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.
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
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
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
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
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
Until next time, happy writing!
Marilyn Henderson, 42-year novelist,
coach and mss critic