Where do you get your ideas: a case study

“Where do you get your ideas?”

This is a great question that gets asked during every Q&A session with an author. It’s simple. It’s complex. The answer is different for everyone, but the short version is always some variant of, “Anywhere, everywhere, and nowhere.”

While wrapping up the third book of my Galaxy Games series, I found myself thinking about what comes next for me and my writing. It made me really stop to think about where my ideas come from. Because wherever that was, I desperately needed to go back for something new!

But the harder I hunted for a fresh idea, the more elusive they seemed to become.

Step #1: The Idea File

My computer is full of old projects, one-page treatments, and sample first chapters. A while back, when my daughter was developing her sense of humor, I had the idea to write about muses.

In classical Greek mythology, the muses were nine women who inspired all kinds of creativity in human beings. One is a muse of comedy, another is a muse of tragedy, another is a muse of music, another is a muse of dance… It seemed natural to have these supernatural beings still kicking around in the modern world, and competing for controlling interest over a budding young artist, author, or stand-up comedian.

So I wrote some chapters, and they were awful. They went nowhere, but I kept them in my idea file anyway.

And I made a note for the future: “There are some really fun characters in Greek mythology.”

Step #2: Stay Alert for Ideas

Probably a couple times a day I’ll find myself saying, “That would make a great story.” It may be in response to a news article, a conversation, a picture, or a song. Most of these great stories aren’t the ones I’d want to write, but I can imagine them as a book I’d want to read or a movie I’d want to watch.

I could put them all into my idea file, but mostly I don’t bother. 

Then one day, earlier this year, a tweet popped up in my feed from a local newspaper’s Twitter account. It linked to a story about a high school from a couple towns away from me whose track and field team having a particularly good season. Especially in the javelin event.

“That would make a great story,” I thought, and this time it was one I wanted to write as well!

Step #3: Apply Personal Experience

When I read about the javelin competition, it brought back a flood of memories. I was a member of my high school track team. I learned to throw the shotput and javelin, jump for distance, run for speed, and pass a baton. I had a lot of fun and have many great memories, and the one regret that I wasn’t quite fast enough to earn a letter.

Personal experience is the key to finding the story that only you can tell, which will hold your interest through the writing process, and which will resonate as truthful for your readers. I know how to throw a javelin, what muscles are used, what it feels like to launch it down the field, the smell of the grass, the roar of the crowd. And I know well what it was like to not come in first. Or second. Or third.

It wasn’t a story yet, but a feeling that could become the kernel of a story that would resonate with my personal experience.

Step #4: Take Something Ordinary and Make It Extraordinary.

I know some great writers who can take an ordinary experience, like my not quite lettering in track, and make it into a compelling story. I can’t do that. I don’t even try. For my first Galaxy Games book, I essentially told a story about how I used to shoot baskets at my friend’s driveway hoop when I was ten. Except that I added some space aliens and the President of the United States, and put the fate of the world in the balance.

Start with an ordinary story. Add something new. Take something away. Push something to the extreme.

So for my new project-in-development, I turned my personal story about track into one about a prodigious track star with precognitive abilities. Because what’s more fun than a psychic in running shoes?

Step #5: Create a Contrast Character.

Every main character needs a counterpart, foil, antagonist, partner, or all of the above.

When I took track and didn’t earn a letter, that wasn’t much of a story. If I’d been a prodigious track star with precognitive abilities, things would have been a little different, but still not much of a story.

So for contrast, I added a budding journalist who is suffering from retrograde amnesia after a near-death experience.

It sounded good in my head, but when I threw these characters into my computer, I ended up with a Chapter of Awful.

Step #6: Write a Chapter of Awful

This is important. Let yourself write something awful. I mean, don’t plan for it to be awful—just don’t get upset if it is.

Maybe my “precognitive track star meets amnesiac journalist” chapter wasn’t all bad, but it certainly was angsty. After spending so much time spent on light-hearted middle grade, angsty was a refreshing change, but it wasn’t the world I wanted to inhabit for the full length of a novel.

And if I didn’t want to live there, I certainly couldn’t expect a reader to want to live there.

Step #7: If your story isn’t working, try a riff on it

I kept with my Chapter of Awful but also started on something light and fun as an antidote to all the heaviness, planning to put it as an interlude between the first angsty chapter and the second.

Track and field and precognition in modern times made me think of the Olympic Games and oracular prophesy of Ancient Greece. It even fit a prime item in my idea file: “There are some really fun characters in Greek mythology!”

So my interlude featured Hercules getting his butt kicked in a javelin-throwing contest.

I had fun with it, and started to think more about the character of Hercules. I’d read about his twelve legendary labors back in grade school and hadn’t thought of them much since. But when I was a kid, I’d always seen Hercules as something of a villain. Sure, he does some good deeds—ridding the land of monsters, cleaning out some guy’s stables, picking fruit, and all that—but only because he’s being made to do it. He murders his entire family, successfully pleads an insanity defense, and gets off with community service. Because the “driven mad by Hera” excuse was the Twinkie Defense of the ancient world.

Making Hercules into a villain is like making Superman into a villain, except that Hercules has no kryptonite. How can a mere mortal ever hope to take down a god? This was the story I want to tell!

So I tossed the Chapter of Awful and went to work on the riff instead.

Step #8: Explore the Backstory

My story is about an ordinary character in the world of Greek mythology who must take down the villainous Hercules. I feel really good about this except for one thing; I don’t know who this main character is, where she came from, or what motivates her.

So before I could write the story I originally planned to write, I needed to find the real beginning. That’s where I am now: the formative years of an ordinary character who aspires to do extraordinary things. Someone who can’t throw a javelin all that well and probably wouldn’t letter in track, but is destined to take one of the most powerful beings in all of mythology.

Where did this story come from? The short answer still applies: “Anywhere, everywhere, and nowhere.” But the long answer is still a work in progress.

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Greg R. Fishbone
Greg R. Fishbone is the founder of Mythoversal, a project dedicated to restoring inclusion, diversity, and equity to classical texts, and Cryptoversal Books, a launchpad for experiments in sustainable Web3 publishing. His latest work is the Wordler Village series of innovative story tokens. Greg lives in New England with his wife, two young readers, and a pair of stubbornly illiterate cats.
  1. This is a really useful post. I will be linking to it on my blog. Thanks!

  2. I see this question asked all the time–usually by middle-aged men for some reason. I’ve never understood it. Isn’t ‘getting ideas’ the easy part? It’s figuring the good stuff (how to tie plot, character growth and style together in a commercially appealing way) that’s hard.

    I think the wrong question is actually being asked. The question should be more like ‘how do I get my ideas into a cohesive story that people will want to read?’. Of course, that isn’t an answer anyone can give in a couple offhand lines.

    Ideas? I wrote 200 pages based off a single word. Yeah, ideas are never the problem.