Novel and Short Story Idea Generation

At a book signing I went to, James Rollins (one of my favorite authors), was talking about how his least favorite question is the one that someone always asks: “How do you come up with your ideas?”

Whether you’re writing novels or short stories, finding ideas is one of the most important, and quite possibly one of the most frustrating, things you’ll do. How do you overcome that?

Methods for Developing Ideas

One of the best things you can do is get in the habit of writing ideas down in a notebook or a word document as they occur to you. I carry a small notebook with me so I can jot down keywords or full conversations. Others put ideas in a folder or a box. Do whatever you can to track the ideas suddenly.

*Get in the habit of writing ideas down when you wake up.

*If you’re reading a newspaper article and it generates a thought or two about a novel or short story, cut it out (or print it or make a photocopy of it – whatever works for you).

*If you overhear a conversation and it sparks an idea, write it down. (Once I was at an amusement park and I heard a man, who had his arms wrapped around a woman in her thirties, tell this teenage girl that if her boyfriend touched her, he’d kill him. “I’m not afraid to go back to Prison.” That was a conversation worth writing down.)

*Ask questions

*If something sparks your interest, write it down, it might be something you can research and write about, later

*Write down every job you’ve ever had, every place you’ve ever gone, all of your worst experiences, all your best experiences and come up with ideas based on those.

Practical Applications

This weekend I was at my cousin’s wedding in northern New York with my parents, my sister and my brother (the husband had to work, unfortunately). We went to Niagara Falls on the two days before her rehearsal dinner and before the wedding. 

It is seriously the coolest thing I have ever seen.

My passport is currently being renewed, so we had to stay on the American side, but we were still able to see a lot. I’m working on a novel that has a huge waterfall, so I took lots of notes, but I also thought about:

*Which Native American tribe discovered it and how? How did the first white settlers find it?

*Are there any Native American legends concerning it?

*The number of people who have tried to go down it and live

*The different ways people have tried to descend it

*Is there a cave behind it? How big is it? Could someone live in it? Why would they? For how long? Would they be escaping something? Protecting someone? (The caves behind Niagara Falls are called “Cave of the Winds”, but I don’t know much about them, including whether or not they’re true caves.)

*My brother threw a Frisbee into the Falls. Technically, he wanted to reach Canada. You’re not supposed to throw things into the falls. But no one seemed to care. What if someone had? What if he’d thrown something else into the Falls? What if he was a person jumping over the rail to end their life?

*The History of the Falls – they do a whole reenactment with this at “Fort Niagara” where you can see one of the battles fought there (I think it’s between the French and the British, but I didn’t see it)

Every night when I got back to my hotel, I wrote down my observations and my questions. Right now, I’m not doing anything with them. I probably won’t do anything with most of them, but I still have them, just in case.


Rifle Through Your Idea Container

The coolest part about your mind is it makes associations that you wouldn’t be able to make otherwise. And if you let them sit for awhile, the ideas begin to blossom so you can pluck them and develop a full story.

But, sometimes you need a little extra help. James Rollins, who I mentioned earlier, says that he cleans out his idea box every once in awhile. He dumps it all over and then filters through the ones he wants to keep and the ones he’s no longer interested in or has already used. He said the real ideas sometimes come just because of the way the papers fall. Two ideas will land next to one another and they meld in his mind, and suddenly, a new idea is born.

To recap, you can develop ideas by:

*Looking around you

*Interacting with the world around you


*Asking questions


*Looking at pictures

*Talking to experts

*Considering your own experiences

*Eavesdropping – intentionally or unintentionally

Sometimes, you’ll find that you have ideas that have blossomed because you’ve let three or four ideas merge together to create something new. Don’t throw out ideas because you don’t know how your experiences will change or how your worldview will change. Eventually, the ideas that you once liked could click with other ideas or a new experience or a person you meet to bring that idea back into your mind, if you have a momento of it.

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  1. Wow, Robin! Great post and ideas. The world is full of stories and the more we look the more we’ll see them. These were great examples. I need to keep a notebook like you do. My only worry is that I’ll misplace it. I bet there’s an I-Phone app like Ever Note that I could keep ideas in. That would be handy, provided I learn how to use it. (That’s an entirely different conversation.)
    Hope you have a great writing week!

    • Robin says:

      Michelle – I love having a notebook for ideas. Otherwise, I feel like I lose something, even if I manage to remember them, later.

  2. Great post Robin. Many times I have sat at the computer, ready to blog something out of this world. Well, I can sit there for what it would seem like an eternity, and nothing, nada, nil, comes out of this enormous brain of mine. (You are supposed to chuckle at this time). All seriouness aside, I will try your advise. It would appear that observations, at times, seem to provide much info. and ideas, one might expound on.
    Keep on, keeponing. Have no idea what that means. Sounds good to me!

    • Hi Johnny, I know exactly what you mean. I’ve been there. Stared at that same blank page. Sometimes what helps me is to just start rambling on paper–about nothing. Write whatever comes to my mind. Sometimes it goes nowhere, but sometimes it sparks something and I keep going. I don’t stop to edit and I don’t look back until I’m done rambling. And I DO NOT let anyone read it because it’s raw and crap. Then I let it sit there for a day or two and think about it before I fall asleep hoping I’ll dream about the ending or the main “theme.” Sometimes it works. A few days later an idea will come to me that ties all my ramblings together and ta-da… I have something that doesn’t sound too bad. I think.

      Keep writing and thanks for stopping by.

    • Robin says:

      Johnny, it can be hard to think of ideas, can’t it? The blank screen totally bums me out. But it’s definitely easier when I start taking notes and recording my ideas/thoughts as they come.

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