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Writing Tips - Where do you get your ideas?

Updated on November 8, 2016
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Mohan is a family physician, film and TV aficionado, a keen bibliophile and an eclectic scribbler with an interest in etymology

The Monster in my Head

One of the frequent questions every writer (amateur or professional) gets asked by others is ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’

Tempted as I am to say ‘ e-bay ’, ‘ or 'a shop downtown run by an old man who looks like Noah ’, ‘ my own private muse, she lives off the coast of Mykonos’ ( hey, how is that for a story idea?), ' This machine my daddy gave me when I was six, but I can only keep in my attic where it is dark ' ....

... the truth is it comes from my overactive imagination, the insatiable monster in my head.

But overactive imagination, like overactive children, needs feeding. It needs a lot of energy and raw material. I am not just talking out caffeine and carbs. I am talking about creative raw material to feed your imagination. So where can we source this energy .. Let me tell you how I feed my monster!

But overactive imagination, like overactive children, needs feeding. It needs a lot of energy and raw material. I am not just talking out caffeine and carbs. I am talking about creative raw material to feed your imagination

How do Creators Create Ideas?

I have tried to break down not only my creative process but the process of many writers I know and admire. I do this from their interviews, from their own biographies, from their interviews and prefaces. Their acknowledgement pages often tell you their research and collaborators. Their personalities and their behaviours shine from their talks and interactions with their readers and general public.

I have gleaned that there are some common patterns and common traits exist amongst creators. The way they generate ideas is not just some Eureka moment like people would like you to imagine. It is a work that requires certain basic traits, certain qualities and combined with certain behaviours that make them source new ideas.

It is how inspiration strikes.

Inspiration strikes..
Inspiration strikes..

The Bolt of Lightning!

People use lightning bolt striking as a metaphor for instant inspiration. Let us take this as an analogy for the process of generating ideas to write.

A lightning bolt may be instantaneous and powerful. When you look at how long it takes for lightning to form you know it is not just a sudden process. It takes hours of cloud building from evaporation and condensation from many water sources, interaction with other clouds, coalescing, building up to the right level of ice particles and water droplets to get polarised, building up enough charge and then BANG!

So how does this relate to creating new ideas for writing? I think most writers unconsciously do the act of sourcing snippets of information, storing them in their thought clouds, They let these gestate and source even more snippets through reading, websurfing, listening, observing. They allow these to coalesce and combine by the process of collecting, hoarding and letting these snippets of information particles interact in their mind. When these pieces of mini-ideas and particles combine, build up enough charge and are heavy with rain - bingo inspiration strikes. I don't think without the process of collecting, coalescing and interacting there is pure thought that arises from a virgin brain devoid of any influences and inspiration.

I think most writers unconsciously do the act of sourcing snippets of information, storing them in their thought clouds, They let these gestate and source even more snippets through reading, websurfing, listening, observing. They allow these to coalesce and combine


The first rule of writing, is to read. This is not necessarily to soak up new plots but reading expands our power of observation. We become narrative magnets when we read. And reading just our favoured genre is a straitjacket we should avoid. If you read any genre, whether it is horror, sci-fi, romance or mystery- good authors seek influences outside the confines of what has gone before in their own genre. They read widely and voraciously. They read classics, pulp, children’s books, fairy tales, graphic novels and even non-fiction. These at as a great source of inspiration and learning.

Cast your net wider...
Cast your net wider...

Widen your Spectrum

One of the best and worst things that has happened to reading is the compartmentalisation of genre. You walk into a book shop and there is a segregation of narratives. There is Biography, General fiction, Crime, Romance, Children’s literature, Mystery, Sci-fi , Fantasy, Science, History and so on.

While it makes it easy for us to search, seek and source a book through these categorisation, it also stops us sometimes from seeking out new genres that we make assumptions of. A lot of my friends think science fiction is all about space ships and aliens. That Fantasy is only about sword and sorcery. They think horror is always gory.

When Bram Stoker wrote Dracula and Mary Shelley did Frankenstein were published and were read by general audience. When Charles Dickens' wrote A Tale of Two Cities, a historical novel,bookshops didn’t worry about which shelf to put it in. When HG Wells published The Time Machine and Jules Verne wrote Journey to the centre of the Earth there was no sci-fi section. When Edgar Allan Poe wrote the Murders at Rue Morgue no one categorised that as detective fiction it was just another story to be enjoyed When Charlotte Brontëwrote Jane Eyre it wasn't just classed as a dippy romance, it was a story to be enjoyed by both genders and so they did.

There are so many good writers buried under the tyranny of this genre fixation they don’t get read by a wider audience and equally there may be many budding writers among us who want to write in a particular genre and read that alone- good authors read indiscriminately. We need to find good writing anywhere and learn from it irrespective of genre. Magazines, articles, novels, other media like film and TV and now internet resources there is a massive world of narratives out there and we can dive in and enjoy.

And more importantly... learn from.



The power of observation is important for a growing writer. There is a lot of people who watch and very few observe. An observer not only takes in the scene- they observe little details and store them for future use. They develop uncanny skills almost akin to what Sherlock Holmes does. Our eyes, ears, noses, taste buds and our skin take in Terrabytes worth of data every day. This doesn’t get processed and remembered unless we observe.

Good writers observe how something tastes, smells , looks and feels and store it for later use.

A writer may observe the way people stand, talk, gesture, move, dress those unique character ‘tics’ and eccentricities that we can use. They take in scenery and the hubbub of civilisation.

( Just be careful crossing the road or driving as this observing lark may also cause accidents!)

The power of observation is important for a growing writer. There is a lot of people who watch and very few observe...



I am paying special attention to Listening skills as I feel we don't often develop this enough.

You just have to read some dialogue people churn out to know that they are not listening to ‘real people’. It often comes across stilted, artificial and overblown – this is because we don’t often listen enough to real life conversation but listen with an intent to replicate. There are masters of dialogue writing that I adore such as Ed McBain, Stephen King, in the print, Aaron Sorkin and Quentin Tarantino for TV and film and their script shows they listen, reuse and emblellish appropriately.

So talk less and listen more. It will not only help your writing but may have the extra benefit of aiding your relationships!

A 'Commonplace'  Book - Diary of snippets and ideas
A 'Commonplace' Book - Diary of snippets and ideas

Steven Johnson's Great talk on where ideas come from - skip past the rather grating introduction and the empty chairs for sheer brilliance!

Collect, Compile and Coalesce

I am a collector, I hoard. I collect books and I hate throwing anything away. In real life this causes practicalities of space and difficulties when I move. But I realised soon that I also do this in my head. I never throw anything away. I retain information, infinite little trivia and memories for me to dip into.

If I am writing about rain, I bring out a thousand rain soaked days I have lived through and watch them again in my minds video player. I watch the way raindrops fall, the way people run in, or walk free or cower or dash under a canopy, the way the drops glide and glisten, the noise the raindrops make.. a million details that I can use in my writing. Ideas can collect in your head and they don’t need to be thrown away. Your brain has millions of terabytes of storage- use it!

You can also have a diary of ideas, snippets a kind of scarp book either in written format or digitally. This can store those little pieces of information that sparked something that wasn't quite complete. The sparks need stoking and collecting or else they blow away and dissipate

Steven Johnson in his new book 'Where Good ideas come from' writes about how even great discoveries that seem sudden originate from 'common place' books people like Darwin have kept with snippets of ideas, thoughts and information gleaned from wide and various readings for years before the idea colaesces.

Question everything...
Question everything...

Question Everything

We are always told not to make things up, not to be silly and to be ‘logical’ when we grow up. We don’t realise how many creative ideas have been stunted by this ‘grown up’ advise. As children we have the innate ability to conjure up ideas every day. We delight in the magical, the mysterious, the humorous and downright crazy ideas that pop up in our head.

Some of the best writers retain this ability despite ‘grown up’ advice. I always have the Why , the What if, the How, What else and Why not that I asked as a child even now.

The beauty of such questions is that they allow to expand our process of idea generation and creativity. They slip away from the rigid gulag of the organisational left brain into the creative cloud space of the right brain.

Create Constantly

Any idea worth having is just that, an idea. To turn it into a plot (or a piece of writing) and drive the plot using believable characters, story line and events needs work. You need to use that idea as someone else may be already using it. So sit down and write. Doesn't matter if the idea works, the simple act of creating one word after another gives you impetus and inspiration and more importantly, practice.

Write freely and indiscriminately as it is a craft. Online fora are a great desk space to create widely and frequently to hone the art of writing. It is a skill and skills improve with repetition and enterprise, by writing, reviewing what we wrote, by seeking feedback and seeing what works and what doesn't.

An Example of my Process

I have always been interested in the para-normal and Psychic powers both in stories and in science. I have read many stories about telepathy and telekinesis. I have read science articles both for and against this school of thinking.I have watched X-files and Fringe and Heroes and enjoyed how different creators have taken on this subject. I have also got on my PC snippets of information from science magazines, newspaper articles, books I've read, little sparks of ideas. I always wanted to do something new, like combine two genres - the pulpy , James Bondian thrillers with this alternate world of the paranormal. But I wanted to anchor it in a 'semi- realistic' premise not outright sci-fi or fantasy.

I was recently putting petrol ( Gasoline for those over the pond!) into my car and was looking at the counter rolling and the price of petrol. I was muttering in my head how much the price has gone up over the past few years. I thought it wouldn’t be long before it becomes unaffordable and we run out of fossil fuel. So far nothing exciting.

Then I had my crazy right brain kick in with, what if we found a source of locomotion in an another force.. a psychic force... what if there was a way of using as yet undiscovered source of mind energy... What if there is an organisation researching into alternate enrrgy sources.

Then I began to get excited. I am glad that the petrol pump gives you a kick to say it is nearly full otherwise I'd have soaked my shoes. I began to think about my James Bondian, slightly pulpy hero and brought him into this world of alternate energies, a sceptic, wise cracking, guy lost in this world of paranormal but has to race against time to find something...

I am not going to tell you anymore in case you steal it! I got there first. May be others have done in other books but this is my baby and I would like to put my stamp on it.

More importantly I am practising the art of creating, the art of story telling.

Any idea worth having is just that, an idea. To turn it into a plot (or a piece of writing) and drive the plot using believable characters, story line and events needs work.

I rest my case..

So ideas come from you. From your own head.

To get ideas your brain should be free from the confines of rigid thought, logic and adult inhibitions. ( unless you're writing a factual book!)

You should ask silly questions and dare to be different.

You should combine one idea with another like some mad scientist and see what comes up.

Sometimes these explode and create a mess. Sometimes you have wasted a lot of time going up a wrong alley, a dead end.

But sometimes new life is born and it is exciting to invent something new.

Most of all the journey there is as exciting, as satisfying as the destination!

Get Writing...
Get Writing...

© 2011 Mohan Kumar


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