Where Does An Author Get Story Ideas?

This article was written by C. Hope Clark.

A touring, speaking author learns what questions to expect from attendees in the room. The queries rarely run outside the norm and repeat from event to event. The most common question is one that an author loves, yet hates, to receive. “Where do you get your ideas?”

You see, authors adore being unique, so they often appear mysterious in their response. Nothing makes them giddier than presenting a story to a reader and catching him off balance, exciting him with a twist, engaging him with story that the reader cannot put down until he sees THE END, or the sun peaking over the horizon. They want to be remembered for introducing that reader to this particular story. But no story is created in a vacuum, purely from scratch, without influence. No writer is an island, unlike all other authors. No author is purely an original.

Without exception, author ideas come from a combination of three things: life experience, research, and other authors.

The first two are a given. Authors write some of that they know, their personal observations triggering characters, concepts, plot and setting. And what they don’t know for sure from personal observation, they research. But the third, to me, is what matters most.

Authors learn most from reading other authors.

No, not plagiarism. Heaven forbid, and your average to top-shelf author cringes at the implication. Not copy-cat writing either, since each author strives to find his own voice. Authors read other authors for two main reasons:

  • To see what works.

Seasoned, published writers have traveled long roads, reading hundreds of books along the way, to decipher what works for their style. Not only do they seek to define their genre, but also their voice. Call it brand, if you like. What makes Jodi Picoult readers leap at a new release? What excites Patricia Cornwell fans? What has Sue Grafton groupies anxiously awaiting the letter W in her alphabet murder mysteries? Authors read for pleasure, but their brains are also reading for success. When they catch themselves engrossed, forgetting to study what made a story so compelling, they know they need to backtrack, reread, and dig to identity the skeletal composition of such a tale.

  • To grow up.

Regardless the genre, writing has levels of sophistication. Even a children’s book can become classic because it reaches all ages, each word remarkably placed properly. Such a talent comes from years of writing, hundreds of thousands of words written and then thrown away, and reading quality writing that came before the one in the writer’s hand. When an author holds a great book, he knows that great writers are the reason. Not just the writer of the current read, but also the writers of the books that this writer of this book learned from. Just like children learn from their elders, authors learn from their predecessors. They might not pick up To Kill a Mockingbird and subsequently create an attorney fighting bigotry through the eyes of an inquisitive young daughter. However, they just might sense the need to write in first person, like the daughter. Or they could create a poor Southern town during trying times to pick at and challenge the inhabitants. Or they relate to the bigotry and design a plot with similar redeeming qualities.

A new author is the newest brick in the constant construction of the literary world. His story has built upon the backs of other stories, and the author’s talent rose from the underpinning provided by other authors. The talent comes from an osmotic relationship with little more than reading. Reading classics, reading bestsellers, reading avant-garde releases and obscure award winners. Reading bad writing. A current author’s ideas come from hundreds of years of stories, culminating in a book in the hands of a reader who simply walked into a store, made a purchase, went home and sat down with tea for an entertaining moment. And the best reads are so easily enjoyed that readers can’t even tell the huge amount of history and effort that brought them to fruition.

So where do authors get their ideas? From everyone who’s ever written a good story.

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C. Hope Clark is author of The Carolina Slade Mystery Series and a lover of a good plot bending read. Her latest release is Tidewater Murder, April 2013. www.chopeclark.com

Photo: Some rights reserved by qisur,

8 Replies to “Where Does An Author Get Story Ideas?”

  1. I just love this post, Hope. My favorite line? “A new author is the newest brick in the constant construction of the literary world.” Yes! I love the idea of being one of the small bricks in a very large structure that includes all other authors in history. And I agree with your points about leveraging the knowledge and approach of other authors as a way to make our own writing stronger and more distinct. I, too, learn so much from reading.

    Many of my ideas also come from reading that does not include other books or specific research. A random news article, a picture in a magazine, sometimes a random comment on a website (like a comment someone made recently about a recipe at a cooking site I frequent, about how her grandmother used to make that particular item and how she has wanted to make it herself for her small children but had never gotten the recipe from her nana — it got my wheels turning about the power of food in family memories and relationships).

    And all those random, little ideas eventually get woven into something larger, to tell a larger story. Thank you, Hope, for getting my wheels turning yet again this morning!

  2. So happy to touch your writing soul today, Jessica. We all build upon each other. Even the well-heeled phenoms who’ve made a mint from their best-selling releases have to admit (or they are ridiculously naive and arrogant), that they are here today because of all the authors that went before him.

  3. This is a very important post, Hope. You’ve eloquently expressed the meaning behind Stephen King’s classic observation that “if you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.” And isn’t it that love of reading, that complete immersion into a world that makes you stay up all night or not hear the phone or…(the list goes on) that leads to writing?

    1. Absolutely, Francine. Recently spoke to a new writer who said she didn’t have the time to read. She had great ideas, but no hard desire to read works of those before her. By not reading, her odds of publishing dropped dramatically.

      Like you said, I adore it when a writer lulls me into obsession. Thanks for your comment!

  4. I’ve read books and posts on this subject (I’ve even wrote a couple of idea posts myself), but they don’t often cover the aspect of reading. I have learned most everything I know from reading. You can study all about English and stucture and that’s like the lab in school, but then you go out into the world and see the application of it by observing other writers.

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