Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Idea Tree

By Kate

One question all writers seem to dread is … Where do you get your ideas?

I can hear the groans now, along with some smart-alecky answer that might go something like this …

- If I told you where I get my ideas, I’d have to kill you.

- I pluck them off the Idea Tree.

- Do you think I’m going to tell you where I get my ideas so you can go steal them?

- I pick up my ideas at Wal-Mart in the plastic receptacles aisle, bottom shelf on the right.

And so on.

And yet, it’s a perfectly reasonable question, don’t you think? Especially given that it’s usually asked by someone who admires the writer and seriously wants some insight into her creative process.

So … where DO you get your ideas?

For some reason, my best ideas hit me when I’m washing dishes. You’d think I’d wash dishes more often.

Some of our banditas have found inspiration while traveling in different countries or studying different eras.

Sometimes an idea might spring to life in the strangest moments, in an old bookstore, or staring at the ocean, or from handling an elegant, antique weapon or touching the lace on your grandmother’s wedding dress.

But if the ideas aren’t flowing, what do you do? Can you afford to wait for the muse to finish doing her nails? Can you jump on the next plane to Ireland? Or do you just start washing dishes?

Some writers believe in affirmations and I agree, they are often helpful and uplifting. I have a friend who repeats every morning, I am a fabulous writer with amazing ideas! It works for her. She is a fabulous writer and she does come up with amazing ideas.

Me? I find the words of Jack London comforting. He said that you can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.

I must confess, I'm too old to sit around waiting for some recalcitrant muse to show up and spew forth brilliance. I believe in chasing ideas down with a club if I have to.

So naturally, I'm wondering. Writers, where do you get your ideas? (Come on, you knew it was coming!) And readers, is there one author out there who you’d love to ask that question of? I think I would choose Susan Elizabeth Phillips. Her books are fabulous, heartwarming and so darn funny, and her characters and plots are delightful. They always leave me wondering … where did she get that idea?


Deb Marlowe said...


Joan said...


Foiled again!!!

Deb Marlowe said...

Oh, yeah, baby! The GR offered to help my dh paint tomorrow! I'll feed him good and make sure he's cleaned up before Monday though!

Ideas: they come from research, from long drives, from watching people in the grocery store--you just never know!

Joan said...

You mean that Idea tree I planted in my yard won't work???


Well, they did just build a super Walmart less than half a mile from my house....

Actually, I don't know where half my ideas come from. I did get one when I jumped on a plane to Ireland (VBG) watching a fine looking Irish lad working as a stone mason. I could have watched that a** , er, I mean chisel/hammer work all day.

Usually though any idea I have starts with a "What if?" question.

Deb Marlowe said...

Oops, I lost part of my post.

Sorry Joan! I'm never up this late!

It's funny how often that question does come up. I like the idea of an idea tree, though.

jo robertson said...

I love to hear where authors get their ideas from, Kate. I'm always amazed that someone can pick up an object and start to imagine a story that way. My muse is a bit more sassy. She wants far more than an object or setting before she gives me the scaffolding of the story.

Usually my ideas come from taking classes or reading academic information. Weird huh?

In my abnormal psych class I read a case that gave me the what-if scenario. I took a crime scene investigation class and wondered how someone could escape the authorities for decades.

Congrats, Deb, on getting the GR! But somehow I don't see him spending his Sunday painting. Good luck with that LOL.

Kate Carlisle said...

Oh, nice one on snagging the GR, Deb!! LOL...oops, sorry Joanie!

But seriously, painting? Hmm. It could happen. Just beware of rooster tracks on the walls.

Joanie, I've heard about that fine Irish a**--er, masonry work you observed! Very inspiring, I'm sure!

Kate Carlisle said...

Jo, the last time I took an abnormal psych class, the only thing I imagined was ME being diagnosed with every psychotic disorder in the book! I was a psych major at the time and I wondered why everyone in the department was so strange. LOL

But it's very cool that you actually got some good ideas from the classes. I'd love to take a CSI class sometime.

Jane said...

If I had a chance, I would ask Agatha Christie where she got her ideas and plots from. I always had a hard time figuring out who the culprit was in her books.

Kate Carlisle said...

Jane, I would love to hear Agatha Christie talk about her ideas! Dorothy L. Sayers, too. I'd love to hear her talk about her inspiration for Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, two of my absolute favorite characters ever.

Minna said...

Nora Roberts, definitely.

Well, the song contest is finally over, and the Eurovision Song Contest winner is... Russia:

Helen said...

Congrats on the GR Deb hope he enjoys the painting.

Great post Kate all I can say is you authors come up with some of the best ideas plots and story lines I love them and I don't mind where you get them from as long as you all keep getting them because I love reading them.
As to who I would like to ask where they get their ideas from thats hard for me because I have read so many great authors I think I would choose Kathleen Woodiwiss if I could sadly I can't and Shirlee Busbee hers were some of the first historical romances I read and loved them.

Have Fun

Kim Howe said...

Great post, Kate!

Although my ideas do come from the strangest places, one of the fun ways is watching people and making up stories about their lives. Sometimes when my husband and I go out for dinner, I'll let him pick someone in the room and then I'll give him/her quite the background. Being a writer is the best're always using your imagination.

Christie Kelley said...

And Deb wins the GR! Congrats, Deb.

Kate, ideas? Oh boy, I get ideas from every where. I really do enjoy painting (walls not canvas) because it allows my brain to just think about nothing. And thinking about nothing is when I get my best ideas. So if I can't paint, haaahaaaa I have so many walls left to paint, but when I can't walking is the next best thing. A walk down to the river to sit by the water and watch seabirds is wonderful.

It's funny because another thing that can really help is to talk it out with someone. They don't even have to be a writer. I've been trying to get a better handle on the motivation of my heroine. My dh and I were out walking and I asked him about it. He was great. He pressed me to think about what I would do in that situation. And before we arrived home, I had it figured it. So I need to get back to those revisions now! Have a great weekend everyone. I'm off on the boat for a few hours today.

Suzanne Welsh said...

Wow, Kate, I didn't know there was an idea tree. And all this time I've been pouring through the pages of the "Big Book of Ideas" for my ideas! Geesh!! I coulda been plucking them off a tree instead!!

Seriously though, I tend to get some of my best ideas while people watching, or ironing or driving to work. Often times I'll actually see a scene in my head and that's where the story starts. Everything else is just happy accidents.

Tiffany Kenzie said...

ideas come from research, sometimes as little as seeing a painting (with my recent book) and thinking what if. Hey, isn't that a cop out answer too? It just has to sometimes start with a character. And as I write them, the story and more ideas will unfold for themselves. Often I get an idea for my next book somewhere around the middle of the one I'm writing. :)

It feels like an eon ago, but I want to know where Jacqueline Carey came up with her idea--it seemed so real. I once thought I'd be a fantasy writer of her caliber. Phedra and Jocelyn were my inspiration, and I also thought, wow, this is her first book. I didn't write a fantasy (at least not yet) but I did name my female protag after her sigh-worthy warrior.

doglady said...

Hey way to go, Yankee Lady!! The GR can help your hubby achieve that great feathered look on your walls.

Great post! Everyone knows the story of Lost in Love starting as a writing exercise - write a story or chapter using the following words - soldier, journal, glittering, cave.

My second novel, a WIP, The Raven's Heart was inspired by a photograph I saw online when I was researching the village of Dunwich. It was a picture at dusk with the fog rolling in of what might have been a tree-lined drive to an estate. The trees looked to be pointing toward a house (in my imagination) just beyond the scope of the photograph, beyond the fog. Their bare limbs tapered into fingers of oak leading in accusatory fashion to the house. Or something like that.

Anna Sugden said...

Congrats, Deb - glad to see you're not spoiling that rooster - he'll be getting fat with all the pampering he's had lately!

LOL on the Idea Tree - and I thought was the place to go!

My ideas come at me from all angles - often I'll see or hear something and think 'what if'?

My Texas cowboy who inherited the Yorkshire sheep farm book came about after hearing one of my heroes, Tess Gerritsen, speak. She talked about taking a character, finding the worst possible thing that could happen to them and then keep twisting to make it even worse! My hockey hunks were inspired by real-life men of the ice.

And my single title ms Gay by Day was a result of a discussion about whether one of the Queer Eyes was a fake gay ... and what if ...?!

Anna Sugden said...

A Minna - it's that time of year again is it?! So, who got 'nil points' this year - was it Norway again?

Minna said...

At least it wasn't Finland this time getting lowest points, but it was close. Um, no, Norway got 182 points. Actually, no one got zero points this time. But some of those performances... Good grief! And the French were actually singing in English -again! At least no one managed to make Russians mad, like last year in Finland when that one weird group sang "lasha tumbai", which sounded like "Russia goodbye".

Kate Carlisle said...

Hi Minna! Oh, definitely Nora. She comes up with some amazing ideas for her trilogies, doesn't she?

And what's this song competition? I'll have to check it out and report back!

Anna Sugden said...

LOL Minna!

Kate - the Eurovision Song Contest is a bit of a tradition across Europe. Each country offers up a band/singer to compete (I think they have to be unsigned to a deal, but that may have changed) and countries vote. It's how Abba became famous - they won it with Waterloo years ago. I think Celine Dion may have won it too.

Some of the songs are just awful!

I guess it's a fore-runner to American Idol.

Kate Carlisle said...

Helen, I also read Shirley Busbee early on and I'm so glad to see she has new books coming out. And I love your choice of Kathleen Woodiwiss. I'd love to hear her talk about her life and I wonder what she would say about the world of romance today.

Kate Carlisle said...

Hey KJ - loved your blog yesterday! Kimber is so smart about marketing and I really appreciated her advice.

I like that game you play, making up stories about people. I imagine you could come up with some great ideas for suspenseful plot lines!

Kate Carlisle said...

Hey Christie, glad you could break away for a little while and visit! I have to admit, I prefer your idea of a walk along the river rather than painting walls! LOL. I've had my fill of painting for the next twenty years or so.

Have fun on the boat! That sounds like a wonderful way to spend the long weekend.

Kate Carlisle said...

Wait, there's a Big Book of Ideas? Suz, why didn't you say so? I keep staring at that stupid idea tree and I get nothing!!

I'd think you'd find a lot of interesting and suspenseful ideas, working in a hospital, but you're telling me you get your ideas while ironing? Talk about, er, irony!

But seriously, that's right up there with washing dishes. I'm starting to think my muse would prefer a cleaner house. She's doomed to a life of disappointment.

Kate Carlisle said...

Hi Tiffany -- I always seem to get my best ideas when I'm halfway through a different story. I've got to quickly write down lots of notes, right then, because I know I'll forget all my brilliant thoughts if I don't. *g*

That first book of Jacqueline Carey's must've been amazing if her character's name inspired you that much. I haven't read her yet but now I'm intrigued!

Kimber Chin said...

Kate is making me blush.

I keep a story idea list.
Most are taken from the business headlines.
However, if I'm really stuck for ideas, I hop on the bus.
Whole lot of crazies on there.
Or I hang out in the business area and listen in on conversations (aren't phones great for that?).

Kate Carlisle said...

Doglady, I had no idea Lost in Love was inspired by FOUR words. What a great story to tell! It just proves that ideas can come from anywhere. We just need to be receptive and willing to play the what-if game.

And I love that image of the foggy tree-lined drive. I can imagine a lot of writers who read those words are conjuring up new ideas as we speak!

Kate Carlisle said...

Anna! Hey, I didn't know there was an 800 number!'s not working on my phone....grumble....

Tess Gerritsen's advice is so valuable for twisting plots and building characters. In the past, I had a tendency to choose the easy road, the contrived plot twist. I hated making my characters suffer. But where's the fun in that? LOL

And thanks for the info on the Eurovision song contest. I'm going to check it out today!

Kate Carlisle said...

Hey Kimber -- Thanks for coming back to the Lair today!

And I had to laugh at your idea of taking the bus for new ideas. What an absolutely great notion! And totally out of the box for someone like me since I live in LA. We do love our cars here so believe me, that would be a giant step out of my comfort zone. But I'll bet it would be worth it. Thanks for the idea. :-)

Terry Odell said...

Among other things: Music. Sometimes it's merely the mood; others, it's the words.

My "What's in a Name?" clicked with a line from Dan Fogelberg's "Leader of the Band."

Finding Sarah drew on Simon & Garfunkle and Beethoven.

The Eagles inspire scenes, which then require books to go with them.

And I agree it's the mundane tasks or mindless moments that starts my brain moving along plot paths. After all, you've got to think of something when you're ironing or folding laundry.

limecello said...

Fun post! I think the most amusing answer I've heard is WalMart (though the author actually did get an idea there). I'd most love to ask SEP too. I absolutely love her books!

Maureen Child said...

HI Kate.......

Good blog and I love some of these answers to the question! Hmm an Idea Tree. Oooh. Could I have a Money Tree, too?? There was a great old movie about a money tree...hmmmmm

What were we talking about? Ah yes! Ideas are found in old movies, country music, Target, household appliance section, and mostly for me, washing dishes. dishwasher for me!

Minna said...

Actually, it really shouldn't be called "Eurovision" anymore, as there are now many countries taking part that are definitely not European countries. And hey, without Eurovision there wouldn't be Riverdance.

Eurovision 2007 Semi-Final Latvia

Joan said...

Is the 900 number where erot*ca writers get their ideas? :-)

Ok, let's start a story....

A man is standing at the perimeter of an airport watching a 757 take off. What if...... (next)

Tiffany Kenzie said...

Kate... I was an avid fantasy reader for many years before I picked up a romance. It's the Jacqueline Carey Kushiel trilogy. Starts with Kushiel's Dart and Phedra as a child. These books have everything, political/sexual intrigue, romance and love, sadness, death and betrayal. They are simply fantastic.
The books are long (around 750-1000pgs) hey they are fantasy. Her world building and her characters are something else.

Did I ever mention, I'm a total book pusher?

Minna said...

Oh yeah, the song that made Russians mad:

Loucinda McGary aka Aunty Cindy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Suzanne Welsh said...

I'll play...

What if he'd come to the airport to stop his wife from absconding with his child, only to miss the plane by minutes?

Kate Carlisle said...

Ooh Terry, I like that you've found so much inspiration from music. I can't say that a particular song has inspired me but I did once write a story that was inspired by a musical group whose music I loved. The way they got together to form the group was what interested me most and caused me to ask, what-if. The story grew from there.

Kate Carlisle said...

Limecello, hello!

Hey, thats a poem! :-)

You're a SEP fan, too? Isn't she fabulous? I can't decide which of her books I like more at any given time. Ain't She Sweet is my current fave but I also love Nobody's Baby But Mine and It Had to be You. I reread them all at least once a year.

Kate Carlisle said...

Hi Maureen! Hey, a money tree. Can I have one, too?

Ah yes, that Target aisle is filled with great ideas! Thanks for the reminder.

And don't even think about buying a dishwasher! Where would you get all of your sensational ideas? :-)

Terry Odell said...

Kate --
"What if?" is a great idea generator.

As for the music, sometimes it's a simple as hearing a melody and imagining what it would feel like to dance with 'that special someone' and all of a sudden there's a huge chunk of manuscript, because you have to know where the characters are dancing, or if one of them is alone, wishing he/she could be in someone's arms, or if one is a terrible dancer ... and then you have to know how they got there, and where it all leads, and you go on and on.

Sometimes the ideas come, as someone else posted, from knowing the characters. I'm writing a connected book, and I had to learn more about the secondary character now that it's his turn, and knowing about his past sent me down that 'throw all his fears at him' road.

Kimber Chin said...

Well, in L.A.,
it is even a better idea.
What is the DASH, $0.90?
(Jeepers, I remember when it was
a quarter)
A dollar an idea.

Kate Carlisle said...

Hey Minna, thanks for all those links. I'm gonna know everything there is to know by the time I'm finished viewing all these videos!

Kate Carlisle said...

LOL on the 900 number, Joanie!!

Ooh, a game. Okay, Suz put in her line, so...shoot, I've got two scenarios, one following the man, the other following the woman and her kid...

The moment the wheels left the ground, the woman let out a sigh of relief. The plane was in the air. She'd finally escaped. He would never find her now...

Kate Carlisle said...

Tiffany, you're a brazen book pusher! LOL. I must be strong. I'm drowning in books...I can't buy another book this month...but this one sounds really good....aaaagh, you're killing me....must have this series!!

Kate Carlisle said...

Terry, I really like how you work with the music and the idea of your characters dancing. I'm going to try that. Good luck with your secondary character's book!

Kimber, that is a bargain. Dare I ride the bus to work one day this week? I'd probably get enough ideas to last me the next few years. Hey, it's LA after all. Home of the crazies. :-)

Minna said...

Ok, here's some more:

ESC 1996 * 11 Estonia * Kaelakee Hääl *

Kirka: Hengaillaan

Teräsbetoni - Missä miehet ratsastaa - Eurovision 2008 (Well, at least they made it to the finals)

Herreys - Diggiloo Diggiley

Finland 1977 - Lapponia - Monica Aspelund

Cliff Richard - Congratulations (United Kingdom ESC 1968)


Eurovision 2007 Semifinal - Belarus : Work your magic

Our first winner, ever 2006 (hide the mirrors, these faces might break them):
Lordi- Eurovision 2006

By the way, that odd structure in those 2007 videos represents the jaws of a pike.

Trish Milburn said...

I have one of those idea files where I stick scribbled-down ideas I get from watching TV, reading the news, ideas inspired by trips I've taken, clippings from magazines, etc. I even get ideas based on titles that come to me first.

Jeanne (AKA The Duchesse) said...

Hi Kate! Great post! I always laugh when I hear someone ask Nora Roberts this question. Interestingly enough, she never really answers it. Ha!

Congrats on the GR Deb! :>

I had to laugh at some of the answers...WalMart? Grins. Ironing? People still iron? (Heehee)

In my case, I've gotten ideas from everywhere someone's mentioned, EXCEPT ironing and WalMart. Ha! Driving. What if... Washing dishes. In the shower. Oh, and my personal favorite, the headlines.

Headlines are a heck of a source, especially News of the Weird. My usual story start begins, "Someone did WHAT with a banana?" I'm still trying to figure out how to use the news bit about a kid who derailed a train using a souped up TV remote and some wire.

Driving's my favorite though. I can think through an entire story line while on a nice, long, quiet stretch of open road.

Kate Carlisle said...

Minna, the Ukraine video that you say made the Russians mad? Hilarious!!

Hey Trish, very smart to have a file for all those errant ideas you come across or dream up at odd hours. I've mostly got piles of post-its and scraps of paper stuck everywhere in the house. Not quite as effective as an actual file, LOL.

And it's interesting to come up with a title, then develop a story around it. That happened to me once, and it was really fun and very high-concept. Was that your experience?

Joan said...

What happened next with the woman????????

Kate Carlisle said...

Jeanne, I love News of the Weird! My faves are all the stories they consider "formerly weird" and don't bother reporting because they happen so often now. They're so funny--and so stupid! It's really doesn't say much for the future of the planet. But a great source for story ideas! LOL

Kate Carlisle said...

ROTFL Joannie! I have no idea. I was hoping someone else would tell us!! LOL

Jeanne (AKA The Duchesse) said...

Heehee, Kate, I love the "formerly weird" too, for just that reason.

I also have a file. And I keep it in the file drawer rather than on the computer. I've gone back through it several times and have had a few "What?" moments as to why I saved something. Ha! So, now if an article sparks an idea, I jot down the gist of the idea and staple it to the article. Some of the things in the file...whew. Weird.

Joan said...

"Ladies and Gentleman, welcome aboard Air Continental Airlines," the pilot said over the intercom. Sylvia frowned. There was something familiar about that voice.

She shook her head and tried to calm the skittering nerves in her stomach. She was overwrought, that was all. She glanced at her son Zach in the seat beside her, relieved to see him showing typical six year old curiosity as he pressed his face to the tiny window. He'd withdrawn so much since the ordeal.

The pilot spoke again. "We will be flying at an altitude of 23,000 feet."

She squirmed again at the slide of words, decided that the static was causing her imagination to kick into overdrive. They were 23,000 feet in the air. They were safe here.

"So sit back and enjoy the ride....Sylvia"

Sylvia's heart froze in her chest at her ex-husband's voice.

Suzanne Welsh said...

Joanie!! Didn't she just leave him sitting on the ground staring at the back end of the plane?

Joan said...

Did she????????


cue Twilight Zone music

Kate Carlisle said...

I guess we're writing a paranormal! ROTFL!!

But good job, Joanie! Hey, maybe they're twin brothers...good and evil...

Joan said...

Hey, maybe they're twin brothers...good and evil...

Maybe.......or maybe the man on the ground was the boy's real father come from the Faelands...

Pat Cochran said...

Congrats, Deb! Be sure to get photos
of the paint work done by your dear
husband and the GR.

I have to go with the several folks
with the question for Ms. Roberts!

Sylvia shakes her head to stay awake,
her dreams are too awful to allow to
continue, besides she needs to make sure Zach is alright!

Christine Wells said...

Hi Kate, fab post as always! I agree with you--I really don't think it's a silly question to ask an author. Perhaps a lot of us groan because it's difficult to remember sometimes where the idea came from.

The Dangerous Duke came from a couple of pieces of research: a fascinating tidbit of information I found about female prize-fights in the early nineteenth century and quite separate reading about the courtesan Harriette Wilson's diary. No, my heroine is not a prize-fighter, but somehow the story evolved through various guises from those two ideas.

Congrats on nabbing the rooster, Deb! Don't let him get paint on those beautiful feathers, now will you?

terrio said...

I get almost all of my ideas while driving. I've gotten to the point I have to keep a notepad in the truck. Unfortunately, the idea come quicker than I can write. My first WIP is still IP and I have about five or six other ideas.

The other source is songs. In the last few days I've actually figured out plot points of the current WIP from songs I just happen across.

Back to the story...
David pulled out his cell as the plane faded into the clouds. He knew exactly where she was headed. He knew who she was going to meet. And he knew just who to call to take care of them both.

*dun dun da*

Joan said...

Ooooooo....good one terrio!!!!

Dun daaaaaaaaaa

Kate Carlisle said...

Oh no. What happens next?? Aaaargh!!

Thanks everyone, for adding to the story and for sharing your best sources for ideas.

Still wish I could find that Idea Tree... :-)