Starting your first novel is
exciting—imagine world building, creating characters from thin air or based on
people you’ve known or have encountered on the street. It
seems that character building comes easily for some; we’re surrounded by
character all the time, right? But what about the story? The theme? The very
idea you want to write about?
How do you
write 300 pages out of nothing? That white screen and flashing cursor are an
unexplored frontier, and you are its pilgrim (or its gold digger—I won’t
There are tools that you can download
that will help you come up with story ideas—fiction idea generators. Or you can
use writing prompts and story starters that you can find on this site.
These are all useful to get you started so you can pump out the first few
hundred words until your juices truly start to flow. Beware not to get too
fixated on software though—you can waste a lot of time looking for the perfect
software to help you with any stage of your writing practice. I’ve talked about
them here. The
best software is the least intrusive and doesn’t take a month to learn,
especially when you’re trying to hash out the story concept.
Regarless how you
write, you still need soemthing to write about. Along the way, there are a few
steps that could make the slog towards completing your novel just that bit
easier, and will help keep you from getting lost.
may drift into other minds, but they do not drift my way. I have to go and
fetch them. I know no work
manual or mental to equal the appalling heart-breaking anguish of
fetching an idea from nowhere.
~A. A. Milne
First things first: you need the seed
of an idea.
to find Novel Ideas
“Where do your ideas come from?” That’s
a common question writers ask and are asked. How do they weave fantastic tales
from seemingly ordinary and even disparate situations. Hugo and Nebula
award winning writer, Orson Scott Card, says “Everybody walks past a thousand story
ideas every day. The good writers are the ones who see five or six of them.
Most people don’t see any.”
Best-selling fantasy author Neil Gaiman
says it best: “You
get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all
the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice
when we’re doing it.”
Here are some ways to find ideas for your
1. Look around you—it
pays to be observant of your surroundings; you can get ideas from anywhere.
·Go out on walks and listen to
conversations coming from back yards or open front doors;
·Meet with friends and listen to their
·Eavesdrop on conversations in your
·Visit historical places and wonder
about the ghosts that might be there still;
·Read a lot and read widely—if you don’t
normally read historical romance, give it a try. The same applies to urban
fantasy. You never know what ideas a different genre might incite.Stephen King
got his inspiration for his series The Dark Tower from
the poem Childe
Roland to the Dark Tower Came as
well as his love of spaghetti westerns;
·Stroll through the park. If you’re
observant, you’ll catch something that will spark your interest;
·Listen to people at work—it’s amazing
what people talk about in an open environment; even snippets of conversations
can be a story starter—the TV show The Office is
all about the boring old goings on in a pretty ordinary office; the writers
have mined it to find the gold;
· Go to the library and look
through newspapers and magazines for headlines that pop out at you. If you’re
lucky enough to have a bigger, older library near you, see if you can look at
the digitised copies of old newspapers. The advertising alone will get your
2. Look behind you—you
don’t even have to look far to find worthwhile stories. Search your memories
for interesting events in your past. Talk to your grandparents or their relatives.
My parents are crazy storytellers and have excellent memories. Mum loves to
recount the story of dad’s proposals, first when she was 13, then when she
was 17 and, finally, at 24.
Investigate your family history. I
believe there’s a story in every family. Even stories that you wouldn’t
consider “epic” can be crafted into bittersweet tales—think of Anne Tyler, with
her moving tales about seemingly ordinary families. Frank McCourt based his
Ashes, on his young life in Ireland and New
What if? If your family is just way too perfect,
ask yourself, “What if?” What if there’s more to that seeming perfection?
What if you’re looking through an old
stack of photos, and you see a wedding photo. The bride is your mum, but you’ve
never seen the groom before. Strange, because your parents have never been
married before, or so you think.
What if nobody in your family knew how
to drive, making getting around a real drag. Can’t you imagine the
arguments and the laughs? It may not be the entire story, but it’s back
What if your family doesn’t even exist
and they’re just holographic projections? Sure, there are tonnes of holes in
the idea (like, how do they hug or eat or sit down?) but you could work that
Look within you—Write what you know. New
writers hear this all the time. It’s a well-worn cliché, but it’s no
less true. There’s a wealth of subject matter from your job, your hobbies, your
interests, your social circle, even the kind of shoes you wear. Again, you can
mine yourself for
story threads or for background information and character details. Build from
what you know well.
John Grisham drew from his own
experience as a lawyer to write great legal thrillers such as The
Firm and The
Pelican Brief. Forensic anthropologist Kathy Reichs has
developed memorable characters and creepy thrillers (and a much loved
TV spinoff, Bones)
thanks to her job.
Try these ideas next time you’re short
1.Talk to a family member and ask them to
tell you their most memorable story. Take detailed notes, including dialogue
and the way the story is related to you. Be perceptive.
Turn this into a story of any length—flash fiction or short story, you decide.
2.Sit in a park, café, or at work and
write a full page of anything you hear and see.
Is there a story on the page? Write it and see what happens.