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?

Lori Soard started Word Museum in 1997. She’s a published author and has written thousands of articles over the years for newspapers, magazines and online. She has a PhD in Journalism and lives in Southern Indiana with her husband. They have two grown daughters, both animal lovers their house is always filled with pets.

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