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Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

Copyright Marilyn Henderson- All Rights Reserved

It always surprises me when someone asks, "Where do you get your ideas?" I wish I could say I order them by the dozen from a shop around the corner, but I've never found such a shop. People really want to know how writers work. Creativity is unique to each of us. Writers have no more or less than anyone else, but they learn to use it differently and control it.

Ideas are everywhere They float or race through our heads constantly. We see them on the street, hear them in restaurants, read them in newspapers or feel them at emotional crises. We store them all but pursue only those that nag at us until we do something about them.

Many ideas that intrigue us aren't worth a novel or even a short story. To come up with one that is, you need to test it before you jump into chapter one. One easy test is to see if you can formulate the idea into a Question that doesn't have a clear answer, one that will provoke discussion, argument or even hot controversy. This isn't the story idea, but the underlying theme or basic premise of the story you want to tell. Writers sometimes get nervous about their novel needing a theme, but once you create that question that doesn't have a black and white answer, the theme is already there. The idea for one of my novels, By Reason of, came from a newspaper headline that asked a trovocative question that hooked me: Can mental health experts really determine sanity?

The story below the headline told of a man convicted of murdering eight people and then pleading not guilty by reason of insanity. He was sentenced to a mental institution instead of prison. After years of treatment, he was declared cured of the mental illness that had caused him to kill annd was released. In a matter of days, he committed another murder and continued killing until he was caught and sent back to the institution for the criminally insane.

The case raised a heated debate about the insanity plea that has no simple answer. It intrigued me. I asked myself how a panel of experts could be so wrong in judging his sanity? If the man seemed sane to people trained to determine such things, how could he so quickly revert to his insane murderous state?

I had my story premise, and my story idea began to take shape. I already had my villain, but who would he terrorize and how? When I knew those two things, I would have my story idea.

An important thing to consider at this point is who is the audience you want for your book? Don't make the mistake of believing "a mystery" is definition enough to plan a novel.

With so many subgenres under the wide umbrella of "mystery", I decided on readers of woman-in-jeopardy because it's one of the biggest selling subgenres in the mystery field. My villain would terrorize a woman. I decided to increase her vulnerability by having her be recently widowed and have a young child.

Where would the terror take place? That answer came automatically: her home, the place she felt safe and most secure,

Now the idea had evolved from an intriguing newspaper headline into an idea with the potential to become a novel that would grab an editors attention. It was ready to grow into a plot.

This isn't the only way to develop an intriguing spark into a story idea, but don't rush headlong into writing without making sure you develop that first glimmer into a strong story idea that will hold up for 300 to 375 manuscript pages.

Even more important, make sure your idea is different enough to make an editor or agent notice and want to read it. The time you spend developing your idea to its fullest potential is essential to the success of your novel. Editors reject more manuscripts because they don't offer anything new or different from the hundreds of other manuscripts they receive than for any other single reason. Especially challenge your creativity if you decide to write a private sleuth, amateur or paid. Do your homework. Research what's already been done, and don't try to imitate or thinly disguise an already successful sleuth. If you've read it, you can be sure that editor or agent has too.

So if you ever find that little shop around the corner that sells ideas, don't forget to read the label carefully to make sure the one you choose contains all the ingredients it needs to become a salable novel. And please send me the address!

Until next time, happy writing!


Marilyn Henderson, 42-year novelist, coach and mss critic



         Last updated: February 19, 2007