Where Do Writers Find Their Ideas?

Ten authors answer the question, "Where do your ideas come from?"

(Donaldson Collection/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

During interviews, book signings, and panel discussions, it's the question that professional writers hear more often than any other: Where do your ideas come from?

Some authors simply roll their eyes and plead ignorance. Others shrug it off with a wisecrack. ("Schenectady" is Harlan Ellison's stock reply.)

But to novice writers--college freshmen, for instance--the question calls for more than a joke.

Finding a topic and coming up with something fresh to say about it can be the most difficult part of any writing project.

Fortunately, these ten writers have given the question some thought.

  • People always want to know: Where do I get my ideas? They're everywhere. I'm inspired by people and things around me.
    (Gwendolyn Brooks, American poet)
  • My standard answer is "I don't know where they come from, but I know where they come to, they come to my desk." If I'm not there, they go away again, so you've got to sit and think.
    (Philip Pullman, English writer)
  • Ideas come to a writer, a writer does not search for them. "Ideas come to me like birds that I see in the corner of my eye," I say to journalists, "and I may try, or may not, to get a closer fix on those birds."
    (Patricia Highsmith, American crime writer)
  • It's very blurred, it's not clear. The plan is something which gradually evolves. Usually, I'll just start with one particular idea or certain image or even just a mood and gradually it'll kind of grow when other things attach themselves to it.
    (Jane Rogers, British novelist, editor, and teacher)
  • People ask me where my ideas come from. They can come from anywhere. Some years ago I was telling my wife stories about some of the crazier college professors I had known or heard about during my years as a student and then as a professor myself. "Write a book," she said. So I wrote The Meade Solution, a story about a group of graduate students in an imaginary college who are facing a bleak job market."
    (Robert J. Conley, Cherokee author)
  • Anything can set things going--an encounter, a recollection. I think writers are great rememberers.
    (Gore Vidal, American novelist, playwright, essayist)
  • You can write about anything, and if you write well enough, even the reader with no intrinsic interest in the subject will become involved.
    (Tracy Kidder, literary journalist)
  • "From you," I say. The crowd laughs. I look at the woman asking the question; she seems innocent enough. I continue. "I get them from looking at the world we live in, from reading the paper, watching the news. It seems as though what I write is often extreme, but in truth it happens every day."
    (A. M. Homes, American novelist and short story writer)
  • I don't believe that a writer "gets" (takes into the head) an "idea" (some sort of mental object) "from" somewhere, and then turns it into words, and writes them on paper. At least in my experience, it doesn't work that way. The stuff has to be transformed into oneself, it has to be composted, before it can grow into a story.
    (Ursula Le Guin, American novelist and essayist)
  • My usual, perfectly honest reply is, "I don't get them; they get me."
    (Robertson Davies, Canadian novelist, playwright, and critic)

If you need some help finding something to write about, see our list of 400 Writing Topics: Topic Suggestions and Writing Prompts for Paragraphs and Essays.