‘Where do you get your ideas?’

I think the single most common question authors—especially very successful authors—get asked is about their sources of inspiration. The question is almost a stereotype now. And a lot of them reply along the line of, “The real trick is making them stop!”

I used to not understand this answer. I spent a lot of time toying with ideas, usually for high fantasy novels, but never getting far because the well would run dry: the ideas I had felt derivative, or paper thin.

It wasn’t till I said “hell with it” and started writing anyway that I discovered the truth. Like writing skill, the ability to come up with story ideas—for me at least—is like a muscle. The more I write, the more I come up with ideas, the easier it is. I suspect a lot of other writers are the same.

Getting to the point where I had an idea with enough weight for an entire novel was a long process, though. I started out, like a lot of people, writing fanfiction. I wrote some short stories in another writer’s fantasy world; it felt easy to me, because the worldbuilding had been done. This was in the days before the internet was huge (don’t laugh!) so the stories were published in the author’s “official” fanzine and distributed via the post. Old school, yo. *poses*

Then I wrote two or three novella-length stories that were another type of fanfiction: the type with famous people as characters (no, I won’t say who). But the stories were my own. These novellas were about 25k words each; when a friend pointed out to me that if I’d put that amount of effort into real fiction I’d have a novel, it was a sobering realisation. And a motivating one, too. It showed me I could do it, whereas before I’d thought I couldn’t.

So I revisited one of the novellas, and took an extra element of an old (non-fanfic) short story, threw them in a pot, and stirred. Then I started from scratch with the ideas born from this mix. The result was Isla’s Inheritance. The only element from the original novella fanfic that has carried across is one of my original (non-famous) characters: Isla’s cousin Sarah.

And once I finished Isla’s Inheritance, that seemed to open the floodgates on my subconscious. Ideas for a sequel, and another beyond that. Another urban fantasy idea (now finished). A solid fantasy/Steampunk concept (outlined). And other, half-formed ideas.

Muses_HERCULES_RichB cv c

The muses from Hercules (copyright Disney; source).

These days it seems like whenever I hear a story on the news, or am talking to a friend, part of my brain is turning what I’m hearing over and looking at it from all sides to see whether there’s a kernel of a story idea there. I can see why writers call that their muse. I think of it more as part of myself—but a part I have very little control over. As my friend Stacey Nash describes in her latest blog post, it seems to have a mind of its own.

I’m curious though—do you find it easy to come up with story ideas? Has that always been the case, or have you had to train yourself/awaken the muse, like I have?

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6 Comments on “‘Where do you get your ideas?’”

  1. Stacey Nash says:

    Great post, Cass! Like the many authors you referenced, I too have more trouble with the ideas stopping than starting. There are always more ideas than time to write them. Some might start from a crazy dream, others from mashing together a TV show I’m watching and book I’m reading and saying oh wow…what if? Others again from snippets of conversation with my kids–little ones have the craziest imaginations.

    So in short, my muse has always been active. I’m still learning how to train it to work on the story I want to write though. Not always an easy feat. 😉

    • My muse has only really bossed me around once – when I wanted to start my Steampunk novel and she bullied me into writing the NA UF instead. Otherwise she seems content to let me just make notes and then move back to the task at hand!

  2. Ideas are really easy for me, and I’d like to say that it’s always been that way, but I’m pretty sure that’s only because I’ve had lots of creativity training throughout my life. My parents used to encourage us to make up stories all the time. It was a game we played on long car trips, at the dinner table, etc. So I started exercising those story-building muscles long before I wrote my first novel.

  3. I love the twist of this question!
    ~SAT


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