Flashback: Where Ideas Come From

When you see “Flashback” in front of an article, it means it is an article that originally appeared on Word Museum in the beginning before it was sold and then regained by Lori. We have reposted these articles, because we feel they add great value to the site. Where possible we include the date of the original article.

Written by: Stephanie Mittman
Date: 2001

Since I’ve published five books and two novellas since June of 1995, and have another full length novel coming out this October , I get asked often where I keep coming up with these ideas. Usually I tell the inquirer where I got the latest idea, but when I agreed to write this article I started thinking about where it is that ideas do come from.

The first answer, off the top of my head, was that they come from a fertile mind. But I think it goes further than that. I think they come from a fertile mind-set. When I was a stained glass artist, I looked at everything in terms of color and line. Now that I write, I look at everything with the idea that it is a potential story.

Here’s an example of what I mean by mind-set. My closest friend used to design handbags for Bendel’s and Bergdorf Goodman’s and Bloomingdale’s. One day she and a friend of hers were walking down the street and she saw what she thought was the world’s most perfect purse. She pointed it out to her friend, noting the great color, the lines, the easy way it flopped at the top. Her friend looked at her as if she were crazy. She wasn’t, just kind of blind. She was looking at a paper bag on someone’s front stoop.


So let’s run with the paper bag idea. She looked at it and saw handbag written all over it. What do you suppose a cop would think if he saw it? How about a reporter? Someone who writes mysteries would wonder what was inside it, someone else would want to know who left it, when? A romance writer might make up a whole story about it–there was this gift inside it that the hero was going to give the heroine until he saw her with someone else and then he just abandoned it there. Or she brought her lunch and he swept her off her feet and took her out to someplace fancy to propose a la An Officer and a Gentleman and the lunch was there for the squirrels.

Is there something valuable in there? Personal?

It may be crazy, but I don’t pass paper bags even anymore without wondering, fantasizing, giving my mind free rein.

I have a friend named Maria Santiago. The other day she mentioned her husband, Francisco. Before I was a writer I wouldn’t have given his name a thought. Now, I thought Francisco Santiago? It sounds like he pulled his name off a map. Why would someone pull their name off a map? Why would they need such a quick alias? Obviously he’s done something awful to grab a name with so little thought–maybe a murder! But who did he kill? Well, I write romance–he obviously killed someone who meant a great deal to the heroine. Her brother, father, first husband? Well, that’s conflict for you.

Do you see what I mean here about being open to the possibilities?

Sometimes all it takes is a spark. A couple of years ago Alan and I bought an antique bed. When we laid down in it I kept wondering about the people who had owned the bed when it was new. About the babies that had been born in it, the fights that had been fought in it, the nights that he or she was nearly hanging off the edge of the bed. The bed saw the birth of THE MARRIAGE BED, but it could just as easily have spurred a story about war, with her alone in the bed, about deceit with someone else in the bed, about a woodworker who made the bed for a woman who would never get the chance to sleep in it.


Sometimes the sparks come at the weirdest times. Like when the curtain is going up on THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA in London and I write on the back of a candy wrapper: The only thing marring Brian O’Hanlan’s 36th birthday celebration was the knowledge that he could drop dead at any moment. Not that he expected to, but it could happen. His father had been 36 when he’d keeled over in the heat of a July day and simply expired, leaving a 17 year old Brian to take over his responsibilities, his dreams and his life. And he’d done a fine job of it, too. He’d lived the man’s life to the exclusion of his own.

Will I write that one? I don’t know. Maybe. After the other million that are floating around in my head.

Sometimes you have to add fuel to get the spark going. The last story I wrote was this really great one about a woman married to a man who not only can’t give her physical affection because he’s disabled, but won’t give her any because he feels they should be above those base needs. If I’d let her actually have sex with the hero she’d have been committing adultery. (Well actually that’s the way I wrote it first–the hero is the paraplegic’s brother and the one responsible for his accident. . .but that’s not my point. I had to take it out because she’d never have committed adultery. But after I finished it I was ready to do a story in which sex (my kind of nice clean moral sex) would be all right– So I needed a married couple. Well, if they’re married, where’s the problem? What if he only married her because she was pregnant with his friend’s child and his friend (who he was always cleaning up after in one way or another) had run out on her and left her at the church? Well, maybe that wasn’t the only reason. . .maybe he’d always been in love with her but she couldn’t see him because she only had eyes for Slick. . .

Sometimes ideas come to you on their own. The premise of A TASTE OF HONEY arrived full blown. Asa and Alan were diving and I was just watching the water. When they came back, I knew Annie Morrow as if she’d raised me along with her siblings. I had the idea and then I expanded on it supplying what I needed to fill out the book.

Then there are the times that characters themselves come up with the ideas–you know that section from THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT’S WOMAN?

Can you force ideas into being? Well, you can coax them, anyway. Maybe you’ve a theme you want to explore. Most of my books deal with learning to love children whether they are your flesh and blood or not. I never really meant to do that, but it seems to pop up over and over again. If that’s your aim, you’ll need children in there. And that way your needs guide you toward the ideas instead of working the other was around.

So where do ideas come from? In here and out there–they come from reading other people’s books and wondering what would have happened if things had been different for a character. I think that was where the London story came from. I’d read Pam Morsi’s Something Shady about a brick works owner who had a 17 year old son (I think that was it) and had built up this wonderful business for him, and I thought, what if he hadn’t had the son? What if he’d built the business up and there was no one to leave it to and he felt that he could die tomorrow and would all have been for nothing? And what if he tried to get his bookkeeper to help him find the perfect wife so that he could have an heir? And what if he couldn’t see that the bookkeeper was the perfect wife and that her son might not be his flesh and blood but by the end no father could love a son more?

What if? What if?

What if I stop now and get the next proposal written?

Flashback: Sell Your Book

When you see “Flashback” in front of an article, it means it is an article that originally appeared on Word Museum in the beginning before it was sold and then regained by Lori. We have reposted these articles, because we feel they add great value to the site. Where possible we include the date of the original article.

Written By: Steven Walker
Date: 08/02/2001


Whether you’ve written that best-selling novel or just have an idea for one, you’re going to have to present it to an agent or a publisher. What is the best way to do that, you ask? In today’s market, almost every agent, publisher or editor will require a professionally written book proposal. For book-length works, the query letter is becoming obsolete.

The only response you’ll get, besides the dreaded, “form rejection”, is a request for a book proposal. You may as well concede to the fact that you’re going to have to write one if you want to publish a book.

For most writers, writing a book proposal is, at the least, an unsavory task, and at the most, an impossible project that is shrouded in mystery.

Here’s the latest scoop; it’s not a mystery at all. After extensive research and multitudes of rejections, I’ve discovered the secret of a successful book proposal.

There are nine steps to successfully selling your novel and each of them should be included in your proposal, in the order that is laid out below.

If you follow this procedure, you will answer all of the publishers questions in a way that they can not refuse to contract your work. The only reason that you could possibly get a rejection, if you follow these steps, is if you have targeted a publisher who does not handle your type of story, you have an unsaleable subject, or you simply did not write it well.

After your greeting, begin your first paragraph by answering question number one, then move on through the entire nine step procedure. The first paragraph of your proposal should answer the publishers main concern, “Who will buy the book?”.

1. Who will buy the book?

Publishers make money selling books. It’s that simple. Find out what group of people or what market would be interested in paying money for your proposed story idea? In other words, who’s going to be interested in buying your book if the publisher contracts it?

2. Why is this book different?

Find out who else has written a book or articles on the same subject that your book deals with. Story ideas, movies and books tend to be trendy and usually fill the market in waves until public interest has peaked and then moved on to new horizons. Give examples of other publications that deal with your subject and then tell the publisher why your proposal is unique.

Is it written from a different perspective or another person’s point of view? Do you have theories or facts that haven’t been explored yet?

3. Why should you be the one to write this book?

Are you an expert in the particular field that your proposal deals with? Have you been formally schooled in a subject that directly relates to your story? Have you had a similar experience? Were you a witness to events that are involved in the story? Have you done any specific research to justify your qualifications to write this story? If none of these apply, then omit this section, however, if this is the case, you might reconsider attempting to take on this project to begin with.

4. How long is the book going to be?

Give approximate word count. Of course, you cannot be completely accurate at this point but take a guess anyway. A novel length work would have to be at least 40,000 words and usually average as much as 60,000 to 90,000 words in length. Always give a word count, not a page count, as different fonts and typesetting will effect the final number of pages despite the number of words that are printed.

5. When will the book be finished?

Believe it or not, many editors and publishers are weary about manuscripts that are already completed. This does not pertain to newspapers and weekly periodicals but when it comes to book length manuscripts, even if the project is completed, it is sometimes better not to reveal this information. Give a date in the near future, when the publisher can expect your proposed novel to be complete. When doing so, always add at least 40% to the amount of time that you think you can achieve this to allow for complications and distractions. It is always better to beat a deadline that you set for yourself. Missing a deadline is guaranteed to cause dire consequences and be harmful in future projects.

If the publisher or editor requests that you meet an earlier deadline, then you will have to think whether or not you can commit to those requirements. It is better to turn down a job that you know is impossible to meet, than it is to agree to a time and then not be able to finish your project with the quality that is expected of a professional writer. Missing your deadlines is a sure fire way to end a writing career before you even get started.

6. Can you promote your book?

The next part that should be included in your book proposal is whether or not you will be able to spend the time to promote yourself and the sale of your book. Can you make public appearances and do book signings? Are you able to travel?

If you have other commitments that will prohibit you from undertaking such a task, you may be at a crossroads in your life where you have to decide what your goals are. Do you want to be a writer or are other priorities in your life more important to you? This is a decision that only you can make.

7. The next part of your book proposal is the meat and potatoes of the whole thing. This is where most writers draw a complete blank and yet it should be the simplest part of your proposal. All you have to do is tell what your book is about. The dreaded synopsis is the downfall of even some of the greatest writers.

Before getting into that, if you are writing a fiction novel, you should include a paragraph about each of your main characters, giving their names and a bit of insight about who they are, what their personalities are like and what their goals are. Keep it as short as possible but give the publisher a taste of them so he doesn’t have to read 50 pages of the manuscript to know who they are.

8. Chapter by chapter synopsis

How can I do a chapter by chapter synopsis of a book that I haven’t even written yet? That’s a fair question and it is one that is often asked of me. When proposing a book, you should have a pretty good idea of what is going to be in it. At the very least, you should know how you want to present your story, what conflicts are going to be involved and what resolution you would like to end it with. By developing your characters prior to writing your story, you should be able to come up with a few sub-plots for them to deal with within the main story idea. Out of the combined knowledge of all these things, comes your synopsis. This can also be used for your story outline, which makes writing the book much easier as well. A publisher knows that a proposed synopsis is not carved in stone and may change slightly with the creative talent of the writer. It is simply used as a basis of what to expect from the finished product. If there is a dramatic change in the plot of your story, as it is being written, it would be a good policy to get the publishers approval of any new ideas that you are including.

When writing your synopsis, use this simple format.

Chapter One

Include one to three paragraphs that introduce your story. The first two paragraphs of the actual story may be good enough to put here. Introduce your main characters here if this is where they will be introduced in your book. Remember that it is the first few sentences in any successful novel, that grab a reader and intrigue them to continue reading.

Chapter Two

Add two more paragraphs here to develop your conflict or begin your sub-plots and introduce any other characters that may be involved.

Chapter Three

Add two more paragraphs here to develop your story more and continue this format throughout each chapter until you finally reach your climax. Make sure that your last chapter description resolves your conflicts and leaves your reader with a feeling that the story is complete.

9. Include sample chapter.

Finally, include a sample chapter with your proposal. Yes, that means you need to actually write something. It doesn’t really matter which chapter you include as your sample, as long as it’s your best one.


A complete, quality, book proposal could take anywhere from two days to two months to complete. Is that a big investment? You bet, but if you plan on investing a year writing the book and plan on doing something with the completed manuscript besides using it to level the legs of your dining room table, it is time well spent.

Flashback: Personal Horror

When you see “Flashback” in front of an article, it means it is an article that originally appeared on Word Museum in the beginning before it was sold and then regained by Lori. We have reposted these articles, because we feel they add great value to the site. Where possible we include the date of the original article.

Written by: Tim Waggoner
Date: 08/02/2001

Janet ran, stumbling through the night, heart pounding, lungs on fire. All she could hear was her own ragged breath and the rustle of leaf and snap of twig as she crashed through the underbrush. But she didn’t have to hear pounding footfalls to know that HE was following close behind.

If only she hadn’t had sex with Billy, had listened to her mother and stayed a virgin. If only she had remained back at camp with the other counselors. If only she gave more to charity, was kinder to animals, read to shut-ins —

A huge, shapeless silhouette reared up before her, sickly yellow moonlight glinting off ax metal. Janet started to scream, but all that came out was a hot, gurgling sound as the ax bit deep into her throat. Again and again and again . . .

The previous scene is the sort of fiction produced by many beginning horror writers, those who haven’t actually read much in the genre and instead base their stories on umpty-leven viewings of Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street flicks. And while such films can have a visceral (pun intended) impact, they don’t make good inspirational fodder for fiction.

Slasher films and their ilk rely primarily on shock. And shock is a Jaycee-sponsored Halloween Haunted House sort of thing. It relies on visual and auditory surprise — some guy in a rubber mask and fright wig jumping out from a darkened doorway hollering “Ooga-booga!” Such effects are nearly impossible to create on the page. They have to be experienced live and in person. Besides, even if you could create shock effectively in written stories, why would you want to? It’s an extremely limited technique. The audience might gasp and jump the first time or two you spring your Jack-the-Ripper-in-a-box on them, but no matter how well crafted your shock machine is, readers will soon become so desensitized to its tricks that they won’t even be able to work up the energy to yawn.

Shock is a quick, easy scare. Empty, and to the audience, ultimately unsatisfying. Readers want horror that does more than go “Boo!” They want horror that disturbs them, shakes them up, that reaches into their guts with cold bony fingers and stirs their wet parts around. So how do you write stories that do this? By crafting stories drawn from personal horror.

As author and critic Douglas Winter has pointed out, horror isn’t a genre, but rather an emotion. In order to write effective — and original — horror, you have to dig into your own psyche and find out what scares you. Worried that no one will be frightened by the same things you are? Don’t be. As Aristotle said, the only way to get to the universal is through the particular. By focusing on your own personal fears and giving them shivery life on the page, you’ll be connecting to your audience — guaranteed.

Begin with your childhood. Regardless of whether your wonder years were TV movie of the week fodder or (seemingly) uneventful, anyone who’s survived childhood has a wealth of story material waiting to be mined.

What were you afraid of as a child? The dark; thunder and lightning; the barking German shepherd next door; Mommy and Daddy yelling at each other? Make a list of your childhood bogeymen, and write at least a paragraph about each item. Don’t think in terms of story, just write whatever comes to mind. Try to focus on your feelings and what sparked those feelings — remember, horror is an emotion.

And they don’t have to be obvious fears, either. My mother once told me that when I was a very small child, I was afraid of feathers. What’s so scary about feathers? Well, they have those hairy edges, and their spiny stems can stick you. And the way they float downward so slowly, as if they don’t want to leave the air. Where do they come from? Mommy says they come from birds, but I’ve never seen a bird leave any feathers in the house. What if they come from somewhere else? Come from something else? What if for some reason they’re coming from me?

Maybe I’ll never get a story about of this minor childhood phobia, but if I do, it’ll certainly be original!

Next — and this might be difficult — make a list of any disturbing events in your childhood. Encounters with schoolyard bullies, severe illnesses, deaths of friends and family members. Again, write at least a paragraph on each item.

When I was around five or six, my mother was severely burned when taking a roast out of the oven. I remember her being in the hospital, the doctors taking skin from her legs and back to use for grafts. I remember the watery feeling in my guts when later, after she’d healed, she let me touch the brown patch of tight smooth skin on her palm. The edges were so distinct; it seemed as if I could pinch them between my thumb and forefinger and slowly peel away my mother’s borrowed flesh to reveal the moist secrets which lay within.

Digging into your childhood traumas might not easy, might even be disturbing for you. But if you want to write horror — real horror, not Freddy vs. Jason stuff — then you need to have at least a nodding acquaintance with your dark side. Besides, writing is cheaper than therapy. Childhood is a time when everything is new, wondrous and terrifying. A time when we feel emotions most deeply. And it’s those sort of intense emotions you want to summon and use to write your horror. But you don’t have to confine your self-exploration to the past.

Pay attention to the events in the news which upset and anger you. Clip newspaper and magazine articles and keep them in a folder. Don’t merely collect every article on murder you find. Look for stories which arouse an emotional reaction in you, stories which fascinate you.

One of the news stories I’ve collected concerns a campus-area apartment house which has an electric chair perched on the roof. According to the article, the current occupants had no idea who put the chair up there and why. It was there when they moved in. As they said, It’s always been there.

Now there’s a story waiting to happen! Another area you can explore for ideas is the realm of dreams. Every morning, as soon as you get up, record your dreams in a journal. A friend of mine in college had been keeping dream journals for years. When he first started, he only remembered having two or three dreams a night. But after a couple years of faithfully writing in his journal, he routinely recalled fifteen or sixteen. And while many of them weren’t more than snatches of everyday life replayed on the mind’s dream-screen, he always had at least a couple that were quite surreal and disturbing. Added up over the course of a year, that’s a lot of potential story ideas.

A recurring dream of mine has me lost and wandering within a building of endless rooms and hallways which seems to continually grow and shift around me. Once I woke up from a snooze on the couch remembering a dream I’d just had. In it, a witch became pregnant and her familiar thought the fetus was a tumor killing his mistress. That dream became my story “Newcomer,” which was published in 100 Wicked Little Witch Stories.

In our dreams, our defenses and pretenses are swept aside, and we are most ourselves. Your dreams are unique; use them to write stories that are uniquely yours.

Another technique (one I’ve stolen from Stephen King), is to take a look around you and let your imagination run paranoid. Choose a minor aspect of your life or an ordinary event and tell yourself that something is wrong with it. Seriously wrong.

Not too far from where I live is house where the lawn is always perfect. I mean perfect in every single way. The grass is always the same height, the same shade of green, the edging always neat and straight. But I’ve never seen anyone working on the lawn. In fact, I’ve never seen anyone enter or leave the house. The reality is that the yard probably belongs to a retiree with a lot of time on his or her hands. But when I look at that lawn and tell myself something is seriously wrong with it, I start to wonder what kind of rigid, type-A landscaping Nazi it would take to maintain a lawn like that. And what would happen if someone decided to mess up that yard . . .

Speaking of lawns, one summer day I was mowing mine, and when I neared the driveway, I saw a crumpled piece of white cloth which I knew hadn’t been there when I started mowing. I stopped the mower, walked over, and picked up what turned out to be a bloody sock. I live on a busy street, so I’m used to finding all sorts of strange items that litterjerks have tossed out their car windows. But I’d never found anything like this before. I had a quick flash — what if something were seriously wrong with this sock?

What if it had been thrown out of a car by someone who was injured, perhaps being held captive? Worse, what if it was one of my wife’s socks? The mower made a lot of noise, and I hadn’t been watching the front door. What if for some reason she’d been injured and left the house without telling me? What if she — and our two-year-old daughter — had been taken from the house?

I threw the sock in the garbage, and went inside to wash my hands and, I admit it, also check on my wife and daughter. Both of whom were fine, of course, but thanks to an inconsiderate (and slightly wounded) motorist or passenger, I had the beginnings of a new story.

Lastly, ask yourself what’s most important, most dear to you. What do you treasure? Who do you love? Now ask yourself what if these things were threatened, removed, altered, turned against me? How would you feel? And most importantly, what would you do about it? Your answers to these questions will provide some of your best and most personal story ideas.

In the end, it’s simple: If you want to write truly effective horror, don’t merely recycle the imaginings of others. Write the stories only you can tell.

And in the process, scare the crap out of the rest of us.

The End


Tim Waggoner writes both fantasy and horror and has published over thirty stories in various anthologies and magazines. He has also worked as a newspaper reporter, magazine editor, copy editor, and currently teaches college writing courses.