Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Plots and Ideas

by Janis Susan May
When they find out I am a writer one of the first things most people ask is ‘Where do you get all those ideas?’ All too often the second thing they say is ‘I have a great idea for a book – I’ll give it to you, and you can write it and we’ll split the money.’ Just a note – if you ever feel tempted to say this to me, for your own safety please make sure there are no sharp implements within reach.

What most people – non-writers – do not realize is that it takes not one but dozens of ideas to form a coherent story, and to get those which work you might have to go through hundreds. Luckily ideas fill the world to brimming. Any writer worth her salt should have fifty to a hundred ideas every day. Not all of them will be good, and few of those left will be useful, but they are there. Ideas are everywhere!

For example, my modern Gothic INHERITANCE OF SHADOWS (Carina Press) was sparked when a dear friend of mine insisted I read a book dear to her heart. I did, and while it wasn’t as much my cup of tea as hers, I could appreciate the skill and imagination that went into this convoluted, semi-religious fantasy. More than that, it set ideas sparking off in my brain.

What if a man who wrote novels of other worlds and creatures wrote so well that some people believed his work to be true? What if he died under mysterious circumstances that could be construed to fit in with his fantasy world? What if his widow became a strict religious fanatic and raised their infant daughter with no knowledge of him? What if she grew up and found out her heritage and, while searching for knowledge among those who had known him, she sees things that make it appear his fantasy world was not totally imaginary?

Voila! A book was born – a book which had no resemblance to the story my friend insisted I read that had sparked the original idea. Anyone reading both stories would be hard pressed to find the slightest resemblance.

Another example would by my 1963-set Gothic called ECHOES IN THE DARK (Vinspire Publishing). The idea germ that became that book sprang into being one very pleasant autumn day when I was having lunch with my late mother in an elegant old resort hotel in Arkansas. The tale of its restoration from near-dereliction was detailed on the back of the menu. The descriptions of the old abandoned building took hold of my imagination and from that single idea grew a book. Of course, there were other  ideas – an ex-husband and his new fiancee, a slightly criminal professor and his henchman, a couple of archaeology students, a swoon-worthy Southern gentleman, lost Confederate gold and – oh, yes – a ghost. But it all started with a single idea, an idea out of the blue to which I was receptive.

Okay, you say; that might have worked for me then, but no one can depend on such haphazard inspiration. I say, yes I can, and do, and most other writers can as well. Maybe they won’t be as clearly defined as those examples, but believe me, the ideas are there, just waiting to be picked up. A scrap of conversation, out of context, you once heard while standing in the grocery check-out line might morph into a deliciously entertaining murder plot. A small news item tucked at the end of a newspaper’s back page might expand into an idea for a family saga. That’s the lovely thing about ideas – they are everywhere! All you have to do is look at them, then pick and choose the ones you want – an unending intellectual buffet.

The Husband has become used to this phenomenon. No matter where we are, or what we are doing, or who we are with, I will (according to him) suddenly get this blank, faraway look on my face and apparently go away to someplace else for a moment or two. When being asked by companions if I have been taken ill, he will simply shake his head and say, “No. She’s just plotting. Again.”

Take a look around you today. If you don’t get at least twenty flickers of ideas, you aren’t trying. Open your eyes, open your ears, open your mind – the ideas are out there. All you have to do is pick them.


  1. Something my husband and I do when we are waiting in an airport or some other place with lots of people is make up stories about the people around us. I don't know if I've ever actually got a book idea from the exercise, but it's lots of fun.

  2. Had to laugh as I read your first paragraph, Janis. I don't know how many times someone has said to me, "I have a great idea for a book. All you have to do is write it." If anyone has to ask where you get ideas, they're probably not meant to be a writer.

  3. For the creative mind, inspiration and ideas surround us. The trick is to turn those ideas into an interesting, cohesive story.

  4. " can write it and we'll split the money." How many things have we heard that? Non-writers have no idea how hard it is to actually write and get a book published.

    Great post. Now to get all those books out of my heard and onto paper.

    Wanna write them" We'll split the money - LOL

  5. I always think it's funny that folks think coming up with an idea is the easy part. Writing is hard work, especially if we're going to do the idea justice.