"Where do you get your ideas?"


It’s a question people love to ask of successful writers. But one that’s almost impossible to answer! There are no ready formulas for writing a good story or hitting upon a successful idea. The truth is, just about anything can make the basis for a good story. Ken Elkes’ classic short story, David’s Haircut, is a good example. On the surface it’s about a father taking his son to get his hair cut. Such an everyday incident, you might wonder how is that a story worth telling? Read it, and you’ll see why. For what Elkes has discovered in that everyday incident, and managed to reveal through the story, is a touching exploration of a father-son relationship; a memorable illustration of the joy and sorrow surrounding the transition from boyhood to manhood.


C.S. Lewis explained that his Chronicles of Narnia started off with a mental picture that somehow entered his imagination and just wouldn’t go away: a faun carrying parcels in a snowy wood. Over time (years, in fact), as he repeatedly returned to the image to ask what it might mean, and as he started to connect it with other compelling images (a lamp post and a lion etc), a story started to suggest itself – started to grow.


Observing, reading, thinking, and writing… The would-be writer has to do all of these things, repeatedly, until the whole process becomes habitual. You’ll find some good advice on how to write on this resource page, but for starters, here are some ideas to keep you on the lookout for those seemingly elusive ‘good ideas’…


Keep a Journal

Keeping a journal is a great way to maintain a record of your personal ideas and sources of inspiration. So do this in a way that suits you. You can use an exercise book or visual diary, or do it digitally. You could write your exercises in it, include research for stories you will write, ideas, your goals, newspaper clippings, images, reflections on your process of writing, and reflections on fiction that you read.


Draw if you like to – let it just be a creative fun time – as an artist will use a journal to try out colours or a thumb sketch of a character, or stick in an image that will inspire a painting later, do that for your writing.


Keep notes and reflections on the books you read, and copy out memorable sentences or passages (the way artists hone their skill and train the eye by copying the masters). If you manage to go to Writer’s Week or hear an author speak, write a response.


Nurture Your Talent

Talent partly rises out of the learning of particular skills, and awareness about the choices available in the process. The main qualities needed are perseverance, motivation, willingness to search for methods which suit you, energy to push yourself out of your comfort zone and avid reading habits. Failure to produce is more to do with lack of commitment, than a lack of talent.


Learn from Experience

Unavoidably, all fiction writing draws on the knowledge and experience of the writer. But to write fiction is to create something new. Writing only from autobiographical events can be limiting and might best be explored in creative nonfiction.


In his classic series of lectures entitled Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forster points out that although real life experiences may inspire a work of fiction, these are only surface details. The true power of a novel comes from the way it invites us into the interior lives of the characters, and this is where ‘real life’ becomes ‘good fiction’, as we delve into the otherwise hidden territory of other hearts and minds.


Don't Delay

Can I start to write if I don’t have any ideas? Absolutely! Writing can start with a clear idea but it can also start from simply playing with words. Some of the most interesting creative work is concerned with psychological, political or philosophical issues.  An active engagement with the world around us should lead to ideas: "The writer should never be ashamed of staring. There is nothing that does not require his attention." Flannery O’Connor.


Try This:


Picture Trigger: find a picture that you like in a magazine and write for ten minutes what it suggests to you. Just write, don’t think too much. Write solidly for ten minutes and see what turns up. Searching Google images for 'intresting faces' or 'exotic places' or 'curious images' might turn up something unexpected, something to get your writing.


Word play:  Take an ordinary word, e.g. ‘apple’. How many pairings can you make with this word, using it either as a noun or as an adjective? E.g. green apple; apple pie; apple cart; bad apple etc.

Choose one pairing and leap frog with it (i.e. make the end of one word pair the beginning of the next):

Apple tree

Tree house

House mother

Mother milk

Milk bottle

Bottle neck etc

Now try writing a paragraph using as many of the combinations as possible.

Last modified: Wednesday, 21 October 2020, 12:00 PM