The Idea Garden

Reminder: I’ll be at the Westchester Children’s Book Festival on May 5th. Details here on the website.

On January 31, 2019, Ainsley wrote, I was wondering about story ideas (most asked question ever) and how you develop them into books.

Two of you responded expansively.

Jenalyn Barton: Observation is key! Carry around a small notebook and write things you notice that interest you. They don’t have to be full-blown ideas yet–that comes later. Here are some examples from my own notebook:

4/13/13 I wrote: “Impression: ‘stately mountains adorned with powdered wigs & rich white furs’”
5/26/13 I wrote: “Yesterday while I was waiting to pick [husband] up from work, I noticed that the power lines overhead had an audible buzz, almost like big bees or something similar.”
6/4/13 I wrote: “Character Trait: [Great Aunt] is convinced that planes are dropping pollutants/chemicals on us, & you can tell by the line of smoke a plane makes in the sky.”
12/28/13 I wrote: “Lies spew out of their mouths like vomit.”
7/4/14 I wrote: “Observation: You can sometimes see footprints in the grass when someone has been there recently”
9/21/14 I wrote: “Image: Clouds wrapped around mountains like luxurious furs.”

Later you can take an observation or two and try to combine them into an idea for a story. My current WIP, “Goldwater,” came from combining three observations together. One came from when I took a plane to Chicago and noticed that the light of the sunset reflecting off the rivers looked like someone had drizzled liquid gold over the land. One came from the song “I set fire to the rain,” and the last one came from a character in an anime with the nickname “Thunder Beast.” I combined the three together to come up with the concept for my story. The concept was that a mythical Lightning Beast, thought to keep the world’s magic in balance, dies and contaminates all the rivers with its golden blood, causing magical phenomena and natural disasters, though no one knows yet what is causing it. But my story still needed the main character, so I came up with the idea of a young mother who is devastated when her toddler son dies in a magical natural disaster and travels to find the Lightning Beast to demand that it bring her son back. The story then began to take on a life of its own.

Of course, not all stories start this way. It’s different not only for each writer but also for each individual story a writer is working on. But learning to pay attention to your surroundings is the best way to start. Orson Scott Card said, “Everybody walks past a thousand story ideas every day. The good writers are the ones who see five or six of them.” Learn to pay attention, write down observations, and ask questions, and you’re on the right track.

Melissa Mead: If it helps, here are some things that came together to become “Malak’s Book.” (And that show how long this book was stewing in my head!)

The first place to publish my stories was a magazine called The First Line, where all the stories in an issue start with the same line. Once the line was “Mamma has always had a love for other people’s possessions.”

TFL likes creative interpretations of the line, so I wrote a story where the “possessions” were the demonic kind, and the narrator was “Mamma’s” half-demon son. It was a fun idea, but the story got rejected. It needed something more.

A while later, I was watching The Crocodile Hunter. Steve Irwin was holding up a big black snake with a bulge in its middle and saying “This is a happy snake. He’s warm, he’s got a full belly…”

Right after that was Iron Chef America. Somebody had made lamb sashimi. I looked at that pink blob of raw meat quivering on a hunk of rock salt and thought “Who’d want to eat that?”
“I’ll bet that snake would like it.”
Things started clicking together, and that generic half-demon became Malak, half serpent-demon, who just wants to gorge himself with raw meat, then find someplace cozy to sleep it off, only the demon-hunters are out there…

(Bonus TV moment: If anybody’s a Doctor Who fan and saw the episode The Girl in the Fireplace, at the moment when little Reinette asks “What do monsters have nightmares about?” and David Tennant’s Doctor turns from fighting them off and says “Me!” I literally shouted “That’s Malak!” That fierce chivalry and absolute determination to keep anyone from harming that little girl- That’s my Demonboy. Plus DT looks PERFECT for the character, if he were to wear an alligator costume on the bottom.)

So, ideas come in all sorts of ways, and both Jenalyn Barton and Melissa Mead find that serendipity is a big factor. If Jenalyn Barton’s flight had been at a different time, if she didn’t know that particular song, if she hadn’t seen the anime, her story idea wouldn’t have taken shape the way it did. And for Melissa Mead, no First-Line prompt, no Crocodile Hunter, no Iron Chef America–no book about Malak.

But–and this is important–both of them would have produced something else. Because they were receptive, open for ideas.

I’d call that the number one element in idea development: receptivity. Writers always have an eye out for ideas.

Notice that neither one of them judged her ideas. Jenalyn Barton didn’t say to herself, You can’t find a story in clouds– they’re just water vapor. Melissa Mead didn’t think, Snakes are cliche.

Nothing kills what might be a fertile idea deader than negativity.

(And nothing else as effectively makes writing a hard, onerous slog.)

So, element two is no judgment.

The fodder for our ideas is various. Jenalyn Barker mentions landscape, a song, anime. Melissa Mead talks about a prompt, like The First Line provides, and TV shows.

In case it’s escaped anyone’s attention, an excellent source of prompts is THIS BLOG–as well as my books, Writing Magic and Writer to Writer. And I’ll repeat, because uncertainty about this crops up fairly often: You are free to use my prompts, the ones you find here or in my books. They’re meant to be used. You won’t be infringing on my copyright.

I tend to go to fairy tales, myths, and history for ideas. The inspiration for my novel Ever came from the story of Jephtha and his daughter in the Bible. I turn these sources over and over in my mind and squeeze them and poke and prod–sometimes for years–until something I can use takes shape.

Even then, the whole story never comes to me fully formed, like Athena from Zeus’s head. I get glimmers, on the basis of which I brainstorm, write notes, make lists. Eventually, I discover a character or two and a sense of the end of my story.

More notes and lists and a beginning comes. I start writing.

Naturally, I need many more ideas to get through a first draft, so I write notes and lists again. If a story is giving me trouble, my notes may be longer than the story itself. No matter what point I’ve reached, I still have to be receptive and nonjudgmental.

Notice how we describe getting ideas: we get them; they come to us; we have a eureka moment–as if the air is full of invisible ideas, the size of midges, and they fly in if we leave even a chink open–if we’re receptive.

This is how it feels. Ideas arrive. I don’t think it’s a deliberate process. If we’re receptive, our subconscious sends ideas. That’s why it feels so delightful. One moment we have nothing, and the next, something. We seem to have done nothing.

There are things, though, that we can do to prime the pump. An activity that doesn’t call for words or much thought, like walking or peeling potatoes, can free our minds. It’s a two-step process. We think obsessively about our project or just our desire for an idea. We may feel hopeless because nothing is coming. Then we let it go to take a walk or a shower, and–bingo–an idea shows up. A midge has flown in.

These idea midges are only for us. My midge won’t do much for you. In its DNA is our complete biography. An idea appeals to us because it’s made for us. It works because we went to the circus when we were seven, because we like salmon-and-peanut-butter sandwiches on whole wheat bread, because humid air doesn’t bother us. And so on. We’re the only one who will know what to do with the idea when it shows up.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Melissa Mead has written about a half-demon. Try writing about a half-fairy-half-gnome. Brainstorm about what such a creature would be like, what it might want more than anything else, what would be challenging for him or her. Write a scene or the whole story.

∙ Write or type “Once upon a time” at the top of a sheet of paper or screen. Write ten things that might follow. Take a walk. Write ten more.

∙ Think about the most complicated person you know. Put your feelings about this person to the side and think of circumstances that would be difficult for her. Imagine a time period that she could fit into. Write a scene for her in those circumstances and time period.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. SluggishWriter says:

    This is my first time on this blog, but I’ve already read through quite a few posts (and I’ve read Writer to Writer; I reread it a few days ago and realized I’d never looked up the blog!). This is such a wonderful writing resource! I appreciate it, and I loved this post. 🙂 I also have a question. I write primarily middle grade and young adult fantasy (as well as some science fiction). As much as I love magic systems, I struggle to make them fit within my stories, both plot wise and scene-by-scene wise. I don’t want my stories to have a useless magic system attached, but I can’t figure out how to make them important, even if I love writing them in. Part of this is that I tend to feel like special magical objects and such are kind of cliche in fantasy, even though I love reading stories about that sort of thing. My magic can get a little too abstract because of this. If anyone has any tips, I’d really appreciate that!

      • SluggishWriter says:

        Haha I actually have watched all of his lectures (probably multiple times)! Thanks anyway. 🙂 I’m just looking for fresh ways of thinking about it.

        • Ah. I noticed that the wording in your question reminded me of his lectures. I guess that makes sense.

          Here’s an example from mine. There are six clans that all have different abilities, and one of the rules of the world is that people who are emotionally close can share defensive abilities. So if someone is unified with a heat-shaper, then they will be unhurt by fire or extreme cold. It ties into the plot because there are themes about unity as the characters learn to work together.

    • Maybe figure out what’s unique about your world first, and then build your magic system around that? And choose your MC and their dilemma based on something that’s different about them relative to this thing

      Ex: Maybe your world has “Phoenix trees” that burn on the top while replenishing themselves from the bottom.
      And magic in this world relates to the trees- eating the fruit, carving the wood, climbing the trees without getting burnt…
      And your MC either can or can’t do something that everyone else can’t/can, which causes a problem, bothers them, or otherwise makes them want to change this thing.

    • I think it would be so cool if a bunch of us had stories in TFL. (Although, to be honest, I think Jeff was the one who liked Fantasy, and he left. I haven’t sold to them in ages. But it could be fun to try!)

  2. Made of Stardust says:

    So I’ve been trying to work on my story recently and realized that I need a name for the “bad guys”. I have been referring to them as “the government” or “the conquerors” but the time has come when I need to name them. I have come up with a few but none of them seem to fit; they just don’t sound as mighty or menacing as I want. So I suppose my question is how to go about finding names for groups that suit them well…?

    • What do they stand for? What’s most important to them?
      Do they take after a real world culture or language?
      And are you looking for what they call themselves, what the people they conquer call them, or both?

      To take an example from “Malak’s Book,” that Gail mentioned above: The angel-like Aureni call themselves that. Humans who respect them call them Winged Ones. Those who don’t call them Peacocks. And demons call them bird-men. Or Lunch. 😉

        • Those particular ones are just things I made up for this book, not official names for “real imaginary beings.” like centaurs or something that readers recognize right off. But yeah, someone who likes and/or respects a group will call them something different than someone who doesn’t.

    • Is there a main leader guy? Maybe finding her/his name would be a good way to start. Giving any character a name that fits the sort of race/ethnicity that you want your readers to see is always a good idea. There are tons of great books and websites with names that come from specific countries. Picturing what your bad guys look like, and then researching names from a similar culture might work.

      And I’ve noticed that bad guy groups don’t ALWAYS have to have a name (although names can be fun, for instance, in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, Voldemort’s followers are called Death Eaters), for instance, Napoleon the pig from George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ had many followers, but I don’t think they called themselves anything beyond “Napoleon’s followers.” And did Fagin’s group have a name in Dickens’ ‘Oliver Twist’?

    • SluggishWriter says:

      Whenever I need a name, I head to my favorite name generator sites and hit up the thesaurus as well. I scribble down names that stick out to me and then let them sit in my head for a few days. Sometimes they name won’t come to me for a while, but eventually I think you’ll find one!
      ( is a useful name generator – some of the generators on the site aren’t as helpful but some can be spot on to what you need.)

  3. As an off-topic note, I’ve recently upgraded my website and I was wondering if I could get some feedback/helpful criticism (there’s a contact page on the website if you don’t want to do it here). You all seem like knowledgeable book-lovers of good taste (and several of you have lovely websites of your own!) so I thought I’d ask. Thanks 🙂

    • It’s beautiful.
      One thought: the heading names (Good Words are Bliss, Sparks, Tiny Posts, Wall of Writers) don’t intuitively define themselves to me–until I click, I’m not entirely sure what the difference between the first three are. Maybe add a small definition somewhere? Like a heading at the top of the new page explaining what the heading means?

  4. Abby Petree says:

    This post makes me think of my favorite author, C. S. Lewis – He was first inspired to write the Chronicles of Narnia when an image came to him of a faun in a forest with snow (Mr. Tumnus) and over the years, more images came to him, until he finally decided to write a story about it 🙂

  5. Hi, so I was just wondering something. In my story the characters know that they’re characters and one of them can sometimes communicate with the author (me). Is that too weird? It goes with the story, but I don’t want to freak anyone out or anything. Thoughts?

    • Sure, you can do that. It’s called ‘meta fiction’. I picked up my little sisters’ “Ever After High” books and the third one (A Wonderlandiful World) incorporates this. In “Simon Bloom, the Octopus Effect”, the main characters meet the narrator, who had previously not been in the story, and see him writing out everything they say as they say it. There are a lot of movies built on this idea too, like “The Neverending Story”.

    • If you’re looking for more examples of metafictional books, try LITERALLY by Lucy Keating. It’s about a girl who discovers that she’s actually a character created by a famous author.

        • It’s shelved as YA, which usually means 12-18. I haven’t read it personally (metafiction and contemporary usually isn’t my preferred genre, but I stumbled upon the book on Goodreads a while back and the description stuck with me), but a quick scan of Goodreads makes me guess that there’s not much content that would be inappropriate for a younger audience. That’s just a guess though, and if you’re concerned about content, you’re welcome to ask the readers on GR or have a friend or parent read it first.

    • I don’t think it’s too weird, (and even if it is, depending on the tone, that could be a good thing). Honestly, the thing that worries me about this is that it’ll come across as a fanfictionish disclaimer in which the author interacts with the characters in a drawn-out and badly written way. I don’t know much about your story, though.

      A couple examples of this- Story Thieves, a lighthearted kid’s series that has pretty believable reactions for characters finding out they’re in a book, and Deltarune, an unfinished indie video game with chilling connetations about what you’re doing to the playable character- a human being with thoughts and feelings who does not like beong possessed by you- and a few figures that speak to you directly. (The former is an approach I think you might like, not freaky at all- the latter kind of is scary, but in a good way.)

  6. pocketful of posies says:


    I have trouble getting emotionally attached to my characters. I use them as tools, not seeing them friends or children, and revel in the readers’ misery when I kill them off. Is this a problem?

    • Kit Kat Kitty says:

      I’m not exactly sure if it’s a problem. But it might help to ask why you aren’t attached to your characters. Is it because they don’t feel like real people? Are they unlikeable? (Since you mentioned your readers feel sad when characters die, I don’t think this is the problem) Have you written characters that you as a person can’t bring yourself to like? Or is it simply because you’re not the kind of person who gets attached to your own characters?
      In summary: It’s more important why you’re not attached to them then if you’re actually attached to them.

      Just a side note, my writing friends love to kill their characters, even if they are attached. So it’s not unusual to enjoy it.

      • My husband gets concerned when I start my evil laughter while writing. The best moments are when I’ve made myself sad/cry, but then I revel in my power to create that emotion and look forward to doing it to readers… yeah, fiction was invented to keep some people sane and legal.

          • Brandon Sanderson, Alcatraz vs. the Evil Librarians, page 163
            Authors write books for one, and only one, reason: because we like to torture people.
            I love his asides in this book. So funny. He’s totally mocking contemporary fiction and getting away with it. Yet another example of metafiction. (I like it so much, I’m even willing to ignore that he has librarians as villains.)

    • future_famous_author says:

      I don’t get very attached to my characters, either, which I think is probably sort of good, in that if you care about your characters like friends, are you going to want the bad guy to kidnap them? Are you going to want them to get in a fight with their best friend? Are you going to want them to die? These are the things that make your story good, as Gail has said time and time again. It’s good to be evil to your characters, because that’s what pulls your reader in, wanting the characters to get out and be happy again. As long as you think about what Kit Kat Kitty said, with WHY you don’t get attached to your characters, I think it’s perfectly fine not to be.

    • SluggishWriter says:

      I don’t think that’s a problem either. I get attached to characters, but I can’t resist evil grins whenever I do awful things to them in my story. What’s more important than you getting emotionally attached is the reader’s getting attached. Good alpha and beta readers will help you out.

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