16 June 2016

The Mysterious Sources of Ideas

by Janice Law

I guess that the most frequent question writers get, along with recommendations for agents or publishers, is “Where do your ideas come from?”

In response, one waggish author is supposed to have replied that he ordered them wholesale.
Would that were true! A few lucky souls seem to produce an unending stream of good and marketable ideas. Consider the great 19th century great galley slaves of literature like George Sand, Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope or Honore de Balzac. Nearer to hand, there’s our own Joyce Carol Oates or any of the thriller writers who, with a stable of helpers, adorn the best seller lists month after month. Clearly they rarely have to beg the Muse for ideas, and they write The End only to start afresh at Chapter One.

But I suspect that most writers are beset sooner or later with fears that another story, novel, article, or blog will not be forthcoming. Then it’s the writer’s turn to ask where ideas come from and how they can be persuaded to appear regularly.

 After forty years, I still have no definitive answer, but I do know some of the conditions that encourage inspiration. First, ideas in writing or painting, and I would guess the other arts as well, come from work. The genesis of art (or even pulp fiction) is the ultimate chicken and egg conundrum. Amateurs who say, I’d love to write but I don’t have any ideas, have it backwards. Writing produces ideas, which, in turn, produces writing.

Perhaps the writing that primes the pump, so to speak, need not be the final product. I’m always surprised at the massive volumes of famous writers’ correspondence. When did they have time to write those hundreds, sometimes thousands, of letters? And we’re not talking emails, either, but long screeds – and in pen and ink, too. Others wrote not just letters but kept journals or wrote reviews and columns and left memoirs. I suspect such productivity fed the novels, plays and stories, even as it took time from the main work.

Though crucial, writing itself is not enough. Books, the daily papers, and certain true crime TV shows have been useful for me. My newest novel, Homeward Dove, grew from a couple inches of print years ago in the London Telegraph. The Countess came from a couple pages in a children’s book about spies, while The Night Bus owed its inspiration to an episode of Unsolved Mysteries.

But while the public works overtime for the crime writer, material and the practice of writing have to be combined with a certain sort of observational alertness. An example from my own career: at one point, I was doing features of a vaguely business nature for a local paper, things like  considering the then new proliferation of office greenery or explaining where stale bread went. I did this for a while and never had a problem with seeing publishable angles. Then the gig stopped. I don’t think I’ve had a single idea for a similar story since.

The reason, I suspect, is that composition requires another ingredient, and that is the enlistment of the subconscious, both in daylight hours to notice things and after working hours, to bring the unexpected together. Maybe clever people who can plot out a whole novel do not need this assistance, but I do, and I often find myself on the verge of sleep giving orders to whatever neurons are in charge: finish the scene at the bridge; resolve the conflict between Fletcher and the Leader, or simply, next five pages, please. Works for me.

After many years of writing, I have clearly semi-trained my subconscious. This is not to say all its ideas are brilliant or that the solution is always waiting for me the next morning. But the mysterious appearance of solutions does emphasize inspiration’s dependence on habit, on observation, and on work. The Muse, it turns out, has to be courted. Writing, writing, writing turns out to be the required offering for this capricious deity.


  1. Writing, writing, writing. Reading, reading, reading. A lot of staring out the window. A lot of walks to stir the juices. A lot of watching people. Listening to people (thanks, cell phones, you made that a lot easier - now people broadcast EVERYTHING in public!). And, every once in a while, a dream.

  2. Lovely essay, Janice. I was particularly struck by your comments about getting lots of ideas for business-related articles as long as you were writing that sort of article. I have a similar story. I didn't start writing mysteries, or have any interest in writing mysteries, until I was in my thirties. I'd had one idea for a mystery plot but never did anything with it, because I was focused on other things. Then, for various reasons, I decided to toy around with the idea for a while. Once I started writing, I was hooked and couldn't stop. The more I wrote, the more ideas for mysteries I started to have. I kept noticing places that seemed like good spots for hiding a body, overhearing snatches of conversation that suggested interesting motives for murder, coming across objects that looked like they might make effective murder weapons. Once we turn our minds in a certain direction, the ideas keep springing up.

  3. Enough are right. So much is focus and the right sort of observation.

  4. Janice, I just read your story in the AHMM July/August 2016 issue and enjoyed another adventure of Nip Tompkins and Madame Selena. That series is one of my favorites. Keep them coming.

  5. Janice, the one thing I have come to accept: Your muse is in charge, not you.
    Which could explain why I seem to be writing another fantasy novel, instead of the crime novel that my publisher is waiting for...

  6. Thanks for the kind words about Nip and Madame Selina!
    I have one more coming out in the fall in AHMM and I think that will be it. I am thinking of doing something with a slightly older Nip Tompkins, however.

  7. I do enjoy Madame Selina and Nip. And I would hate to not see more of Nip as he grows up. BTW, is the fall AHMM September? Because I have one coming out then, too.


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