music. Mostly music but also the news.

  12. It's interesting to learn where others get their ideas. I draw from a number of sources & keep an idea journal. Snippets of song lyrics, real experiences, things I see, things I read, TV, conversations with other people...my crit partners can be a great source, too.

  13. It's always interesting to see how other writers operate. Thanks for sharing Lisa!

  14. I agree with the other people who commented about how interesting it is to read how other writers get their ideas. I usually see, hear, or read something that ignites a spark of an idea. And then, like you, I start asking questions.


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