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Getting Fiction Ideas by Terri Main

How to begin?

I’ll be teaching a class later this month about taking a novel idea from concept through to a story arc. But many new writers ask me where I get the ideas to begin the process.

This is often an odd question for the professional writer because we see ideas all around us. Most of us have more ideas than we can manage. Because of this, we tend to forget our younger selves viewing the process of novel ideation as something almost mystical.


The Writer’s Eye

There is nothing magical about the process, but it does take a different type of perception. First, it means to keep your eyes open for the odd, the unusual, the problematic, the strange. For instance, one of my works-in-progress started with a news article a few years ago about neutrino particles that had been clocked going faster than the speed of light. Theoretically, that would allow for them to go back in time under the right conditions. It turned out that the “discovery” was the result of a poorly calibrated instrument. But it got me thinking about the idea that if you could send neutrino particles back in time, you might be able to send short messages of warning. That lead to “The man who was killed next Tuesday.” A high-tech detective tries to solve a murder that hasn’t happened yet at a facility on the moon that had developed a neutrino-based time communicator.

Let’s say you are riding a bus, and you see an elderly man in front of you wearing a military uniform with Vietnam Patches on it. Your mind should start to work through the five Ws. Who is this man? Where is he going? Why is he wearing a uniform? When did he serve? What will happen when he arrives where he is going?

Maybe this is a Vietnam vet who abandoned his post right before being discharged. He has been living under an assumed name. The guilt has gotten to him. He is going to the nearest military base to turn himself in. He feels he should appear in uniform. He was just a kid when he served, barely 19. He saw his commanding officer order the execution of every man, woman, and child in a small village because they would not give information about a Viet Cong unit suspected to be in the area. When he arrives, he will have to face the dual guilt of participating in the massacre and running away from his duty.

You see. That is just one scenario. He could be going to a reunion of his old unit. He could be going to the funeral of a friend from the army. He might be going to see he grandson off to boot camp.


Sources of Ideas

Once you begin looking at everything asking the five Ws, ideas will appear everywhere. Here are a few good sources:


Two of my novels began as snippets of dreams. I wish I could say that I had an entire plot, but sadly, that was not the case. My first published novel began with a dream of me sitting on a shuttle to the moon to take a position as a teacher. That was it. From that simple image came Dark Side of the Moon, the first in my mystery series. When I was thinking about writing a mystery, I started with that character, then asked myself what would like to be on the moon, what type of people would go there, what would teaching be like there, who would be killed, why would they be killed, etc.

The News

I used to watch Law and Order. Their catchphrase was “Ripped from the headlines.” Just about every part of the newspaper has some story you can use. I already mentioned how a news story about the possibly faster than light neutrinos sparked a story idea. My Nanowrimo novel this year came from a small blurb in the science section of the newsfeed on my iPhone. It was about how scientists were suggesting that we could colonize Venus by building essentially hard shell balloons that would float in the clouds of that mysterious planet. The air would be lighter than the gas, and the cities would float. Being a mystery writer, I wondered about a body pushed out the airlock in a pressure suit. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t float, but by the time I figured that out, I had a good solid murder scenario worked out, and the pressure suit gets caught on the airlock door.

Interesting People

A few years ago, I was picking up some pet supplies at a seed and feed store. The guy behind the counter was a grizzled old fellow with a slate grey beard and bushy hair. He was a garrulous old coot. He talked about how he raised peacocks and how he ran off some poachers one night in his pajamas and a shotgun filled with rock salt.

I suspected that most of what he told us was far from the truth, but I have kept him aside in my mind for a character in a story. What kind of story? What problem would he face? I don’t know. Maybe he moves to a small town after finishing a long military career which left him bitter and maybe a bit emotionally unstable. He raises Peacocks because he likes them better than people. The folk around town don’t understand him or appreciate him. But there is a brave young boy who has to write a report for school about peacocks and decides to ask the Old man.

I don’t know. If you like that story, run with it. But you see the point.

Unusual Events

I was in San Francisco a few years ago. I was walking down Gough street and was just across the street from Davie’s Symphony Hall. Sitting on the street right next to the wall of a building was a brand new pair of women’s shoes. They were flats. What we would call “sensible” shoes. I found it odd, but was on my way to an appointment and just rushed on. I came back a couple of hours later, and one shoe was missing. Not the pair. Just one shoe!

Now, there has to be a story there. Did a one-legged homeless woman come by? Did someone take just one shoe and leave the other for someone else? If we ask enough questions, there is certainly a story in that one shoe.

Story Ideas are all around you. Just keep your eyes open and ask plenty of questions. In the answers, you will find your story. Be sure to check out Terri’s new series which takes a book from idea to completion: Novel Writing 101 Series with Terri Main starting Jan 15.

[box] BIO:


Terri Main is a retired college instructor. She has a Masters in psychology and has provided counseling for scores of transgendered individuals. For eight years she directed an online ministry to Christian Transsexuals. She has written more than 20 transgender-themed short stories. She currently lives in Reedley CA with her four cats. She continues to write, publish, and teach online courses.