06 February 2014

Spinning Gold From Straw

by James R. Winter

Today's post is a pinch-hit offering by long-time pal and ace mystery writer Jim Winter, answering an age-old question posed to writers from Homer onward. Thanks Jim!



“Where do you get your ideas?”

A lot of writers hate that question. Some are a bit absurd in their hostility about it. The question, though, is not one that’s easily answered. One author – I’m quoting Stephen King, but King was relating someone else’s response when he said it – got so tired of answering that question that he sarcastically said something along the lines of “I get them from a service in New Jersey.”

It’s a fair enough question, though. People who do not write can’t imagine how we come up with our stories. A coworker saw me reading Stephen King decided to lecture me one time on how King had to be a very sick individual to come up with what he wrote. I calmly said, no, he was probably saner than most people; he just has a vivid imagination. Another coworker (different company) insisted that all the characters in Northcoast Shakedown were based on real people, and she knew which of our fellow employees I’d used as models. I said, no, I have an imagination. I’m perfectly capable of making things up. That’s why it’s called fiction.

The reason writers don’t like that question, though, is because there is no single source of ideas. Storytellers have an innate talent to synthesize anything and everything around them into fiction. Not every story comes from the same source, even for the same writer.

There are certain constants. Genre fiction generally dictates what sort of setting and situations are available to a given writer. They already have an interest in those settings and situations, so they gravitate toward certain types of stories. But beyond that…?

Personal experience – Most writers pull from their own experience, even if they are just observers to events that spark stories. David Simon created Homicide and The Wire after years as a Baltimore Sun reporter working the police beat. Many times, though, the experience colors interactions between characters: How do they relate to parents, children, lovers, bosses, that person on the street every morning?

Ripped from the headlines – This one gets derided a lot as being a cheap, easy way to capture attention. Then again, it’s often relevant to the time a story is written. Bullying, terrorism, and the need to be “Facebook famous” are all subjects that would have been looked at as absurd over a decade ago. Likewise, everyday, some new piece of technology sends yet another science fiction writer into fits of giddiness as he or she tries to work it into a story.

What if? – This is the safest bet for any writer trying to generate ideas. Take a situation, have it turn out differently, and ask what would happen. What if I didn’t take that job? What if Romney had won the last election? What if the Golden Gate Bridge was a ferry instead of a bridge? This goes even further. Stand in line at Starbucks and study the person in front of you. Who is she? Is she married? Happily? Kids? Healthy? Rich? Poor? What does she do for a living? Why does she get a soy mocha, but insist on whipped cream with it? I find myself doing this all the time. It’s great for character building.

Roman a clef – Changing the names to protect the innocent, or hide from the guilty. Most writers have done this at one point or another. I recommend against it, though. A writer can end up tying a story into knots trying to make it conform to reality. Plus it can often be a form of revenge fic that can backfire on the writer. Speaking of which…

Revenge fic- Oh, revenge fic can be fun. You have to be careful because you might not even be mad at the person you wrote about. Sometimes, you want to get even. But getting even often involves a felony. You don’t want to really go out and smash your brother-in-law’s windshield for treating your sister like dirt. But on paper…? Don’t be too obvious about it. And remember, you’re trying to write a story, no matter how angry you are about what prompted it.

A lot of times, however, ideas just coalesce around different thoughts that have nothing to do with each other. A character may present itself with no place to go. A what-if scenario might tug at someone’s brain, but have no real substance. Something real, like a person walking down the street, might appear that triggers all sorts of speculation. If all that comes together, a writer might be hard pressed to remember exactly where the idea came from. After all, it’s like pinning down exactly where rain comes from. We know it comes from the clouds, but there is no exact point where water becomes a drop.


Born near Cleveland in 1966, Jim Winter had a vivid imagination – maybe too vivid for his own good – that he spun into a career as a writer. He is the author of Northcoast Shakedown, a tale of sex, lies, and insurance fraud – and Road Rules, an absurd heist story involving a stolen holy relic. Jim now lives in Cincinnati with his wife Nita and stepson AJ. To keep the lights on, he is a web developer and network administrator by day. Visit him at http://www.jamesrwinter.net , like Jim Winter Fiction on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter @authorjimwinter.


  1. Thanks for this post. I always enjoy brainstorming for ideas. As a companion to “what if” I sometimes like to imagine “what could go wrong” with a routine event. Someone walks into a bank branch for the first time in months (re: online banking, ATMs, etc.) to make a cash deposit. Or decides to finally clean out all the junk stored in the garage. Or something. What could go wrong? A million things, of course. As always, there’s still the work of actually turning a random idea into a story. But what the heck, you gotta begin somewhere, right?

  2. I'm a day late. Didn't get to the computer at all yesterday, but I did find this interesting and enjoyed how you handled this subject. Yes, even I get asked that question and what I've had published are mystery cozies. My response is usually, "Where do the ideas come from? They come from my memories." That of course is a lie, but aren't we, as fiction writers, licensed to lie? Thanks for a good blog.

  3. Jim, most of my characters, scenes and motivations come from people I've met on the job. All of this personal experience stored in memory then gets transferred to story characters, whether it's modern times or historical, who rationalize their actions. According to Rob Lopresti's blog a few days ago, my characters and I probably fall into the cynic category, but it's fun writing about them.
    Thanks for the article.


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