Want to annoy a writer? Ask this question: "Where do you get your ideas?"
Okay, I'm mostly kidding. Authors love to hear from readers and answer questions about our books. But the truth is, many of us simply don't know where our ideas come from. Inspiration can arise from anywhere and everywhere. Sometimes, we can point to a specific source. It might be a conversation overheard at the grocery store. Or a news item buried in the nether regions of a website. An idea for a new story might come when the author sees a captivating movie or reads a great series. (Don't forget that immortal quote from T.S. Eliot: “Good writers borrow, great writers steal.”)
But often, an idea seems to spring into our heads, fully formed. Or a character suddenly starts talking to us, demanding that her story be told. The more a writer writes, the more the ideas come, because we start to see the opportunities for tension, plot and character everywhere we look.
If you're a writer and you're still searching for that big idea, take heart. An author can actively go out searching for ideas. That, my friends, is called research.
Here's how to use research to dream up your next novel.
Many years ago, before I dreamed up the Byrne House mystery series, I was a writer in search of an idea.
I knew I wanted to write some kind of a suspenseful novel set in the present day (well, the pre-Covid present), with a mystery that tied back to the Victorian-era past. Why? Because some of my favorite books had similar plot lines, such as Preston & Child's fabulous novel The Cabinet Of Curiosities and Jennifer McMahon's The Winter People. I knew that my book would take place in Colorado, my (adopted) home. But beyond that...I was kinda stumped. I didn't know where to start.
So I started to pay attention to everything around me. I'd already been falling in love with the gorgeous Victorian homes here in Denver (see the pictures above). I was so curious about their architecture, their history. The possible ghost stories! (Because where there are old houses, there are always ghost stories). My next stop was the library, where I checked out all the books I could find on Denver history. I also read some books on the history of the occult, spiritualism and alchemy, because that's just plain fun.
The ideas started flowing.
I created a brain-storming file, first by hand and then on my computer, writing down whatever came to me. Characters, settings, magical artifacts and plot twists. Back then, I made photocopies of key pages of library books to keep on hand. (Today I just take photos with my phone). Slowly I began to flesh out my characters and refine the plot points. Not all of my research transformed into a specific aspect of the finished book, Under Glass And Stone--far from it. But I still jotted down those extra ideas, just in case I could use them for future books.
Research also comes in handy (and, indeed, is essential) for making your book authentic to a particular time, place, and character. But note that this kind of research is often most useful after you've got your key ideas in place.
When it came time to write Doors Of Gold And Rust, the sequel to Under Glass And Stone, I went through a very similar process: going over my previous brainstorming ideas, reading more stories from Denver and Colorado history, learning and taking cues from my favorite authors. I didn't outline either one of the Byrne House books, but a writer could easily take those research ideas and start plugging them into outline form. (See this post on the pros and cons of outlining).
If you're a writer who's just starting out, pay attention to the kinds of stories you love most. What genres appeal to you? What kinds of characters do you find most fascinating? Then start your research--if you're thinking of writing romance, why not read some memoirs, advice columns, and self-help books on relationships? You'll probably find plot ideas you never expected. If you want to write a fantasy novel, then immerse yourself in medieval history or ancient mythology. And always, always read as much in your genre as possible. Don't hesitate to adopt an idea, but find a new spin on it to make it your own. Craft a unique story that only you can tell.
Eventually, you'll be able to hold the product of all that research and hard work in your hands. That is by far the best feeling of all. And when your readers ask, "Where did you come up with the idea for this book?" You might not be able to explain all the twisted inner workings of your subconscious, but at least you'll have a pretty good answer.