Where Do Ideas Come From?

Guest Blogger: Steven James

Often readers will ask me where I get my ideas. Honestly, the question is a little perplexing to me since I’m overwhelmed by ideas and have hundreds of files of them. I can’t seem to write them down fast enough to clear my brain. I’m guessing it’s this way for a lot of authors and artists.

However, it is a fair question and it got me thinking recently—where did my ideas for THE QUEENcome from?

There are pools we can draw ideas from. Some might dry out for a time, but as long as you have an assortment of them you’ll always have new ideas on the way.

So, if you’re looking for places to dip into for your own inspiration, or if you’re just interested in where a novelist went for the inspiration for his latest book, here you go.

1 – Promises from previous books – Over the last few years as I’ve worked on the previous four novels in this series, I made numerous promises (some stated, some implied), about the characters and the development of the story—what happens with the main character and his love interests? How will his daughter ever find resolution in her struggling teenage life? Will some of the bad guys from previous books ever come back? How?

In THE QUEEN I felt like it was time to answer some of those questions and satisfy readers about what happens. So, that limited the narrative choices I had and helped me to focus the story in a different direction.

2 – Research & Movies – When I was trying to think of ways to hack into a nuclear submarine I watched CRIMSON  TIDE and THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER. Then, I did extensive research on cyberterrorism and the military’s attempts to stop it. I met with military personnel who were in charge of keeping foreign cyber threats out of our most secure systems and asked them how I could hack into a sub. They told me. I wrote down the ideas in the book.

3 – Personal experience – Years ago when I lived in Wisconsin, I heard about a Navy communication base that used extremely low frequency radio waves to communicate with our fleet of nuclear subs. As I worked on the terrorist angle of THE QUEEN this base became the location of the climax at the end of the story.

The more I tapped into my own background, the more I was able to draw connections to the world of this novel.

4 – Believability – Every character needs to make decisions and act in a way that is consistent for that character at that point in the story. So, by asking, “What would this character naturally do?” and “How can I make things worse?” the story unfolds before me as I write it.

5 – Narrative form -I wanted to isolate my main character and put him at a disadvantage during the climax of the story so I stuck him in an isolated winter town in Northern Wisconsin during a snowstorm and took away his use of high-tech tools, cell phone, etc . . . I also know that he has to chase and face the bad guy, so that helps me create sequences in the story that move toward the climax.

6 – Responsiveness -I think it’s important for writers to remain open to the story, to respond to it as it develops. And so, with THE QUEEN, I didn’t realize who the antagonist, Valkyrie, was until I was nearly six months into the book. When I realized this, it changed the direction of the story and created a triple-twist ending that I would never have come up with otherwise.

For me, outlining a story would take the fun away, the surprises away. I have astute readers and I know that if the ending of the story doesn’t surprise me, it won’t surprise them. But if I can create twists that take me to a place I never would have expected, then I know readers will be satisfied and want to come back for more.

What are your thoughts? In addition to these six areas, where do your story ideas come from? What other wells are there for us to plumb?

Steven James is the critically acclaimed author of many books including the national beselling novels THE PAWN, THE ROOK, THE KNIGHT, THE BISHOP and THE QUEEN. He is a contributing editor to WRITER’S DIGEST, has a Master’s Degree in Storytelling and has taught writing and creative storytelling on three continents. He lives near the Blue Ridge Mountains with his very understanding wife, three lovely daughters, and a quiet, reflective python named Buddy. Find him on the web or follow him on Facebook.


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  1. Pingback: Top Picks Thursday 9-15-2011 « The Author Chronicles

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