Getting ideas for creative writing

Writers are sometimes irritated at being asked Where do you get your ideas from? Yet it’s a perfectly reasonable question. Aspiring writers often know that they want to write - short stories, a novel, non-fiction, poetry - but are less sure about the subject. The thing to not do is wait for inspiration to strike, for ideas to emerge from nowhere. There is actually an infinite number of subjects, themes, styles, and ways of using language available to writers. The real problem is not waiting for some elusive idea to appear, but in selecting just one or two of the myriad possibilities of plot, story, language, character, and theme.

It may simply be language that draws you in, especially if you are a poet – the dance of words on the page, the sound of the consonants, the images the words conjure up. But there are other things you can draw on. Everything you write is made up of:

Things you know: experience 

Beginning writers are always advised to ‘write what you know’ - but what does that actually mean? Well, write out a list of subjects you know about, trying to include:

  • personal experiences
  • hobbies
  • your work or career
  • spare time interests
  • things you’ve read
  • TV shows and films you’ve watched
  • places you’ve lived in or visited
  • school, college, or university memories

Remember also to include family life, bringing up children, being married, getting divorced, etc.; ordinary, everyday things that are nonetheless the raw materials of a great deal of writing. You’ll be astonished at the length of your list and at the sheer amount of what you do know.

How can you use this unique treasure hoard? Here are some examples:

  • places you’ve lived in, visited, or read about can be the setting for your fiction
  • people you have met can be transformed into fictional characters
  • your technical knowledge can be exploited to fashion a cunning murder in crime fiction
  • your experience of family life can be the basis for a psychological novel or perhaps a memoir
  • your memories and impressions of nature, life, death, and relationships can be reworked as powerful poetry

You get the idea? Yet there’s even more you can draw on. Suppose your grandmother told you about her experiences during the Second World War, or your uncle told you stories about being a new immigrant to Britain in the 1960s. These, too, are things you know and research you’ve already done.

Of course, sometimes you’ll find that you need to go beyond what you know. You’ll need to find things out - research more about the war or about the history of immigration. Or you’ll need simply to create, to use your imagination and make stuff up.

Things you make up: imagination 

What you know, what you bring to the act of writing, is unique. But what you can imagine, what you can create out of nothing, is also unique.

You may well be able to draw effective and engaging characters based on people you know already. But it’s equally valid to create a character entirely from your imagination. Equally, you may know a town or city where you want to set a story; perhaps you research how it was laid out in the 1940s, if that’s when your story is set. But if the parish church or the railway station or the public park is in the wrong place for your narrative needs, put it somewhere else. Give the town or city a fictitious name. You can even completely redesign it if you want. At the extreme end, fantasy writers imagine whole other worlds and universes in their work. Don’t hold back; that’s why it’s called ‘creative’ writing.

Another way in which you can freely be inventive is in your use of language. As you populate your stories with characters and engage them in dialogue, you will find yourself easing into your own style of writing. Of course, your style will vary if you move between genres and styles of writing. All the same, you’ll still find a style developing that you favour; one that you’re comfortable with. Writers call this ‘finding your voice’. But don’t be afraid to experiment, to try new things, or to vary that voice.

Things you find out: research

When you think of ‘research’ you may picture a dusty library full of leather-bound books and bearded professors in jackets with patched elbows. Some research is like that, and many writers enjoy it. However, research has many faces. For example:

  • You’re writing a crime novel but you’re not sure of the procedure once a suspect is arrested. So you phone up a friend who is a police officer and ask her.
  • You’re writing a history of your local community. You visit the community centre to ask some older residents about their memories of the area in the 1950s.
  • You want to use the names of flowers and plants to form a poem; so you study a wildflower guide book and find names like tormentil, eyebright, cloudberry, and loosestrife.
  • You’re writing a history of popular television. So you watch a lot of TV shows and DVDs.

Billy Wilder was an Austrian-born screenwriter and director who found his way to the USA before the Second World War. He taught himself English not through books or classes, but by sitting in cafes and restaurants and at baseball games listening to how people talked. This was his research. And if you’ve seen any of his films (Sunset Boulevard, Some Like it Hot), you’ll know he was a master of dialogue.

Writers should always be researching, always looking for useful material, overheard dialogue, curious facts, quirky characters, and innovative uses of language. Whether you’re watching TV, at the cinema, in the pub, talking to friends at a party, reading for leisure, or spending time online, everything you do is, potentially, research. And sometimes research can pounce on you unexpectedly, when, for example, you:

  • learn of an odd and intriguing fact
  • read about a forgotten historical incident
  • overhear people speaking about an unusual individual

And you’re away. Writers are, or should be, incurably curious.


Back to Creative writing.

You may also be interested in:

Editing your creative work

Finding a home for your work


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