Where Do Writers Find Their Ideas?

Readers who are poking around this site and getting acquainted with the abcsoffarkle, I’m going to reverse that question to those of you who now toy with wanting to write or have the need to write.  Perhaps you are a novice writer—college freshman, for instance—searching for a topic and struggling to come up with something fresh to say about it is draining your brain.  Then, you may be an avid writer and have ideas tumbling through your mind, but unable to capture one and get the manuscript started.

Take a break. Engage your five senses.  Listen to voices that have had something to say about your topic or the idea you consider for a book. These may be friends, instructors, characters from reference books, TV characters, and chance meetings. See other people’s reactions to the ideas expressed. What smell does this evoke in you?  Get up and search for a candle that soothes you. Light it, take in the aroma and think about your topic or idea. Touch your hands to the key board.  Start your free writing/keyboarding for five to ten minutes.  Give no mind to mistakes at this stage.  Read over what you’ve written.  There may be a connection.  Perhaps your hands are on fire and you refuse to stop.  That’s a good sign you have made a connection with an idea or topic.  This voo-doo like approach has sometimes worked for me and other times not.  However, I say it is worth a go if one is sitting in silence looking at a blank screen.  Would you agree? If satisfied that you’ve hit on an idea or topic, then research the writing process and get crackin on your writing. You’ve only 7 phases in the writing process to get your excellent piece of literary work published. The Prewrite is started.  Progress onto the draft by writing out the ideas you’ve gathered.  Share the draft with peers who can give an informal peer edit. Revise paying attention to organization and all grammar corrections.  Get more intense with the editing. Read your work aloud making corrections along the way.  Use spell check in addition to your personal grammar corrections. Make your final draft.  Your work is now ready to be published, either submitted to a professional publisher or turned in to an instructor for grading.

“Where do your ideas come from?” is a question that professional writers will not escape during interviews, book signings, and panel discussions.  This is a question that professional writers hear more often than any other.  It’s common for authors to simply roll their eyes and plead ignorance.  Others shrug it off with a wisecrack.  Harlan Ellison’s stock reply is, “Schenectady.”

But as a writing instructor, I get the seriousness of that question for the novice writer who is not aspiring to write the best seller.  That writer is searching for legitimate prompts, not an idea that will be developed into a 150,000 word memoir that is an in depth study of life’s cycles, murder mystery involving the greatest art heist ever executed, historical fiction of the lighthouses for fresh and salt water sea farers, inspiritual guide for overcoming and carrying on after the death of a young woman’s mother, a sociological history of an inspiring story of an Appalachian woman from the foothills of KY, and relationships between war brides and Vietnam soldiers.  That student may never experience being haunted by an idea that reveals itself to a professional writer and refuses to allow the writer peace until it becomes a full fledge novel.  But for the student writer, using all his/her five senses for working through the essay may be rewarding and get the job done.

Before sharing a couple personal stories of how my ideas were birthed into novels, several writers have given some thought to the question and their responses are shared below.

  • People always want to know: Where do I get my ideas?  They’re everywhere.  I’m inspired by people and things around me. (Gwendolyn Brooks, American poet)
  • My standard answer is, “I don’t know where they come from, but I know where they come to, they come to my desk.” If I’m not there they go away again, so you’ve got to sit and think. (Phillip Pullman, English writer)
  • Anything can set things going—an encounter, a recollection.  I think writers are great remembers. (Gore Vidal, American novelist, playwright, essayist)
  • You can write about anything, and if you write well enough, even the reader with no intrinsic interest in the subject will become involved. (Tracy Kidder, literary journalist)
  • “From you,” I say.  The crowd laughs.  I look at the woman asking the question; she seems innocent enough.  I continue. “I get them from looking at the world we live in, from reading the paper, watching the news.  It seems as though what I write is often extreme, but in truth it happens every day.” (A. M. Homes, American novelist and short story writer)
  • My usual, perfectly honest reply is, “I don’t get them; they get me.” (Robertson Davies, Canadian novelist, playwright, and critic)
  • Ideas come to a writer; a writer does not search for them. “Ideas come to me like birds that I see in the corner of my eye, “ I say to journalists, “and I may try , or may not, to get a closer fix on those birds.” (Patricia Highsmith, American crime writer)

Perhaps the most persistent haunting I have experienced over the course of my writing career was experienced during my first novel, Fifty-Eight Gardens.  Over the years, I’ve had many jobs but my career has been as an educator.  Many of those jobs in my career have been teaching jobs and numerous Language Arts teaching positions.  Wrap your mind around the number of papers I have graded as a Junior High, High school, and college level writing instructor.  There was no burning desire, no inkling of a thought that I would ever become a published writer and go more deeply into the manufacturing of words to create a personal literary piece of work penned by Sandra L. Russell. No way did I ever set a goal to become a published author. Then, the death of my mother set the course for my literary world.

Simply described, it was a “death bed” promise that had me writing my first book, a tribute to my saintly mother who lived her life in the foothills of Eastern Kentucky.  Throughout her life, she epitomized the rich life, culture, and customs of the mountain folk that lived so joyfully and free from the hustle and bustle of life outside the “hollers.” For years, I had begged and encouraged Mom to write about her way of life as the culture and customs of the mountain folk were being loss with the passing of her generation. She had given me lip service that she would write her life’s story and had accepted my journals, tape recorders, and other methods to record her recipes, gardening tips, quilting patterns, wisdom about life, and relationship with God. Then, the time came where there was no more time.

A second visit to be with her in the hospital had her extracting a promise from me to write the story of her life in the Appalachian Mountains. What do you say to your dying mother? Do you chastise her and say, “No, mom.  I’m not going to do it.  That was your assignment.  You’ll just have to take a failing grade.” You’re getting the idea.  I agreed that her story would be told.  Now, I never intended to write a book. (I’m that English teacher that scored those hundreds of papers.) What I could do to keep her memory alive was to write a memorable poem and leave it by her graveside which I did.  But, that writing ghost I mentioned earlier booed and threw a hissy fit.  From August 1996 until November 1996, I never had a day of peace.  That ghost nagged goaded, and harassed until I wrote a full on novel of 60,000 words plus.

In closing, I would say this writer got the idea for her first book through a “death bed promise.” The ghost of my mother was relentless until that book, Fifty-Eight Gardens,was written and published in February, 1997.

Let me hear from you.  Any of you writers searching to find ideas for books, essays, poems, articles? Where are you searching? What are the results? Chime in.  I have a ghost for each book that has been published.  My ghosts are rude and pushy.  An idea presents itself and I take notice, even start gathering material, laying out research. Then, out of nowhere, a ghost pushes and shoves its way to the front of the line. Persistence wins out and those notes and that research are put on hold while I attend to the rude, pushy ghost. My record has been that I return later to finish, but it gets frustrating. Really.  Should that loud, rude ghostly idea be rewarded for bad behavior and get in print first?

Where Do Ideas Come From?

“Where do ideas come from?” had we pondering after I had written the post about my ghosts in the form of persistent ideas for books that will not leave me to peace and rest until I acknowledge them and knock out a book in their honor.  That is the primary source for my ideas for books.  However, there was that special time when a powerful picture set me off and had me rabid to write a book about the historical mystique of lighthouses. In my previous article, quotes were given about authors and how they got ideas for writing.  Gore Vidal, American novelist, playwright, and essayist gave her simple answer. “Anything can set things going—an encounter, a recollection.  I think writers are great remembers.” Such was the intrigue for the grand ladies of the sea who once stood sentinel to guard our seafarers away from and back again to their homes.

How did that idea get planted in my mind?  There were two encounters.  The emotional tug began with my two sons who are coastguardsmen. The second was a picture that was taken of my two sons while at sea performing a rescue operation. Never did I set out to write a historical fiction, but as the writer’s mind will have its way, these two factors set the scene for my first historical fiction novel. Keepers of the Light~Look to the Light and you will Find me~ began its incubation at 5:00 a.m. on a humid morning as I walked the beach of Hillsboro Lighthouse consumed with drinking in the scene and writing my ideas down on a soggy loose leaf notebook page that fluttered in the stiff breeze and too often had me chasing it down on the beach.

The idea to write a book about the history of lighthouses and how they are interwoven with the Coast Guard came to me after my son’s assumption of command for a Coast Guard cutter.  His celebration was at the quaint quarters on the Hillsboro Inlet in Florida.  It was the morning after this ceremony that “Ideas come to a writer; a writer does not search for them…” (Patricia Highsmith) proved this source to me.  It was later that the power of a visual—a picture, a  flag, a lighthouse, and a headstone further fueled a writer’s simple reply as to where ideas come from when he said, “I don’t get them.  They get me.” (Robertson Davies)

As you look at this Coast Guard helicopter hovering over a raging sea and a U S Coast Guard cutter rising and falling with the turbulent waves, a man is seen being deployed from the helicopter where he will rescue an individual in distress.  The victim of the angry sea will be put in a rescue basket and reeled to safety by the helicopter crew. This could easily be a scene from The Guardian movie or a routine day in the training or actual rescue mission for a US Coast Guard helicopter and cutter crew. For this proud mom, it served as a powerful nudge to write about lighthouse history and the strong connection with the United States Coast Guard.

There is nothing “routine” about this picture for me, the mom and writer.  The pilot of the helicopter is my son number 1, and the Captain of the cutter is my son number 2.  It is rare that a mom is presented with such a special photo shot and one that is “the real deal.”  Actually, so emotionally attached to this photo, I took on my graphic department during the publication of the lighthouse book and demanded that the actual photo be used on the back cover of the book, Keepers of the Light. They argued that the photo was too small and tried convincing me that they could get a like scene and use for the cover.  For this argument, I became the “grizzly mom” and stood my ground.  I won the battle.  The picture on the back cover of Keepers of the Light is the actual shot of my two sons making a rescue at sea. Their motto is “Semper Paratus” and they live their lives ever ready to serve.

Where Do Writers Find Their Ideas?  My standard answer for how I came to write Keepers of the Light is written in my Author’s Note. “It was in the wee hours of a pre-dawn on the Hillsboro grounds where I embraced my gift of solitude that three ordinary objects—a flag, a lighthouse, and a single headstone—cast a spell over me and inspired me to write the story…” The picture of my sons that you see here became a strong influence and added fuel to my passion when I had those down times and asked, “Where do I go from here?”  That ghost was ever present, nudging me forward until the last word was typed and my hands were lifted from the keyboard.