Writing Tips: How To Find And Capture Ideas For Your Novel

“Where do you get your ideas from?”

Authors get asked this all the time and some get tired of it, because once you get into the hang of capturing ideas and writing them down, it seems like they just happen by magic.

But I remember back when I was a cubicle slave and used to write technical specifications all day. I didn't feel creative at all and I certainly didn't have any ideas.

I had to retrain my brain in order to start writing fiction.

In this article, I'll explain how to find ideas and how to capture them, plus how to deal with some common worries around ideas. If you'd like more help, check out my course: How to Write a Novel: From Idea to First Draft to Finished Manuscript.

(1) Trust your curiosity

This really is the key. You have to notice what you're curious about and then lean into those aspects of life.

I love medieval doorways!

Curiosity is about what catches your attention.

If you're in a bookstore, which areas do you go to first? If you're in a new city, what do you want to do with your time? If you're sitting in a cafe, why do you notice some people more than others?

We're surrounded by millions of stimuli, sounds and smells and sights and things happening all the time. But you will notice different things than I would about the world around you, and an idea starts by noticing those things.

If you're not curious about anything right now, you need to start trying. Think back to a point before ‘real life' stopped you doing things for the fun of it. What were you curious about when you were younger? What do you like helping your kids with? What do you remember as stand-out memories?

Idea generation is like a muscle, a bit like going to the gym. 

If you walk into a gym now and try to lift some heavy weights, you won't be able to do it. But if you start with the tiny weights and you start lifting those, then over time, you'll be able to lift heavier weights. It's true of ideas and perhaps true of creativity in any form. Start small by noticing what you're interested in and suddenly you will start getting ideas.

(2) Consume in order to produce

Balance consumption and creation

If you try to create from an empty mind, you will find yourself ‘blocked' pretty fast because there's nothing for your imagination to work with.

You need to fill your creative well in order to write.

I like the idea of the Artist's Date from Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way. Book some time for yourself and go somewhere that will fill your world with something new. An art gallery, a museum, a seminar, or even just time to read a book on a new topic. Take a notebook and write down anything you notice.

Let's get into a bit more detail about the types of things that can arouse your curiosity and potentially give you ideas.

(3) Use real places and research trips

Researching at the Hunterian Museum, London

These have been the genesis for most of my own novels.

For example, I will never forget the first time I walked into the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London. The visceral feeling in my stomach as I looked at the specimen jars filled with body parts sparked the idea behind Desecration.

Put yourself in situations where you're out of your comfort zone. And when you visit a new place, notice what you're feeling and consider the questions that arise.

Be sure to take your notebook and write down what you see. It doesn't have to be reams and reams of information. Little notes and impressions are fine at this stage, and you can combine them later.

(4) Use a MacGuffin

In thrillers and mysteries, the MacGuffin is the object that the characters are searching for, and it's intriguing enough to become the center of the book. The Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail are two MacGuffins that have endured in stories for several thousand years through countless re-tellings.

The Holy Right Hand of St Istvan, Budapest

I use MacGuffins in most of my books. For example, on a trip to Budapest, we visited the Basilica and saw the thousand-year-old mummified hand of Saint Istvan. Not many countries place a mummified hand at the center of their most famous monument, so I was fascinated. What if someone stole this important religious and national symbol?

That question became the basis of my novella One Day in Budapest. It's about the rise of far right nationalists (which is really happening in Hungary) but it's also about the MacGuffin, the mummified hand of St Istvan.

(5) What fascinates you about people?

You will always need characters for your books.

Many characters have an aspect of the writer in them, and if you meet people who would make great characters, then it's worth writing down the interesting things about them. Although, of course, never portray a character as exactly like the real person.

I'm reading a lot about war photographers at the moment, following my curiosity, even though I don't have a particular story in mind.

I've read Emergency Sex, about people who work in war zones and how they deal with what they see; Hotel Arcadia, about a war photographer who's in a hotel when it gets torn apart by terrorists, and I listened to Sebastian Junger talk about his own experiences with war photography and filming. Aspects of this research may bubble up in a character at some point. Right now, I'm just filling the creative well and I trust that the story will emerge 🙂

(6) Use real events

Ben and Lucy are out sailing on the ocean beyond Christchurch, New Zealand. They look to the horizon and see a huge tidal wave bearing down on them …

So begins Risen Gods, my dark fantasy novel co-written with J.Thorn, inspired by the real events of the 2011 Christchurch earthquakes.

New Zealand is on the Pacific Rim of Fire and has a lot of volcanic activity. I also lived there for seven years, so I know the country well.

I wondered what would happen if you lived through one of these natural disasters, then I started to consider a dark fantasy spin on the idea. What if the gods of New Zealand decided to take their land back?

(7) Consider ‘What if?' ideas

“What if” questions are often the basis for books.

The Martian by Andy Weir. What if you got stuck alone on Mars?
50 Shades of Grey by E.L.James. What if you met a sexy billionaire who offered you everything in exchange for something unexpected in the bedroom?
The Stand by Stephen King. What if 99% of the population was wiped out in a plague and you were one of the few left?

The Stand is 38 years old, but the post-apocalyptic genre keeps coming back because people really do wonder what would happen if this big disaster happened and you were left with a few survivors. Some ‘what if' questions will continue to be answered by many books to come … maybe yours will be one of them?

(8) Use ideas from quotes

Authors will often cite quotes they have used as ideas in the front of their novels.

The title of my book Destroyer of Worlds comes from the quote, “I am become death, destroyer of worlds,” which is from the Bhagavad Gita, but was also quoted by Oppenheimer at the test of the first atomic bomb.

So that one quote encapsulates ideas about Hindu gods and the power of an atomic bomb, and became the basis for the novel's plot.

(9) Use themes and issues you care about (but don't preach)

It's a story, not a lecture or a nonfiction book, but many authors use big societal issues as the basis for their ideas.

For example, there are a lot of novels based on Nazi Germany. All have the same underlying aspect of the horrors of the Holocaust, but the books can end up totally different. Compare Schindler's Ark, Sophie's Choice, The Afrika Reich and Man in High Castle.

(10) Use ideas from other books

“Books are made of books.” Cormac McCarthy

I read a lot for research purposes!

My short story collection, A Thousand Fiendish Angels, is based on Dante's Inferno. The stories were commissioned by Kobo for the launch of Dan Brown's book, also called Inferno, a few years ago. Dante's Inferno is out of copyright, so you can do whatever you like with it, but I turned the ideas into something new.

I made notes on the book, writing down lines I liked or words that resonated. For example, the Minotaur and the Furies, characters from Inferno, ended up in the third story as real characters, and Dis ended up as a setting.

One word of caution. If you take notes from other books, don't ever copy out entire passages word-for-word, because you may end up accidentally plagiarizing. But certainly you can get ideas from other books, then spin off and write your own version.

Some of my (many) journals

(11) Make sure you capture your ideas

You won't remember these sparks of ideas later, I guarantee it, so make sure you capture them somehow.

Use an old-fashioned notebook, or your trusty smartphone, or anything in between. It doesn't matter, as long as you get them down. I have physical notebooks, usually Moleskine or Leuchtturm brand, always with plain paper. I also use Things app on my iPhone. It's quite expensive, but I love it 🙂 Other people use Evernote or Scrivener.

Then, when you're considering your next project,  you can look through your lists and you'll find seeds of ideas that will feed into your book.

(12) Don't fall into these common worries about ideas

Finally, there are several recurring issues that come up around ideas, so we'll tackle them quickly here.

(a) What if someone steals my idea?

Ideas are nothing. Execution is everything.

You may have an amazing idea, but it's nothing unless you turn that into a book that readers might love. Ideas are also abundant. There are always more of them, so don't obsess about one particular idea, just keep on creating and more will come.

(b) What if my idea has been written before?

The truth is that every single idea has been done before and nothing is truly original.

Originality and creativity come from combining several things into something new, and adding your experience into the expression of an idea so it becomes something fresh.

There will always be universal story elements and emotions that resonate with readers. Consider Romeo and JulietTwilightFifty Shades of Grey, and Titanic. No one would say these are the same stories, and yet, at heart, they are about the relationship between a man and a woman and how they either came together and lived happily ever after, or how they came together and died.

These are iconic love stories. They essentially are the same thing, but yet, they are each so original.

(c) How do I choose which idea to work on?

Once you start tuning into your curiosity, you will come up against the ‘problem' of too many ideas. The most important thing is to keep writing them all down. Then, you can use them in different books, or combine them into multiple story-lines. After all, one idea is never enough for a whole book.

I have hundreds of notes in my ideas folder, but I find that some just keep coming back. Those are the ones to investigate further.

I hope that this has helped you consider new ways to find and track your ideas. I'd love to know your thoughts on the topic.

How do you find and track your ideas? Please leave a comment or question below and join the conversation.

If you'd like more help with writing your first novel, check out my course, How to Write a Novel: From Idea to Finished Manuscript.













Joanna Penn:

View Comments (15)

  • This was shared on "Our Write Side", and I'm so glad that it was. This article touched on several questions a new author like myself have rolling through our heads, or at least in mine!

  • Great tips, Joanna! You've had wonderful ideas that spurred great books.
    My ideas usually start with a few pieces of my family history or with a location that I'm fond of. However, I'm going to use some of your tips, for example exploring places new to me for ideas and I'll find curiosities to ponder.
    As always, your posts are so helpful.

  • Great tips, Joanna -- thanks. Now I know what to do with that cute little notebook I bought in Lisbon airport this summer!

  • Sucha great post and a question i have probably already asked you a few times Joanna! Thanks for all the tips. I have started to record my ideas in Evernote and on Scrivener. I also have a notepad by my desk to jot down anything of interest. I'm trying to follow my curiosity and not overthink it too much.

  • Honestly, I don't understand the people who ask where I get my ideas. I have new ideas all the time! I pick them up in various ways (travel, reading articles, inspiration from other people's fiction...) and I have SO many, it's ridiculous! I keep track of them in a long file on my computer so that I don't forget them.

  • Hi Joanna,
    Really connected with me to trust my curiosity and from this, my intuition. It's far to easy to self censor each and every idea that bubbles up with a negative inner critic. It's about giving yourself permission to explore the possibilities.

  • I collect useful snippets of information about writing and this was helpful. Thanks. Ideas are always my biggest problem.

  • I use a website called Trello.com, which is like an online pinboard for text, to track ideas, though a document would work just as well, and I think Scrivener has something similar too. I have a column for story ideas, a column for story fragments (ideas that aren't enough for a full story, but can be put into a story), a column for character ideas, and a column for quotes. I also have board for marketing ideas, which I pick up from all over the internet and adapt to my own purposes.

  • This is a great article Joanna. I start with a person, profession and then put the character in a situation or setting. I constantly people watch. I keep a small notebook and Evernote around me all the time. I don't think I'll ever run out of ideas.

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