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How to Come Up with Ideas for Your Novels & Short Fiction

When I was a beginning writer, I never knew what to write about. Certain events would come to me by watching the news, or by hearing about some strange or frightening event happening in my neighborhood or around the world, and I’d think, Hmm, maybe I’ll give a shot at writing the story for that. But those stories never panned out. Mostly, for me, it was because I didn’t have the intellectual capacity to understand I had to do the research to “write what you know.” This is also prior to the internet, so research was quite a bit more labor-intensive than it is today.

That problem, the problem of coming up with ideas for my novels, is long gone. But I know it’s still an issue for a lot of beginning writers because I see it on social media writing groups in which I participate. Writers wonder if their ideas will be original (hint, they won’t, because there are no new plots), if their idea will be interesting to readers (you won’t know until your book is complete, because anything can be interesting if told the right way), if an agent/editor/publisher will love their book idea as much as they do (you won’t know until you submit your manuscript), and so on. Writing is subjective—or at least how the writing is received is subjective. But back to where to get your ideas.

I’ll tell you where I get my ideas from, and maybe it’ll help you either a) validate how you come up with your ideas, b) help you come up with your own ideas, or c) surprise you that someone does it in a different way than you do. It'll at least help you start writing your book.

For me, when people find out that I’m a writer, nine out of ten times I hear “Oh, you’re a writer? Cool. I have this idea for you that [enter whatever story you can imagine here].” If you’ve been writing for any length of time, you’re familiar with what I’m saying. Normally I just smile and say Thanks, I’m good. Because I am. I have more ideas for books than I’ll ever get to write. But people think they’re being helpful, or interesting, or narcissistic, or whatever. It’s because they aren’t writers that they don’t understand that we don’t need their ideas. I’m not saying that as a blanket statement, only that for me, pretty much all of the time, it holds true.

My ideas come from things that have happened in my life. I’ve been all over the world, to all of the U.S. states, worked in national parks, restaurants, as a realtor, installing mailboxes, and I worked for years at advertising agencies, You name it, I’ve probably done it. And I’ve also lived and “participated” in rough environments. My interests are diverse, and I “look” for subject matter that might keep my interest long enough to write a book or short story about it. These things come naturally to me, so I go with the flow. Normally I just start writing—a character usually comes to me for some reason, and I give her a name and a situation for her to face, and I go with it. It may go nowhere, but at least I’ve started writing. Writing gets me writing more, and that’s what it’s all about—getting words down so that I have something to edit later on.

I won’t go too in-depth into the plots of the books I’ve written or that are currently in different stages/drafts, but some include books on the Spanish Civil War, the psychological mindset of a WWII bomber pilot, a mystery set during the Cocaine Cowboy days in Miami (I was born there and lived there during that time), a family drama set in the north of Georgia (It’s called The Losses and was published by MidTown), a novel about a woman with mental health issues, a novel about a man with regrets who runs for political office in a small town, and others. How did I come up with these ideas? Well, if I’m to be honest, they’re riffs on the biographical information that makes me who I am.

What I mean is, some of the ideas that I write about are related to me and my life in some form or fashion. They make up who I am and how I view the world. As I mentioned in the Cocaine Cowboys example, I lived in Miami while all of the killing and drugs and money polluted the air. My interest in the Spanish Civil War came about because as a kid (and later as an adult) I lived in Spain. The family drama in Georgia is me riffing on my own family’s issues (though none of what actually happens dramatically in the novel is at all related to what went on in my family), although I did get married in the town of Helen, where the novel mostly takes place. You get the point.

But even writing biographically, you still must do the research, and that research will provide the added benefit of forcing new ideas upon you that you can use, even if not for the current piece or novel you’re working on. Stories come from innumerable places, and you should keep your eyes open for the possibilities of the information you come across. Even if the novel or short story you write goes nowhere or should never see the light of day, it’s still writing, and that is a good thing, because the next go around you’ll improve. You may fail this time, but fail better the next time, as the saying goes.

Another way to come up with ideas for your work is to use tools. Some idea and plot generators for fiction exist out there, and you might give them a shot if you’re having issues coming up with your own. A few of them are:

Now, you can use those to come up with countless ideas, or you can create your own plot generator using a spreadsheet that you can keep handy by saving it to your computer. I’ve created one that you can use (I’ve also included a bunch of options already in there), and you can download it here: Idea and Plot Generator.

The idea is to come up with characters who want something, face opposition, overcome that opposition only to face more opposition, and eventually come to a win or loss (or some other ending that fits what you’re trying to accomplish). If you already know what you want to write about, great! If it requires research, do the research. Read books. Watch movies and documentaries. Do interviews with subject matter experts. Whatever you have to do to write compelling fiction, do it. Don’t take shortcuts, but use the tools at your disposal to help you progress in your quest to write the best book you can write.

Now, I know there’s openai’s ChatGPT and other software out there that you can use to write the words for you. That’s not writing. That’s using software to write for you. You are not the author of that, and if you’re a writer, you shouldn’t use it for anything other than as a reference tool, or to just mess around with to give you ideas. That’s my personal opinion as a published novelist and short story and nonfiction writer. You don’t have to take my advice—I’m just stating my opinion on it because of how dominant a topic it’s become in terms of writing. Personally, I say don’t do it. Using software to write for you is like hiring Lebron James to play a basketball game for you. You aren’t playing, so you shouldn’t get the credit for it. If you’re a writer, write. If you don’t write, you aren’t a writer. That’s my two cents.

I hope the resources I’ve provided for you help generate ideas for your work if you’ve been having trouble coming up with what to write about. Remember, write what you know—and if you don’t know now, just research what you want to know about, and you’ll kill the doubt whirling around in your brain. Research will give you the background and details you’ll need to at least sound like an expert, even if you aren’t one. Remember, ideas come from wherever you want them to. Just keep your eyes open. Be curious. And, most importantly, write. And then write some more.

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