Friday, July 23, 2010


By Isabo Kelly

This isn’t a dreaded question because authors don’t like to answer it, it’s dreaded because it’s so hard to answer. Where do we get our ideas? The easy answer is: everywhere. And that’s true as far as it goes. But it doesn’t really explain things for readers and non-writers. They’ll continue to ask more questions if you give them this answer, forcing to try and explain the inexplicable, chemical, even magical formation of a new story idea.

How do we come up with those plot twists, compelling characters, enchanting settings, dynamic climaxes? Where do we start? That’s probably the hardest of all the questions to answer—where do we start?

Because every author starts differently. No two authors come up with story ideas in the exact same way. An individual author may not even come up with their ideas in the same way each time.

You could call the process inspiration, but that’s often too ephemeral an explanation. And it still doesn’t quite cover the truth of the matter. Of course there’s some inspiration involved. But where does that inspiration come from?

You can see why this question is dreaded. The more you try to explain, the more confusing the process can sound.

I was considering this question a few

years ago when my mom, also an artist, set me a challenge. We were both experiencing a bit of an artist funk at the same time. So we decided to take a week and come up with three new ideas each.

The challenge forced me to create possible, viable fiction ideas in a set timeline. I couldn’t just wait around to be inspired. I had to have something to report back. So I started mulling over possibilities. And I was forced to really analyze “where I get my ideas.”

I discovered that I have to start with characters. I’d never realized that before. I need at least one character and some sense of their personality. With personality comes a vague idea of their situation in life. Are they rich, poor, artist, sorcerer, pilot, queen, thief? Then the setting of their life starts to come into

focus—in my case, these settings usually fall into my favorite genres: science fiction, fantasy or paranormal worlds. I might also hear a bit of opening dialogue, some teasing lines that bring up all kinds of possibilities for the direction of the story. If the initial character gives me dialogue at this early stage, I usually uncover a second character as well.

From this start, I then consider what will cause a complete upheaval in the characters’ lives. This is what fiction is about after all. Without change and challenge, there is no story. The upheaval gives me my conflict, or at least some of my conflict. If the first few lines of dialogue came to me, then my conflict might already have presented itself. If not, I consider what might cause the most problems for the type of character I’m considering.

And from there, my story grows. Easy right?

Okay, we all know it’s never an easy process. But it is a process that can be explained. There might be a different pattern to each new novel, but once you start to analyze how you create a new idea, you’ll discover certain things remain consistent. My need to start with a character is a case in point. Figuring out “where I get my ideas” made it possible to brainstorm ideas at the spur of the moment, which in turn gives me more options in my publishing career, allowing me to take advantage of opportunities when presented.

There’s still a bit of alchemy involved, ideas whose origin an author can’t explain. But if you can provide some explanation of the process to a curious questioner, you’re less likely to get further queries you can’t answer!

So when you’re faced with this earnest request from the eager-to-know, tell them to have a seat, make sure to have a good cup of coffee or glass of wine on hand, and prepare for a tale. Because creating fiction is as individual as each new novel. And if they want to hear the real answer, it’s going to take some time to explain.♥

In this monthly series, Isabo talks about the often uncomfortable questions every author gets asked, and how to handle those dreaded inquiries. If you have gotten any of these “dreaded” questions, please share them with us here. If you have an answer, all the better.

Isabo Kelly (aka Katrina Tipton) is the author of multiple science fiction, fantasy and paranormal romances. Her Prism Award Winning novel, SIREN SINGING, has just been released in paperback from Ellora’s Cave ( For more on Isabo’s books, visit her at


  1. Great post. It's one I'm going to put in my files. I've been thinking a lot about upheaval in my characters lives. I completely agree that is what keeps the story interesting and challenging. Been rewatching Trueblood on HBO - Charlaine Harris is a master at keeping her characters exciting while Alan Ball brings it to the next level.

  2. It's true -- everything around us can generate ideas. And sometimes a story you've written launches another. I love it when I got my groove on. ;p

  3. I think your word, alchemy, is the best descriptions of the "process" I've yet heard. Like most magic, if an author (over) thinks on it, it goes away.

    Where do we get our ideas? Where *don't* we get them would perhaps be the better question. Writers aren't unique in being inspired by our experiences, good, bad, and everything in between. Our core difference is that we're compelled to write about it.

    And as much as we all dread this inevitable question, when faced with it, I try to remember what an honor it is to share my stories with a broad public. That anyone who doesn't know me personally would care where I get my ideas, or anything else, is really, when you consider it, pretty cool.

  4. I'll second Hope's comment - the process is not describable to others. Sitting in a subway car why does one person immediately rivet our attention? Our minds begin to create a life for this fascinating person (do they even KNOW they are that fascinating)? Or the "what if" response to a scene. Or a name that echoes in your mind calling for a person to belong to. A line of dialogue or an image or a word a song a voice - that in an author's hands is suddenly more than the sum of it. And this comment is why so many people have said to me when I speak on this subject "we were looking for the short answer"!

  5. Great post on the organic process of writing fiction. Everything is so related--characters, settings, conflicts. Thanks so much for shining a light on the value of analyzing one's own writing process. Karen K.