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Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

September 8th, 2017

Writers are often asked where they get their ideas. In the past I’ve found this difficult to answer, because sometimes ideas seem to come from nowhere. When this happens, it’s great, but it’s not always the case. What about the times when the well feels empty and as if it may have dried up forever?

Sitting around and waiting for the muse to visit is probably not a very practical approach. I find that reading often spurs me into writing – sometimes a powerful short story, or a particular author’s voice, will provoke a strong urge to write. The potential problem here is that you may inadvertently end up copying another writer too closely, something that Dorothea Brande mentions in her seminal work Becoming a Writer. In fact, she turns this into a writing exercise, in which you deliberately spend time reading a writer with a strong voice, write something straight afterwards, and then observe how they have influenced your own style.

Writing exercises can be a great way to stimulate ideas. Brande also advocates the concept of freewriting, or what she calls ‘morning pages’, where you write immediately on waking and see where this uncritical method takes you. I’ve found that freewriting from a prompt can sometimes produce a piece of work full of unexpected ideas. I also recently taken evening classes in creative writing for the first time and found that in-class exercises – for example, each writing part of a story, or a piece in which a cliché is taken literally – were surprisingly enjoyable. The spontaneity required seemed to free the imagination.

Finally, refilling the creative well can be a case of simply opening your eyes to the world around you. Making a note of observations means you can build up a rich stash of writing material. As Henry James says in The Art of Fiction: “Try to be one of those on whom nothing is lost.”


Karen has been writing fiction for most of her life and was very pleased to win fourth prize in this year’s Writer’s Bureau short story competition. After enjoying the short course she took at her local university following many years of solo writing, she is looking forward starting another course, this time online, in the autumn. She is currently rewriting a novel from scratch (a painful process!)

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