Ideas are everywhere: where to start with writing a book
Are you writing a book? If you are and it’s fiction, it probably began with a story idea. Or a place. Or a character. Or even just a character name. But something will have kicked off your desire – your need – to write.
However, it’s entirely possible to want to write without having a clue what to write about. You might be an avid reader. You might soak up hours of TV and theatre. You might love the idea of creating your own story that others will lap up. But … you just don’t know where to start.
When I’ve heard authors give talks, a common question they’re asked is: ‘Where do you get your ideas?’
Their answer? ‘Ideas are everywhere.’
And actually, once you know where to look (or to listen), you discover they really are.
Here are a few thoughts to help spark your imagination.
Be alert when you’re on the hunt for a story. Snippets of overheard conversations can be a great source of ideas. I don’t mean deliberately set out to eavesdrop but just be aware of what’s going on around you.
Supposing, for example, someone walks past you talking on their phone and you hear them say, ‘Sorry, but I’m going to be late back. Don’t wait for me.’
So many questions …
- Who are they talking to?
- Why are they going to be late?
- What’s happened?
- Is this just an excuse?
- What are they going to be late for?
- Is the other person happy with this situation or fed up?
- Are they suspicious or are they trusting?
- Is this something that’s happened before or is it unusual?
When you let your imagination dig in like that, a few brief words overheard while you’re waiting for your train or standing in the coffee queue at Nero’s can turn into something sinister. Something with a plot behind it.
A character type can also spark a story idea and people you know can make great characters.
- Who’s the joker in your circle?
- Who’s the person who makes a drama out of every little thing?
- Do you have a friend you love dearly but who has an annoying habit?
- Do you know someone with an unusual job?
- Someone who’s an inveterate people-pleaser?
- Someone who’s full of their own importance?
Think about people within your family and others you come into contact with. What are their characteristics? Has anyone hinted at a secret from their past? Would they make a brilliant protagonist for your novel?
The material for creating believable characters is there if we just pay attention to the people around us – and change their names obviously!
Then there are other stories. These are like seed beds for new story ideas, just waiting to be watered. A book you read could easily kickstart a new story in your own imagination. Or a film you watch or a TV series. After all, this is the basis of fan fiction, where existing characters are taken on new journeys by enthusiastic and creative followers.
It goes without saying that we must never copy the stories of other writers, but there might be a character, a description of something – even one short scene – that could act as a story prompt if we keep our minds open to the possibilities.
And it’s not just fiction that can inspire ideas. On a writing course I did during life before the internet (was there ever life before the internet …?), I remember the tutor sending us away to buy newspapers and go through them to find a real-life event that could spark a piece of fiction.
These days, it couldn’t be easier to find news stories from all over the world. So, if you’re in need of a story idea, get Googling. There’s a mine of golden story nuggets out there if you set aside some time and space to dig them out.
Your own real life can also be the inspiration for a book. Just one memorable event could become the basis of a story. Has something happened to you where the resolution was quite ordinary? Supposing that resolution had been different because your actions at the time were different? Let your imagination get to work and have a play.
Sit with your idea
Once you have your initial story idea, it’s time to develop it. Now it’s highly unlikely you’ll see all the ins and outs of a plot instantly. But if you sit with your idea, mull it over when you’re out walking, when you’re digging the garden – even when you’re watching TV – the bones of a plot will start to come together.
If you have any breakthroughs, write them down. Events don’t need to be in order. Characters don’t need to have names. Yet. This plotting, nurturing stage is almost like creating the mood board for your book. You’re dropping in threads that you’ll gradually be able to weave together into a coherent form and order.
If you feel you’re getting nowhere, don’t panic. There’s no need to rush. The more you turn an idea round in your head, the more it will start to grow and the stronger the storyline will become.
You might come up against knotty little plot problems but you’ll also find solutions. I’ve recently written a podcast of murder mystery stories told through monologues. The storylines didn’t just appear in my head. They needed a lot of mulling. It was frustrating at times but so rewarding when the breakthroughs came. If you'd like to hear them, episode 1 is out now on Apple, Spotify and Stitcher, with episode 2 to follow shortly. Just search The Murder Monologues.
When you’re deciding on a storyline, it can also be helpful to look at current trends in different genres. For children, for example, what topics are popular for each age group and does your story idea fit within a particular trend?
But just remember that when it comes to writing an on-trend book, timing is crucial. Will your book be ready in time to catch the current vogue? If there’s a chance you might miss it, as a self-publisher, you may find you don’t have quite the readership lined up that you thought you did. Or, if you’re pursuing an agent, they may see the end of a trend looming and not be so keen to take up your book.
Be open and let your creativity flow
I hope you can see now that story ideas really are everywhere.
Take your time and notice what’s around you.
Begin piecing the fragments together.
If you really want to write a book – you really will.