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Some Fresh Ideas about Where to Get Fresh Ideas

This morning I was reading an old issue of The Writer’s Chronicle, when I came across a great article by Alice Mattison. “Where Do You Get Your Ideas?” She starts out talking about how often writers are asked this question—and how we all cringe when we're asked. For the most part, we have no idea.

Mattison suggests a couple responses: “I order them online.” Or: “In the supermarket, near the pancake mix.” Then she goes on to a serious discussion of where ideas come from.

The article made me start thinking about exactly where my ideas come from. The answer usually is, "Who knows?" But sometimes, I do know. Here are a few things that have sparked ideas for me:

Overheard Conversation

“I don’t want to eat pie with the winner.”

I overheard this conversation at a little store on my vacation to Lake Superior last month. It made me think: What was this woman talking about? Who won what? Why did she not want to eat pie with him? Was it that she didn’t want to eat with the winner or was it that she didn’t want to eat pie?

I started creating scenarios. Pies. Winners. Contests. Bakers. Eaters. People winning pies. People eating pies. People not wanting to eat pie. People disliking each other. A whole host of possibilities for stories came up.

Lines of Poetry or Prose

I've gotten many ideas from random sentences or phrases in novels, memoirs, poetry chapbooks, even textbooks. A few lines I’ve come across recently that sparked a story:

“I certainly do. Ha!” (It was the “Ha!” that got me).

“When he wrung it, the mop excreted a greyish-pink liquid: blood waste.” (From Lobster by Guillaume Lecasble.)

“ 'Ol’o custom'  Definition: an old custom. This expression is an excuse for every fault” (Definition of a phrase from 19th century Canton jargon in Chinese Englishes by Kingsley Bolton.

“This is why I do not call my notebooks journals. They are just blank pages I fill.” Natalie Goldberg, Wild Mind

Like the snatches of conversation I sometimes use to springboard ideas, these random phrases spark ideas precisely because they have no context. They're open-ended and vague. Sometimes the sentences don't even make sense taken out of the paragraph they were written for. That's a good thing! My job then becomes to create a context. To build an image, a scene, a story around that isolated phrase.

Dumb T.V. Shows

Want a good story? Watch Judge Judy or any of the dozens of other ludicrous and obnoxious courtroom shows on daytime television. There you will find exactly the kind of raw emotion, human failing, and tension you need for a story.

Other possibilities: sitcoms, Survivor, beauty pageants, local news.


Go through your old photos. Go through someone else’s photos. Go through magazines and look at the advertising photos. Go through antique photos online or in books. They hold thousands of stories waiting to be told. Carol Shields wrote an award-winning novel that way.