October 10 – 16: “Where do you get your story ideas?”

Where do you get your story ideas? Are you a ripped from the headlines type? Do your story ideas actually start with character? Do they reflect your life/interests? Are they more intuitive? AND, how do you know when they’re good?

Join ITW Members C. C. Harrison, Miranda Parker, Todd Ritter, Ed Kovacs, Yvonne Anderson and Allison Brennan for what’s sure to be a thriller!


C. C. Harrison’s award-winning books include, THE CHARMSTONE, a mystery set on the Navajo Indian Reservation, that was called “An important book!” by Tony Hillerman.  Next came RUNNING FROM STRANGERS, and SAGE CANE’S HOUSE OF GRACE AND FAVOR written as Christy Hubbard), which was honored at the Aspen Institute as a finalist in the 2010 Colorado Book Award.  PICTURE OF LIES will be released October 2011. She is currently working on CEMETERY TREES, a Michigan mystery.

Miranda Parker is the author of A Good Excuse to Be Bad, Book 1 of the Angel Crawford Bounty Hunter Series. This journalist/book critic has written over fifty magazine articles. She began writing fiction in 2005 after taking a writing workshop taught by Chuck Palanuik. Now Parker writes romcom suspense for Kensington Books. She resides near a Georgia horse ranch and her daughter’s Girl Scout Troop.

Todd Ritter’s first mystery, DEATH NOTICE was published in 2010 by St. Martin’s/Minotaur. The follow-up, BAD MOON, will be released next month. He is a journalist and editor based in New Jersey but born and raised in Pennsylvania. He can frequently be found posting YouTube videos of baby animals on Twitter.

Ed Kovacs has worked and traveled all over the world as a private security contractor, journalist, and screenwriter.  His novel STORM DAMAGE will be published by Minotaur in December, 2011.  Eight screenplays he has written have been produced under various pen names.  He splits his time between his home in Southeast Asia and his aircraft hangar home at a Southern California airport.

Allison Brennan is the New York Times bestselling author of seventeen romantic thrillers, including Kiss Me, Kill Me; Love Me to Death; Sudden Death and Killing Fear. A five-time RITA finalist and Daphne du Maurier Award winner, Brennan enjoys spending her free time reading, playing games, watching high school sports, and researching her novels. A member of Romance Writers of America, Mystery Writers of America, and International Thriller Writers, Allison Brennan lives in Northern California with her husband, Dan, and their five children. The third book in the Lucy Kincaid series will be out in November.

Yvonne Anderson’s first novel, The Story in the Stars (Risen Books), debuted in June 2011. She is contest administrator for the blog Novel Rocket, named to Writer’s Digest’s list of 101 Best Websites for Writers in 2008, 2010 and 2011. A member of American Christian Fiction Writers, The Lost Genre Guild, and International Thriller Writers, Inc., she works as a Virtual Assistant but spends most of her time on the planet Gannah, researching her stories.

  1. Hello to all from a far off place. This is a terrific idea for a roundtable discussion and I look forward to the comments from my fellow gifted panelists and others.

    While I can’t say there is any one “well” that I go to for plots, of late I have gotten quite a few story ideas directly from my work assignments as an overseas security contractor deployed to unusual locales. It’s easy for my warped mind to examine a setting and formulate a scenario where bad guys are up to no good.

    My new novel STORM DAMAGE, however, was inspired by a real murder I heard about when I worked in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. I just knew that using that murder as a jumping off point for a crime thriller would make an interesting book, so I guess ‘gut instinct’ has a place in this discussion.

    1. Hi, Ed.
      I agree gut instinct definitely plays a part for me. Before I wrote A GOOD EXCUSE TO BE BAD I was working on my third draft of an adventure novel set in Haiti. One night while crawling through a scene, for the umpteenth time, I saw an ABC Nightline special that took my breath away. I immediately connected with the subject of that story and couldn’t let it go until I wrote a short story. It’s like it haunted me. I won a short story award because of that. It further made me understand that for me, as a writer, if I don’t have passion for my main character I can write a thousand drafts and the story will never be authentic enough.

  2. This is probably the question writers get asked the most, and for good reason. I’d love to know how other authors get their ideas, because I have no idea where mine come from. Sure, I know when a great idea strikes and what the source is. I just don’t know why that particular source jumpstarts my creative process.

    For example, my new mystery, BAD MOON, comes out this week. And I got the idea for it while watching, of all things, a Discovery channel documentary about the NASA moon missions. There was a lightning-quick shot of a little blonde boy waving an American flag during one of the launches. It was such a cute, patriotic image — Norman Rockwell couldn’t have done any better. So it shocked me when this thought popped into my head: “What if that boy vanished?”

    Once that happened, my mind started to race, as it often does when I get a new idea. Who is that boy? What’s his family like? How did he vanish? Why? Who took him? After months and months of building on those questions, I had the foundation for BAD MOON — a present-day search for a boy who disappeared during the first Apollo moon landing.

    To this day, I don’t know what it was about that particular boy in that particular documentary. I suppose, like Ed mentioned, it’s all about ‘gut instinct.’ Most great ideas usually are.

    1. Todd, congrats on your book release. Bad Moon sounds good and a parent nightmare for me. lol. It’s fun to learn that both you and Ed pull story ideas from your gut reactions to stories you read or see. I wonder whether suspense/thriller writers are easily drawn to news and documentaries.

  3. My story, A GOOD EXCUSE TO BE BAD, was ripped from a story we had to kill for a magazine I was once a staff reporter. In fact, Angel Crawford, my main character’s backstory is based on questions I had for my editor when I was told that we were killing the story. I want to explore the ramifications of what happens when the press chooses to withhold news that affects its society. The question may or may not be answered by the time we conclude the final series of the book. But it does give me many stories to build a novel series around.

  4. I like the “subliminal flash” source you talk about, Todd; work assignments like Ed and Miranda mention is a rich source. And where would we writers be without gut instinct? Our subconscious creativity can come up with some marvelous stuff.

    I wrote an as-yet-unpublished novel, Mom’s Mirror, as a means of working through some issues I had with my mom and my eldest daughter. I don’t know if that’s the best basis for a story (notice, it remains unpublished), but it was cathartic.

    My debut novel, however (The Story in the Stars) was inspired by a non-fiction book called The Gospel in the Stars. It proposed an intriguing theory, but was written in archaic language and discussed things I knew nothing about, so I had a hard time making sense out of it. In order to help me grasp it, I thought it might be fun to write a short story in which the characters discovered the things the book explained. As often happens, the short story took on a life of its own, growing into a novel and becoming quite the adventure. Watching it unfold turned out to be the most fun I’d ever had writing.

    In the process, I discovered too much about the story world to fit it all into one book, so I had to write another. The story line for that one evolved from a kids’ book I read to the aforementioned eldest daughter 30 years ago, Brighty of the Grand Canyon.

    1. I have to say, I was pretty disturbed by that “subliminal flash” — but what a great way to phrase it. But the idea wouldn’t go away. And that’s when you know you have a good one. When it sticks to your mind the same way well-cooked spaghetti clings to a wall.

      And Miranda, nice to see a fellow journalist here! I tell everyone, if you want to be a mystery writer, work at a newspaper. A newsroom is swirling with great story ideas.

  5. What a great topic! So good to see known and new faces here. Todd, congrats again on your release!

    It’s funny that you all refer to real life stories as a source for fictional ones. Ed with work assignments, Yvonne a non-fiction book, Miranda with Nightline, and Todd with the Discovery channel. (This may be one disadvantage to our having turned off TV 😉

    For me the stories tend to jump into my head when I envision a situation going awry. How would it go that way? And just how far could it go?

    Again, great discussion.

  6. Interesting sources everyone has. It seems as though our lives always seem to provide the impetus for us to write. My own novels have all come from sudden images that appeared to me at random. A forty something man with a flat-top haircut, kneeling in the desert (Karl’s Last Flight), a man sleeping in a recliner by a woodstove in rural Alaska (65 Below), a preacher behind a pulpit with nightmares barely contained in his memories (Faithful Warrior), a wild looking Persian man driven to a place between insanity and revenge (Midnight Sun – my current WIP), a dream of an Irishman somehow ending up in Mongolia during the 13th century (My next work). Each of these stories came in the form of a brief mental or dream image whilst otherwise preoccupied or asleep.

    Does this mean they are divinely inspired? Or have they simply been sitting in my subconscious for years waiting to float to the top? One thing I have found true for myself, is that wherever my stories come from I cannot seem to force them into existence. They just are. I am always curious to know where others get their ideas.

  7. I’m not disappointed, this is a terrific topic to riff on. Miranda, I love the title of your novel and that your award-winning short story came from watching an ABC doc. And your comment about needing passion for you main character is so important, I think. Ever notice how some novels have all the elements, but the main character is somewhat ‘flat’ and not as interesting as the supporting characters or even the plot?

    Jenny and Todd are so correct about the “What if?” thing. And Todd, congrats on Bad Moon. Sometimes when an idea grabs me, I just write it for myself, without worrying about how saleable it might be. Even the ‘good’ story ideas I get usually yield to the ideas that have more passion attached!

    Yvonne’s ‘writing as catharsis’ example is, I think, an important perk that we writers posess–being able to help ourselves via our work. It can come at any stage of one’s writing career and possibly affords us a form of personal growth and development as human being and as an author. Hope that particular book gets published, Yvonne, but even if it doesn’t, maybe it served a massively important purpose.

    Basil, the dream business is interestting stuff. I once dreamed a story idea, wrote it as a screenplay (with some changes) and got that script produced! Great to get money-making ideas while sleeping!

  8. Well, I’m jumping in here a bit late. This has been a very busy month for me and it’s not even half over!

    Where do I get my ideas? I am asked this at every book signing and workshop I give. My story ideas can come to me as a nugget or full blown. Sometimes they are generated by an item on the news, a bit of gossip I overhear at Starbuck’s, or they are inspired by a true event. Ideas are everywhere! I’ve kept a newspaper clipping idea file for many, many years. As a result I have more story ideas than I’ll live long enough to write.

    There is one news story I clipped out years ago that keeps coming back to me. It was a small page 2 item in the newspaper about the mysterious disappearances of some scientists in different parts of the world who were all working on the same or similar projects. I never heard what happened to them. Nothing was ever in the paper about it again, but that mystery keeps coming to mind asking me to write about it.

    My new book, PICTURE OF LIES, tells the story of a Navajo child who was kidnapped by missionaries and never returned. This was inspired by a true story I heard while living on the Navajo Reservation. A man who was kidnapped by missionaries as a child was reunited with his real family after more than fifty years. He did not know about his real family until he read about himself in the newspaper.

    Sometimes a photograph, or even a glimpse of something I see as I’m driving a back road will start the creative wheels spinning in my head.

  9. That’s a great question and actually I was thinking of this subject last night.

    For the most part, I start off with what if… Even when I was young I thought about that question a lot. I wanted to re-write a majority of life scenes that had happened to me and then at an early age, (according to my mother) I started applying the theory to every day situations. We’ve always watched the news because my parents were current event and history nuts, so I knew a lot of real life situations and wondered how could I maneuver then into the stories I wanted to read about.

    I didn’t know this was one of the points of good fiction story telling. (Taking reality and applying fiction to it.)

    Take one of my popular novels, Mistaken Identity. Could twins actually switch place on the wedding day? Could one woman deceive her brother in law, all the while she’s being deceived? Could a woman love two men?

    The job I have to do is pile the worst of the worst situation together, with a lot of reality and believable ridiculousness that makes the reader’s eyes grip each single page. All the while I drop in a little red herrings here and there along with a touch of mischievousness on my part.

    Yet all in all, I start off with what if’s and as a story teller it is my job to weave these what if’s together and make a great story for the reader.

  10. As I was scrolling down the various posts (with great interest, I should add) I came to Ed’s and thought, “yeah, what he said.” Interesting the different ways folks get inspired.
    I’ll be each of us have at least a half dozen people a week–once they find we write–come up and say: “Hey! I’ve got a great idea for you!” So far, I’ve not used any of those.

    My ideas almost always stem from a specific person I meet (or conjure up in my head from a mix of people I’v met.) The entire plot may be built around them and how they would react to it or they may only become a supporting role in the story/book. I hear someone turn a phrase just so or see the way a person twists their hair or sucks on their front teeth and think: “you’re too interesting not to go in a book.”
    Several years ago we arrested a guy for a parole violation. (That means he goes straight back to prison and doesn’t stop over at a county jail.) His original charge was a white-collar offense and he lived in a nice home with what seemed like a well-adusted family. A genuinely nice guy who’d made some fairly big mistakes. As we neared the prison gates I looked in the rearview mirror and watched this mild mannered man begin to change–his countenance grew darker and his sad smile turned into an angry scowl. His entire body seemed to swell with bottled up rage. I asked if he was alright and he said: “FIne, just putting on my prison-face so I’ll be able to survive the next couple of months…”
    I didn’t use the character right away but his story/situation is a subplot in book three of my present series. There are just so many folks out there…We are hunter/gatherers of stories, I suppose.

    Great insight from all of you.

  11. I’m a day late, sorry!

    I get this question all the time when I speak, and I never know how to answer it. I think the question should be, “Where DON’T you find ideas?” And I’d say, hmm, nowhere.

    I have always been a fan of true crime, starting with IN COLD BLOOD by Truman Capote that I read when I was 13. I followed that up with HELTER SKELTER. I’ve been fascinated by not just crime, but WHY. Why do people do what they do? So whenever I read even a snippet of something about a crime, I think, how did these people get to this point in their life? How did these disparate lives intersect? Why did they behave like this, and what could have changed? How did they grow up? What do they do for a living? How do they feel about the crimes they commit? How do they feel about being victimized?

    Asking HOW and WHY generate more ideas for me than anything else.

    I’m loving reading everyone else’s comments!

  12. Some of my books were sparked by true events, and I played the “what if game” ..

    A read an article about a man who killed his wife and four kids and the neighbors were stunned. They couldn’t imagine that he, of all people, would do such a thing. I started thinking what if? What if the man was different in private than in public? What if there was a survivor of that massacre? Who would she turn into? (This became my debut novel THE PREY)

    A read a true crime snippet about a woman who escaped from a serial killer, and ultimately led to his capture. I wondered about her. What happened to her? What was she like? How did she deal with her trauma? What if the guy was never caught and there were more victims? How would she feel? (THE HUNT)

    We all read about people who have gone to prison for crimes they didn’t commit. Also in California, there’s 100+ men who were on death row before California tossed out the death penalty. (Included Charles Manson.) Because there was no life without possibility of parole, those sentences were commuted to life w/parole. Also in California, victims or their surviving families have the right to testify at parole hearings. So I thought of these two things, then wondered what would happen if someone who had denied being guilty was released because DNA evidence proved he hadn’t raped and killed someone? What if a child testified against him, but he was at the wrong place at the wrong time? What would he be like after he’s freed? What would she be like, after testifying against his parole all these years? Who killed her sister and where is he now? (THE KILL)

    LOVE ME TO DEATH started when I heard that the Dateline To Catch a Predator series has yielded zero convictions. The story took a completely different (and darker) turn when vigilantes set up paroled sex offenders to be killed.

    My prison break trilogy started off the question, “What if there was an earthquake at San Quentin?”

    Every book has one or more real life “sparks” that ignite my creativity. Even music — IF I SHOULD DIE came to be because a song by Gangstagrass sparked an idea about a small town conspiring to make and sell meth.

  13. So many books, so little time… to read them as well as write them!

    I guess we’re in agreement, great ideas come from everywhere. But Marc’s comment jumped out at me:

    “I’ll bet each of us have at least a half dozen people a week–once they find we write–come up and say: ‘Hey! I’ve got a great idea for you!’ So far, I’ve not used any of those.”

    That’s dead-on. The ideas other people suggest never grab me. The good ideas all bubble up from within our own selves.

    Great discussion, everyone!

  14. Great comments, everyone! And Yvonne, that’s so true about how other people’s story ideas just don’t speak to us. I always think it’s funny when someone who’s not a writer finds out I’m a novelist, and wants to give me their wonderful, fabulous story idea, thinking I’ll jump at the chance to write the book for them, and then we’ll share the profits. For some reason, they’re always surprised when I tell them I already have far too many story ideas of my own!

  15. Yes, Allison, I, too, have been a huge true crime reader, but I always wondered about the victim, not the bad guy. What makes a victim? I used to buy all those true detective magazines (I’d sneak out to the next town over so no one I knew would see me buying them), and after every story I’d wonder – why did THAT person get killed and not someone else? Why was THAT girl assaulted and not the one who walked by before her? This still intrigues me, and I’ve always wanted to study up on victimhood.

    I don’t scare easily from a book, but IN COLD BLOOD really spooked me, and bothered me a long time. Also, HELTER SKELTER. When they did their creepy crawlies. Yikes!

    1. CC, that’s very interesting! Same thing, different perspective.

      When I consider victims, I consider how to victims survive? Why are do some abused children grow up to be victim’s rights advocates, while others grow up to abuse others? How do rape survivors learn to love and trust again? And those who don’t, why not? How much of who we are is from our environment, or from our inner self? (Nature v. nuture questions.)

      But I like your question, too 🙂

      I think IN COLD BLOOD was one of the original books that looked into the psyche of two killers and how they came to that point in their lives — though using your question, why that family? Very intriguing.

  16. My newspaper file long ago morphed into the “Bookmarks” folder on my laptop. Surfing the conspiracy Websites has provided me with more than a few great ideas for thrillers, including the follow-up to Storm Damage.

    Hey C.C., weren’t those disappearing scientists all in England and hadn’t they all been involved in some kind of secret research! I have the same clipping somewhere.

    I like Marc’s comment about us being hunter/gathers–of characters, sub-plots. locations for an action set-piece… This all comes in handy at tax time, since we can deduct so many expenses legitimately in the name of “research!”

    I’ll second, (or third, or fourth) the comments about friends/strangers/relatives wanting to share their story ideas. It becomes problematic when, for instance, a film producer hires you to write a script and you accept for the paycheck but aren’t really grabbed by the story. I imagine ghostwriters or even hired gun co-authors of novels sometimes must face the same dilemma. As pros we can deliver the goods, but injecting the “passion” is not always so easy.

    I once took such an assignment but discarded the story I’d been given, held on to only a slim slice of the premise, and wrote my own story that I was passionate about. I’d been given money up front and figured they might ask for it back at the first story meeting. But they loved what I’d done, fortunately. Not sure I would do the same again, though!

  17. Wow Ed, sounds like a risky venture to run off on a tangential story like that, glad it paid off.
    While most of my stories came from a dream or vision type experience (weird I know but true) an additional inspiration I have found is just watching people then wondering where they came from why they are where they are at the moment I am watching.

    Once I saw a rusty old pickup enter a round-about with what looked like a forty something stoner loser guy behind the wheel. Without yielding he nearly clipped a little Prius on the inner lane. I wondered what his hurry was, then next thing I know a story about pot farmers and the vengeful husband of the lady in the Prius (who didn’t fare so well in the story) comes out.

    Observation is our best tool for creating the new worlds out stories live in. The more we observe, and relate those observations in an understandable manner, the more likely our stories will seem real to the reader.

  18. Yes, Ed, that’s the same story. I’d love to know what happened to them. The whole mystery of that has influenced my story ideas. In my new book, I have some covert governmental activity going on. My work-in-progress book, too. And I’m not really into conspiracy theories. They make good stories, though.

  19. I love reading all these comments. Great discussion we have going on here! So now let’s talk about another aspect of the topic — How (and when) do we know it’s a great idea worth exploring?

    Personally, I get ideas all the time. Too many, in fact. Sometimes it feels like I can’t open a newspaper without saying, “Hmm, that would make a good mystery.” But many of them fade after a day or two, or even an hour or two.

    I know it’s a good idea when it refuses to go away. The idea for my first book, DEATH NOTICE, was that way. I had written two books that couldn’t find an agent, let alone a publisher, and I wasn’t really looking to jump in an start another. I needed a break. But the idea just wouldn’t go away. I carried it with me for months. I finally caved in a wrote the damn thing. (And I’m very glad I did!)

    So for me, I know an idea is good if it’s stubborn and stays with me. I’m curious to know if the rest of you are like that. Do you let an idea simmer a long time? Or do you dive right, afraid that it might go away?

  20. I know for me, I am so backlogged with ideas I just take a quick note of the new ones, keep them in various word files or scraps of paper around the studio, and hope I can find them when time for that story arises. Thinking about putting them into a spreadsheet or database…anyone here that organized?

  21. I agree, Todd. It seems like there are story ideas at nearly every turn of the day. Admittedly, some are more marketable than others. I try to winnow through and hang on to the best ones that simmer in the back of the brain awhile. Once I get a character in mind and think I have a kernel of what will be a good story, my wife and I do what we call Pillow-Plotting. (Sounds racy, but it’s pretty boring…) After the lights are out, I pose a plot idea and she suggests improvements. I run with that for a bit, talking through it– and she suggests more improvements. Don’t know what I’d do without her.

    Incidentally, Todd, when I read your earlier post it didn’t connect with me that you wrote Death Notice. Love your Chief Kat Campbell character. I was a small town copper years ago, before we moved to Alaska. Nice work capturing the small town law enforcement flavor.

    1. Many thanks, Marc! I grew up in a town so small that the police chief’s wife made dinner every night for the people in jail. They always had what the chief was having.

  22. Marc, you’re in Alaska? Me too…from Fairbanks originally…now in Anchorage. What does this mean? Two Alaskans in a blog room at the same time? Does it bode well for the world yet to come?

    yet another plot developing on its own

  23. Yep, working in Fairbanks this week but I’m usually in Anchorage. I think you and I spoke on the phone once a few years ago. There’s a mystery for you.

    C.C.: Just read your interview here in the Big Thrill. I liked your thoughts about Twitter. “I’m writing now…I’m writing now…I’m writing now.” That kind of work ethic made me order The Charmstone for my mom right then and there. She’s a big Tony Hillerman fan.

    It’s interesting to see the varied and similar muses and methods you all use. When I tried to analyze my idea-getting process I realize that when I get that spark we’ve been talking about, I most often visualize it cinematically first, even thinking–wow, this setting would be a great place to shoot a movie. That has become my litmus test for stuff that I feel works. On detail in DC, the first time I ever caught the Metro at the Rosslyn station and saw that humongous escalator that just goes down and down and down…is a good example of a place punching me in the beak. The setting and people I saw there that day are all in pivotal chase scene in my WIP.

  24. Alaska? Very cool! (Read that however you will…)

    Anyway, in answer to the question how we know if a story idea is worth exploring: I’ve found if it takes off and soars right away, it’s a good one. If I have to work it too much, it’ll never amount to anything. Usually I can determine that before I ever write a word, just by letting my mind wander around opening cabinets and following hallways.

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