One of the questions most frequently asked of published writers is: “Where do you get your ideas?” The answer is that ideas are everywhere. What interests you is likely to interest others. Turning an idea into a premise can be your first step in preparing to write your novel.
Most writers don't have a problem coming up with story ideas. More often, there are too many ideas competing for attention. It's too hard and it takes too long to write a novel, so why waste your time developing an idea you don't care passionately about? Pick the idea that is clamoring the loudest to be told — that's the idea to run with.
Most likely, you will come up with multiple ideas for a novel. Here are some questions to ask yourself to help you narrow the field.
Which ideas lend themselves to the novel form?
Which ideas intrigue me most?
Which ideas will I most enjoy researching?
Which ideas will generate the kinds of characters and situations that I am most interested in writing about?
Which ideas could be turned into a novel that I would love to read?
“You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we're doing it.” — Neil Gaiman
As ideas strike you and spark your interest, write them down and save them in a file folder. It may be days, weeks, or even years before you go back and pull that idea out and start to build it into a novel.
Ideas from Personal Experience
Novelists often transform their own real experiences into novels. Personal experiences that are fodder for novels can range from the heroic to the commonplace.
Ernest Hemingway drew from personal experience as a young soldier in World War I and his love affair with an American nurse for A Farewell to Arms. The 2002 novel The Nanny Diaries, with its satirical take on wealthy Manhattan families, was drawn from the experiences of Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus who worked as nannies to about thirty different families on Manhattan's Upper East Side.
Your experiences have the great advantage of being uniquely your own. No one else has gone through them in quite the same way, and no one else can transform them into fiction the way you can.
“If the story interests you enough to provoke you into temporarily withdrawing from society long enough to tell it, there is at least a fair possibility that when you are finished, it will interest other people enough to prompt them to forgo companionship long enough to read it. If that proves to be the case, and one of those people is an editor, he or she may actually give you some money in order to make the opportunity available to a whole lot of other people, which is presumably what you had in mind as your ultimate objective when you began spoiling the paper.” — George V. Higgins
Ideas from Others and Their Experiences
You can also find inspiration in what happens to friends, relatives, the people you work with, or in events you witness firsthand. For instance, Sapphire's novel Push tells the story of a dark-skinned, heavyset, illiterate African-American girl who has survived multiple pregnancies by her father. Sapphire found the idea for this powerful, gritty novel when she was teaching girls like Precious in a remedial reading program in Harlem. As Sapphire told an NPR interviewer, “I had the intense feeling that if I didn't write this book no one else would.”
Even when the idea for your novel is based on the personal experiences of others, you will find yourself mining the details of your own life, digging back to recall your emotional reactions in similar situations, and embellishing characters with details from your own experience. But be careful about creating fictional situations that are recognizable. If you don't disguise the characters and the situation sufficiently, you could invite a lawsuit.
A Virginia family sued Patricia Cornwell in 1992 for revealing factual details in her book, All That Remains. They argued that the information was privileged and part of a real murder investigation that Cornwell worked on as part of her job in a medical examiner's office.
Ideas from News
News stories, large and small, are excellent jumping-off points for works of fiction. Once a story appears in a newspaper it is considered in the public domain and fair game for you to borrow from as a novelist.
Some news stories, like the 1999 Columbine High School shootings or the September 11 terrorist attacks, have inspired numerous novels. Wally Lamb's The Hour I First Believed follows the life of a fictional Columbine High School nurse, and her teacher husband, as they deal with posttraumatic stress disorder after she survived the library massacre. Don DeLillo's Falling Man tells the story of a man who survived the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Both authors drew from news stories as well as their own imaginations to craft their novels
Small stories from the news may spark ideas as well. Cemetery vandalism in your hometown, an idiosyncratic string of burglaries, or a local beauty pageant might intrigue you enough to develop into a novel.
Ideas from Dreams
Your dreams are fertile ground for ideas as well, growing as they do out of your own needs and anxieties. Though dreams are often disjointed and rarely have the storytelling logic that a novel requires, they can provide ideas or images that spark a novel.
Jacquelyn Mitchard says that the story idea for The Deep End of the Ocean, her debut novel that became the first Oprah Book in 1996, came to her in a dream. She wrote down the plot, saved it, and three years later after the death of her husband, recovered it from a drawer and started writing. The Deep End of the Ocean went on to be named the second most influential book of the past twenty years by USA Today.
Keep a pen and paper by your bed so that when you wake up from a particularly compelling and vivid dream, you can write it down. The details of even the most disturbing or exciting dream will soon fade from your consciousness the minute you wake up.
“When an idea comes, spend silent time with it. Remember Keats's idea of Negative Capability and Kipling's advice to ‘drift, wait and obey.’ Along with your gathering of hard data, allow yourself also to dream your idea into being.” — Rose Tremain