Writers’ ideas: where to find them

Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

Wednesdays will be regular weekly writing prompts again soon, but as I haven’t had chance yet to search any dates, here’s a connected post I made earlier…


Ideas are all around, but how do you capture them?

In the next week few weeks, I’ll be kickstarting my weekly writing prompts. Before then, and by popular demand, I’m going to start with where to find these ideas in the first place.

Ideas are all around

Yes, this is a bit of a cliché, but it really is true. Once you train your brain to start recognising ideas, you’ll be seeing ideas everywhere as well. Often, this is a blessing, but sometimes it’s a bit of a curse. When that happens, when I have far too many ideas than I can physically deal with, I start to give them away.

Quick example

For example, as I look out of my home office window right now, while I’m writing this, I can see my next-door neighbours are having a new driveway. My other next-door neighbour has already approached the workmen to enquire about having her drive done too.

I don’t know yet what kind of driveway is being laid and I don’t know what kind of driveway my other neighbour has asked for, but I wouldn’t mind if our driveway was done as well — while they’re here anyway.

fancy a new driveway? (Image by Joe Dee from Pixabay)

What does someone having a new driveway conjure up for you? For some it will be a research or review piece on the kinds of driveway you can have:

  • tarmac
  • gravel
  • shingle
  • block-paved
  • slabbed
  • poured concrete
  • poured concrete with decorative patterns pressed into them
  • [enter driveway type of choice here]

And that article will go on to list the various advantages and disadvantages, the differences in price, how long each drive will take to lay, how to source materials, where to find contractors, building regulations to consider, drainage, and so on and so on.

Now, that kind of article is a bit boring for me because I’m not a builder-type. But it won’t be boring to someone who revels in that kind of information.

What if you don’t write non-fiction, though? How will my neighbour’s driveway help you?

Well, you could just have a story whereby one of the characters is simply having a new drive, or one of the characters is someone who goes around laying these drives. What kind of things might that latter character see and hear?

I’m a mystery writer, so my idea is simple: put a body under the drive and take it from there.

Another quick example

If I look the other way through my office window, we have a clump of trees. A handful of garden birds live in those trees while others roost or perch there in between meals and fights, etc.

Let’s say I’m a nature writer or I specialise in attracting birds to the garden. There’s one idea already: How To Attract Birds To Your Garden. Another idea might be: Birds You’ll Find In Your Garden. Another: The Best Food To Put Out For The Birds In Your Garden. Or: Where To Go To See Garden Birds.

But what if I write children’s fiction? I could invent names and personalities for each and every one of those birds and write little stories that feature them all, either individually or recurring.

We don’t just have birds in our garden, though. We also have rabbits, hedgehogs, squirrels, foxes and mice. So now the nature writer has the same articles as above, but replace the word ‘birds’ with your creature of choice. And then, for people who don’t have wildlife in their gardens but would like to see it, take them further afield:

  • Where to go to see birds in your area
  • The wildlife that lurks in your city/town/village
  • Where to go to see woodland birds
  • Where to see waders
  • How to look after your local wildlife

And if you have insects, there are articles you can write with step-by-step instructions on how to build a bee hotel/ladybird house/lacewing shelter

insect hotel (Image by Manfred Antranias Zimmer from Pixabay)

Or what about a hedgehog haven? The possibilities are endless. You can also build any of this into fiction too.

Your turn: Look out of your window right now. What can you see? How can you turn that into an article or a short story?

Writing from life

Of course, it may be that you live on the tenth floor of a multi-storey block of flats and the only thing you can see out of your window is clouds. (The anatomy of a cloud anyone? Where do clouds come from? What kind of cloud is that?)

Or perhaps you live on a heavily populated residential estate and the only thing you can see out of your window is, well, next door. (My next-door neighbour’s secret life? Building regulations for building an extension? Tips and tricks to stop your neighbour seeing into your house?)

What do you do then?

Existing experience

The first place I’d go is to look at my own life. First of all I’d look at all of my experiences, in love, in war, in employment, in education, my hobbies, my job, my family, my ancestors.

Here are some just from childhood, school and growing up:

  • What were my school days like?
  • School dinners: love or hate them?
  • My favourite topic at school
  • My least favourite topic at school
  • Further education near me
  • Growing up on a densely populated housing estate
  • Why I hated school PE (that’s already one of mine, but it’s a good one)
  • Why I loved school PE
  • Should PE be mandatory in schools? (I was invited to take part in a radio feature for this one, following the article about why I hated school PE)

You could think of an old school mate (or enemy) or school teacher and imagine their lives since school or outside of school or leading up to school. School enemies are great for killing off in murder mysteries, or making them the murderer. That can be therapeutic.

Or you could invent a group of kids who live close together or who go to school together and they’re in a gang. What kind of gang? Are they trouble-makers? Why? Are they street-dancers? Are they friends? Is there more than one gang? Or is there a loner who adopts a wild kestrel? (Spit Nolan, West Side Story, Kes.)

And you can do this with every aspect of your life so far.

Things you’d like to learn

Or you could consider things you’d like to learn about or how to do. As you learn, you could write about it.

  • Would you like to learn woodwork? Where to find woodwork classes near me.
  • Would you like to learn a foreign language? Confessions of a French language teacher.
  • Would you like to learn flower arranging? Death by Chrysanthemum.
  • Would you like to exercise more? Easy Walking Routes Near Me or How to Choose a Gym or Exercise Will Be The Death of Me.
Places you’d like to go/Places you know well

There are some great travel features hiding in this one. If there’s somewhere you already know well, you could write a secret version or where to eat or the best beaches, and so on.

  • Secret Clovelly (it’s in North Devon, England)
  • Where to eat Spanish food in Torremolinos (as opposed to British food, for example)
  • Don’t like Greek food? Five fab places to find British food
  • The wine regions of France/Spain/Australia/England/California/[enter destination of choice here]
  • Scuba diving off the coast of Egypt (nicked off a friend from their recent Facebook posts)

Mine your experiences, steal your friends’ experiences, write it all down, in topic lists if it helps, or chronological order. And remember to include nostalgia subjects such as Growing up in the seventies/eighties/nineties or Working in the BSA factory during the war.

Your turn: Starting with your earliest memory, write down things that appeal to you now enough to write about. Use the topic lists I’ve used as headings here to start you off. Then jot down things you’d still like to do, things from your bucket list, if you like.

Topical stories

This is where I get most of my ideas from: dates and anniversaries. And sometimes upcoming events, especially annual events that I can attend and photograph this year in time to publish next year when the event comes around again.

Hanging your story or article onto a topical peg is one of the best ways to raise your success rates. Markets love topical stories. Novels and full-length non-fiction too. When you submit, make sure you mention the topicality of the story.

find a peg or hook on which to hang your idea (Image by Taken from Pixabay)

To work out when story ideas are topical, you will need a good memory, a dictionary of dates, any of the online ‘today-in-history’ type websites, or a what’s on guide for the next few months (such as Visit Yorkshire or the Icelandic tourist board).

Do an online search to find date sites that appeal to you. There are loads to choose from and only practice and experience will demonstrate those that work better for you and your kind of writing.

Also search for the tourist board or what’s on guide for your own area or an area you can get to or would like to visit.

When you have found your list of dates or events, only choose those that appeal to you. Otherwise you will soon get bored. Different topics appeal to different people, so don’t worry that you might miss out if you don’t write about something that doesn’t interest you. Someone else will make a far better job of it than you will, just as you will make a far better job of something that doesn’t appeal to them.

Think ahead

If you want to write longer stories or books, think further ahead. Don’t just think about the next year. Work out how long it will take you to research something, write it, query it, sell it, and see it published. Then work backwards.

For example, if there’s a one-hundred anniversary of, say, one of the gold rushes coming up in the next year or so, the likelihood of writing a long piece about it and getting it published are slim. So think shorter instead.

work out your topical dates (Image by idgmart from Pixabay)

Think of the people who were involved or affected, choose one or two, and write a short story or profile about one of those. Or do a round-up article of gold fields/mines/mountains around the world, or a potted history of panning for gold.

If the anniversary is in, say, three or five years, then you have longer to prepare something more substantial.

How to start
  • Start by writing down today’s month and year (December, 2021).
  • Think about when you want your piece to appear. For magazine writing, think 6 or 12 months ahead, depending on whether it’s a weekly magazine or a monthly paper or if it only comes out 3 or 4 times a year. (e.g. December + 6 = June 2022.)
  • Work backwards and calculate dates you’re interested in that were that month + 5 years ago, 10 years ago, 25 years ago, 50 years ago, 100 years ago, and so on. (June 2022 minus 5 years = June 2017; June 2022 minus 50 years = 1972.)
  • Write these dates and numbers down and then consult your dates list. This means you can ignore dates that don’t fall within your chosen time scale.
  • Jot down any anniversaries that fall within these dates that also appeal to you.
  • Do this often and it will soon become automatic.

Your turn: Do it now. Take a piece of paper (or open a file on your phone/tablet/computer) and write down the date in 6 months’ time. Do a quick online search to find out what happened on that date 5 years ago. Choose one and write about it.


Hopefully this has given you a few ideas of how and where to find ideas in the first place. If you’d like to know more, drop me a comment and I’ll think about doing a Part 2.

Where to next?

Now that you know where to find ideas, the next stop is what to do with them. I’ll be covering that next time.


This article first appeared in Feedium on Medium.

2 Comments

  • carol warham

    My goodness. You are a cornucopia of ideas, a mine of directions of thoughts. Such lists!
    Brilliant

    Reply

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