Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Sparks of Inspiration

Today my guest is author and friend Nancy Cohen, who began her career writing romance, and switched genres into mystery. If you wonder where writers get their ideas, Nancy is sharing some tips on how she finds inspiration for her stories. Welcome, Nancy.

SPARK OF INSPIRATION: Seven Tips For Writers On Finding Ideas

They say writing is half inspiration and half perspiration. Perhaps “they” are right, but where does the inspiration come from? At booksignings, someone in the audience usually asks, “Where do you get your ideas?” As a writer, I don’t understand why it isn’t obvious. Ideas are everywhere. But if you really want to know our secret, here’s where you might pluck an idea out of the air:


I am forever cutting pieces out of newspapers and magazines, whether they are celebrity photos for my character file, an analysis of the boa constrictor population in the Everglades, or a profile of a teacher accused of porn. When I’m looking for ideas, perhaps a crime, or a local issue, or a motive for murder, I’ll thumb through these clippings until something sparks my interest. Don’t forget to look in the freebie community newspapers, too. Or maybe your library has a book sale where gently used magazines are available for a good price. Some writers cut out photos and word phrases to make a collage, either as an inspirational tool or to represent their characters and/or story. The Internet doesn’t work for me in this regard. I need to feel the real paper, although printouts can be filed same as above.

Maybe a show on TV will stimulate your train of thought. For example, you may like the premise of a particular episode, but if you wrote that story, how would it turn out differently? Or, a news report might score a hit against your emotional armor and make you want to write about the issue. Or perhaps a story on the daily newscast will inspire a new idea, like the kid who disappeared years ago. His body was found in a car in a canal. His best friend hid the secret of his death for years. Even though the boy hit his head accidentally during an argument and the friend panicked, covering up the incident could be the motive for murder in present day.

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Do you dream in detail with color and sound? Write down the sequence of events as soon as you wake up before reality pushes away the cobwebs of sleep. Sometimes I get story dreams that are detailed enough for me to scribble down several pages. A dream inspired my first published novel. Recently, I had one that could kick off a new murder mystery. Let’s make use of this subconscious message to stimulate our wakeful plotting brain.


Do you ever get an idea for a story while reading someone else’s work? Or maybe their book stimulates a new plot thread for your work in progress. Ideas cannot be copyrighted. Say you’re using a familiar archetype. How you develop the characters and plot will be unique to your voice. If you find that you get inspired while reading someone else’s story, scribble down notes and then return to the book you’re reading.


If you’re totally stuck for ideas, there are various writing tools available to help. I like The Fiction Writer’s Silent Partner by Martin Roth. You’ll find each writer has their favorite how-to book or software program for generating plot ideas. I don’t generally use these tools, except if I’m stuck on a particular profession for a character or maybe a motive. The book I recommend above has lists in different categories that are easy to scan. Check out the reference section in your local bookstore or go online and ask other authors what they use. Software programs, books, plotting charts, decks of cards: you’ll get as many varied responses as there are subgenres.


Friends, relatives, and even strangers can provide inspiration. They might generate an idea for a plot twist or give you thoughts on character development. For example, I met a fan once at a booksigning who told me she used to own a boutique shop. A man would come in and try on lady’s clothing. This gave me an idea for a suspect who would be a transvestite in one of my books. My own aunt was the model for Aunt Polly in Dead Roots. So beware: if you befriend a writer, you become fodder for her story files.


Our experiences influence our stories throughout life. For example, I overheard a woman sobbing in the hallway at a hotel when I attended a beauty trade show. That conversation became the premise for Perish by Pedicure. I’ve been on over twenty cruises. Marla, my sleuth, takes a cruise to the Caribbean with a killer on board. Whatever happens in our lives infuses our stories with reality.

So where do we writers find inspiration? It’s everywhere: in the air we breathe, in the people we meet, in our dreams, and in the stories we read or see on the big screen. It’s snippets of daily life, capsules of personalities, issues of gravity or humor. The problem isn’t finding ideas. The problem is having enough years in which to develop and write them.

Nancy J. Cohen is author of the popular Bad Hair Day Mysteries. KILLER KNOTS and PERISH BY PEDICURE are the latest titles in this humorous series. Visit Nancy at her website: http://nancyjcohen.com, her blog: http://mysterygal.bravejournal.com or on
Facebook. Nancy's books are available at Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com.


Skhye said...

Great post. For me, it's usually watching documentaries, the Travel Channel, or Food Network. :)

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

This is a great post, Terry and Nancy. I'm one of the writers who frequently uses the newspaper for ideas. I'm tweeting this one!

Mystery Writing is Murder

mary kennedy said...

This is a great blog, love the idea of capturing your dreams on paper.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

I couldn't agree with you more!
Living life to its fullest provides excellent sources of inspiration for writing. We meet and talk with interesting people all the time. We read fascinating articles in newspapers, magazines and online. It's best to keep a journal and write ideas down as they come to us.

Jacqueline Seewald

Marybeth Poppins said...

Some great ideas. I've had great luck with dreams myself.

Great blog!

Allison Chase said...

You're right about ideas being everywhere. As a historical author I've found that just moving into the Victorian Age has opened up a world of new ideas because there was so much going on in terms of inventions, social change, education, recreation, etc. There's no limit to the trouble my H&H can get into!

Joshua said...

These are some great tips! I was reminded of how Salvador Dali used to tie a key to his wrist and sleep with his arm over the back of a chair. When the key hit the chair he would wake up to paint what he saw last in his dream. I suppose inspiration comes from many places.

Nancy J. Cohen said...

True writers never run out of ideas; we just run out of time to turn them all into stories. Skhye, those are some good sources too. I've recorded some docs on parallel universes for my paranormal series and even a Dr. Who episode with a relevant theme.
When I was doing my Bad Hair Day series, I watched a reality show about a salon. Some people watch TV shows for the dialogue.

Terry Odell said...

Another inspiration source for me is music. A plaintive melody, a lyric line; anything can trigger an idea, whether it's for plot or a character.

Nancy J. Cohen said...

I've heard some writers listen to music to get into the mood of what they're writing. For me, I like silence. The music of my thoughts is enough.

MaryC said...

Hi Terry. I followed your link from Vagabonds!

Great post, Nancy. I also agree about ideas being everywhere. Not too long ago, I was standing at my sink washing dishes and I could hear my neighbors having a celebration of some kind in their yard. Before the dishes were done, I had the outline of a suspense story.

Terry Odell said...

Mary, glad you followed me over here and got to meet Nancy as well. Eavesdropping is great fodder, isn't it!

Joyce Henderson said...

I write cowboys and Indians. My ideas come from my life (owned a ranch) and the lives of my relatives, past and present (Texans).

I've always thought the depiction of how the Indians slaughtered white people was a one-sided telling of Western expansion. Sure, there was a lot of death and destruction, but it didn't happen only to those on the white side of history.

Indians, all tribes, had a long, rich history before we got here. I have to be super-careful about losing myself in research.

I also find much to whet my muse's appetite watching old movies.

Sheila Deeth said...

For me it's pictures or feelings or something someone says. And suddenly there's that stranger in my head saying "Hey, write about me."

Terry Odell said...

Sheila - I never know whether to love 'em or hate 'em when they do that.

My current WIP has a third POV character I never expected to take center stage.

Debra St. John said...

HI Nancy, You are so right, inspiration is everywhere. We just need to take it and make it ours. Thanks for the post.

Mary Ricksen said...

If I could only remember my dreams until I was awake enough to write them down. I've had some doozies.
I have had ideas come to my head when listening to loud cell phone conversations.
Great Post Nancy!

Nancy J. Cohen said...

Loud cell phone conversations and people talking in restaurants make for some great eavesdropping. As for vivid dreams, try to scribble notes before your brain fully wakens or you get distracted. I lie in bed first reviewing the dream, trying to remember details, before I get up. And Joyce, yes, one has to be careful not to get carried away with the research.

Katie Reus said...

Great post! Life is the best inspiration for writing, especially people. I also find inspiration in music :)

Kathleen said...

What great input from one of my favorite authors. Thanks, Nancy!

My best source of inspiration is on-site research. Sometimes I find research in the simplest places--listening to passers-by on the beach, the post office. Once, I was almost sat-upon by a woman three times my size in a chiropractor's office because we disagreed on a "heated" topic. Hey, when you read that scene in one of my next books, you'll know where I got the inspiration!

Mona Risk said...

Nancy, although I'm never out of ideas but out of time to write, I agree with you about cruises and traveling being the best source of inspiration.

Traci said...

nancy, what a great post. Thank you for sharing!!!

Nancy J. Cohen said...

Thanks, everyone, for reading my post and leaving comments. And than you, Terry, for hosting me. You always offer valuable information on your site.

Terry Odell said...

Nancy, it was my pleasure. Don't be a stranger!

Kristin said...

TV and movies are good sources. Magazines. Just random conversations with friends. I was with a group of girls from my Bible study and one of them was talking about the Founder's Day celebration that was held every year in her hometown. Her descritption of the parades and everything else involved basically gave me the premise for my new book. With the book before that, I was watching a preview for one of the Harry Potter movies and I got to thinking, "What would happen if JK Rowling could never writer again?" It became the premise for that book. A children's book author who's lost her inspiration and can't write anymore. Inspiration comes from just about anywhere, and it's always kind of neat to see where.

June Shaw said...

What great ideas! I use many of them myself, Nancy, but you've reminded me that I need to put a pad next to my bed so that I can jot down story ideas as soon as I wake up.

And I love your books!

Vonnie said...

Nancy - great article! We should add it to our Fan Page!