How to write has never been the problem for me so much as what to write about. You can spend all day long writing and improving, finding the perfect turn of phrase, but none of that matters if you don’t have a good idea for a book.
It seems like, when I’m not looking, ideas come in droves. But when I sit down and try to come up with one, I draw a complete blank. I become the most unimaginative person in the world.
I used to think that if I waited long enough, the perfect idea would plop into my brain and, like magic, a story would be born.
Not so much.
Below is a few places to look for ideas. I used myself and some of what I’ve found as an example. So, I apologize in advance:
1. Your Childhood. This is a place ripe for the picking. Remember all of the crazy shit you thought of when you were a kid? If you don’t, try. Start writing about being a kid. It’s amazing the things I’ve forgotten. I went through a time in my life, let’s call it a phase for simplicity’s sake, where I wanted to fly more than anything in the world. And I believed that if I wished hard enough and tried hard enough, I could make this happen. I made my poor sister an accomplice to this crazy idea and being the youngest, she really had no choice but to oblige. Sorry, sis. We spent hours jumping off the ledge that lined our mom’s garden. Don’t worry. It wasn’t very high up. I took a page out of Mary Poppin’s book and tried using an umbrella. The theory was, if the wind caught it just right, we’d take off. It never worked. But what if it had? Oh look, a story idea. See what I mean? And there’s tons of stuff like that. With a little imagination, you can turn it into a great book idea. The bonus is that, even if you aren’t looking to write YA fiction, you can take some of your hopes, dreams, and lessons from back then and translate them into something for adults. Let’s face it, the crap we learn as children sticks with us.
2. What scares you? Lots of juicy little nuggets here. Most of what scares us is universal. Death, public speaking, spiders, being alone, etc. Then you have the oddball irrational fears. Mine is drains. Pool drains, drains in the sink, drains in the street, and so on. Any drain really. I don’t know why. I suppose it boils down to a fear of the unknown which is another pretty universal fear. That’s good because anything universal is relatable. Add drains in there and you have something specific. Everyone understands fear and irrational fear. The specificity of drains is something interesting. What’s going on with the drains? Why is your protagonist afraid of them? Plus you can use this to say something deep and symbolic about society or it could be nothing more than drains are nasty and scary places.
3. What makes you angry? Usually the things that make people angry are things you don’t discuss when you want to keep the peace. You know, politics, religion, and so on. Something that makes me angry is the helpless being bullied or taken advantage of. I can’t stand it when I hear about kids being picked on for no reason, especially if it’s by a parent or an adult. We’ve all had that shitty teacher or known that kid that got teased relentlessly. Let’s be honest, I was that kid. Which is probably why as an adult I get so mad. I couldn’t do anything about it then or thought I couldn’t. As an adult though, I don’t have to take that shit and I want to stand up for those that can’t do it for themselves. Are we feeling an underdog story coming on? Another universal truth. We’ve all been picked on. We’ve all had to eat shit and pretend to like it. That’s why we all love stories where that person fights back and better yet, wins.
There are more places you can look but I feel like these are the big 3 that generate the most ideas. Often they lead to other places and memories you haven’t looked at in a while.
I said earlier that you can’t sit around and wait on ideas to come to you. I’m not welshing on that but there is an exception to that rule. Once you’ve started digging around for ideas, it’s okay to take a break and let what you’ve dug up compost for a bit. You know what I mean? It’s similar to trying to remember something. You rack your brain and cannot find that little bit of information but as soon as you start thinking about something else, it pops into your head. Ideas are the same way sometimes. You’ll spend hours writing, looking, searching, hoping, and finally you can’t take it anymore. So you settle in with Netflix or a good book and seemingly out of nowhere, you get a brilliant idea.
Just remember, it seems like it came from thin air but it didn’t. You put in the work first.
The examples I gave are personal to me. Yours will probably be different or they might be the same but with a different twist. That’s the beauty of it. Writing helps us figure out who we are and in doing so we help other people.
A lot of times we feel like we’re all alone in thinking a certain way or feeling a certain way when really we aren’t. That’s what books and stories do. They connect us and leave us with the sense that maybe we aren’t quite so alone in the big, bad universe. So if you feel like your idea is too weird or too unusual, stop. Chances are there’s a whole group of people out there who’ve been waiting to read your story.