Where Do I Get My Writing Ideas From?

Cynthia Hilston - Author & Blogger

This is one of the questions writers often get asked.  For some writers, they have a dream that inspires a novel.  For others, it’s music.  They hear a song that gets their mind churning, and bam, a story evolves.  Yet for others still, the book comes from personal experience, from real life events that are fictionalized.  There’s really no limit to where a writer gets their material from.

For me, my first bouts of inspiration came from other people’s stories.  I was a writer of fan fiction for many years before writing original stories, so I played with other people’s characters in their worlds, only adding my twists to things.  That was good practice, all fine and dandy for honing my writing and getting people to read my stuff, but it was never going to amount to making a living out of being an author.  No one should profit off…

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Where Do I Get My Writing Ideas From?

This is one of the questions writers often get asked.  For some writers, they have a dream that inspires a novel.  For others, it’s music.  They hear a song that gets their mind churning, and bam, a story evolves.  Yet for others still, the book comes from personal experience, from real life events that are fictionalized.  There’s really no limit to where a writer gets their material from.

For me, my first bouts of inspiration came from other people’s stories.  I was a writer of fan fiction for many years before writing original stories, so I played with other people’s characters in their worlds, only adding my twists to things.  That was good practice, all fine and dandy for honing my writing and getting people to read my stuff, but it was never going to amount to making a living out of being an author.  No one should profit off of someone else’s creations, unless, of course, the original author gives permission or the stuff is public domain.

But let me get to the point of where I get my ideas from when it comes to writing my original stories.  My first original story, Hannah’s Rainbow: Every Color Beautiful, is based off of my late grandma’s life, so that answers that question easily.  I will go into more detail regarding the creation of my first novel in July’s blog post, since I feel this story deserves its own telling.

When I was writing Hannah’s Rainbow, I honestly didn’t know if I’d write more books.  Of course, I wanted to do so, but I didn’t know if I actually had any more stories in me to tell.  Shortly after finishing Hannah’s Rainbow, while my beta-readers were going through it, the comments from one of the women in particular struck me.  She really liked Harry, who is Hannah’s brother.  In the book, Harry and Hannah develop a close friendship once they reach young adulthood, despite not being on good terms when they were children.  They share an understanding of each being in the shadow of an older sibling of the same sex as them, and Harry and Hannah are only two years apart.  Harry’s character has an important role in part of Hannah’s story, but since it is Hannah’s story, as Hannah gets older, Harry is cast to the sidelines.  Although he makes a few appearances later in the book, Hannah now has her own family: a husband and kids, and eventually grandchildren.

pablo (1)But Harry…what was his story?  One of my readers wanted to know more.  Harry is an alcoholic whose actions result in severe consequences for him because of something terrible he does at age 21.  He doesn’t see his family for years.  What happens during that time?  When he returns to his family in Hannah’s Rainbow, he tells them some of what happened, but this was an opportunity for me to really explore Harry’s story.  So a spin-off evolved.  Harry’s story is called A Laughing Matter of Pain, and not only does it explain what happens during his absence from his family, but some of his adolescence is covered, explaining how he becomes the man he is.

I began to write Harry’s story in earnest a year ago (June 2016), but would you believe that about three weeks in, another story idea struck me?  I have Hannah’s Rainbow to sort of thank for it again, but it’s more my husband whom I should thank.  There is a part in Hannah’s Rainbow where Hannah has just moved into a new house and has a young daughter, but her husband has been drafted during World War II.  That part lagged when I was writing, and when talking with my husband, he suggested giving Hannah an eccentric next door neighbor.  We joked about the neighbor being obsessed with rocks and talking about them incessantly (based off someone we know in real life who does this sometimes).  I imagined a young woman moving into a house by herself and having such an odd next door neighbor, but what if, instead of him talking about rocks, his yard is covered in rocks?  Nothing living there as far as plants go.  Why is there nothing living?  He is a widower.  He seems a little crazy.  This young lady is alone.  Why?  I started fleshing out these characters and created Lorna and Tristan for my story, Lorna versus Laura.  I began writing that story in tandem with Harry’s story, and guess what?  Lorna’s story began demanding more of my attention.  Her story just flowed out of me, so Harry’s story took a backseat for a few months while I finished the first draft of Lorna’s story.pablo (3)

I have since finished both Lorna versus Laura and A Laughing Matter of Pain, but they are not yet published.  I am currently working on books four and five, Arianna and Mile Marker 139.  Both of these books were born out of conversations I had with others.  

For Arianna, a good friend and I were discussing telemarketers one day.  We wondered what the job must be like when a customer wants to talk the ear off of the agent who’s calling, or maybe the agent is used to being a type of therapist to lonely customers.  That got me to thinking about using that for a book, but as I fleshed out the story of Arianna, the book became less and less about her new job as a telemarketer and much more about her trying to reinvent herself after her parents’ deaths.  A common theme among my stories has become broken characters who are trying to rebuild their lives and those in their lives who are along for the journey.  Romance is involved, although that is not usually the primary genre of my stories.

milemarkerIn Mile Marker 139, for the title, you can probably guess that this story involves a highway.  Mile marker 139 is a real place along the Ohio Turnpike, and there is a rest area there.  My husband has a fascination with rest areas, thinking that they would be neat places to people watch, to just drive to on some lonely night, sit, and look around.  That conversation about rest areas got the gears in my head turning.  What if there is a mysterious lady who shows up at a rest area every night at the same time?  Most people don’t notice her.  They’re just passing by, but there are people who work at the rest area.  They would see her.  The story revolves around three characters, a janitor, a barista, and a trucker, and how their interactions with this strange woman echo truths in their own lives.  As the story unfolds, the truth about Shelley (the mysterious woman) comes out.

What’s in store beyond that?  Book six will be a modern-day adaptation of Jane Eyre, which is my favorite book.  Book seven will be based off of a recent dream I had about a woman in the early twentieth century who is a writer, but her passion is discouraged because of her sex and her low class association.  

As you can see, my ideas come from all over the place!  I guess I am not the most organized writer in the world, but my chaos somehow works for me.

If you’re a writer and you’re having a hard time finding inspiration, here are my suggestions:


  • Take a walk in the woods
  • People watch
  • Write a short story or even just a page with dialogue between two characters
  • Pretend to interview a character
  • Take an interest of yours and think about how you could make it into a story
  • If you love music, create a soundtrack for a story and go from there
  • Write a poem
  • Just journal about what’s on your mind
  • Read lots of books
  • Get a full night’s sleep and try again tomorrow
  • Invest ten minutes a day to sit down and just write


This list isn’t exhaustive, and I’m sure you can find other suggestions on the net.  There are people who are much more qualified than me to give suggestions on where to find ideas for writing a story, but this is just my little list.  

I’ve shared with you my crazy sources of ideas.  Maybe it helped spark something for you?  Or maybe you’re a writing fool and don’t need my help.  Whatever your situation, I wish you the best in finding inspiration, keeping it, and writing it down.

Like what you’ve read?  Please subscribe to my blog, where I post a new blog at the end of every month and a book review blog the 15th of every month.

Please note: Since the last day of June falls on a Friday, I’m posting this in place of my usual character profile on Friday.

Also, check out my novel, Hannah’s Rainbow: Every Color Beautiful, available FREE on July 1 & 2 or for $2.99 any other time on Amazon: Hannah’s Rainbow: Every Color Beautiful


Here’s the Reality Check For Writers

A Writer's Path

by Doug Lewars

According to Forbes there are between 600 thousand and a million books published each year and roughly half are self-published. The average number of sales per volume is less than 250.

That’s not encouraging.

Of course I have no idea where Forbes came up with these numbers. Still, they tend to be pretty careful about what they publish so let’s assume the numbers are real. Now, if you are capable of writing, editing and publishing say, two books per year, and if you want to earn a conservative income of say, $30,000, then you would need royalties of $60 per volume. Given that publishers rather like taking their cut, your book would probably need to be priced around a hundred dollars. Better make that next book non-fiction.

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Poetry Tuesday – Yesterday’s Ashes

Pictures merely tell the rumor of a half-remembered story,

A book with pages tattered and worn, yellowed with age,

The ink faded and dull, dying to eternity.

Memories fall away like rain dropping down glass,

Fogging the view, warping the truth, and sliding to death.

All is fleeting and passing like a silent train in the night,

But there are no stops but one;

Only the moment of now is the single real thing.

All else is dusty vanity drowning in yesterday’s ashes.



Bizarre Things People Say to Authors

A Writer's Path

by Lev Raphael

Nobody tells you that when you publish a book, it becomes a license for total strangers to say outrageous things to you that you could never imagine saying to anyone.

I’m not just talking about people who’ve actually bought your book. Even people who haven’t read your book feel encouraged to share, in the spirit of helpfulness.

At first, when you’re on tour, it’s surprising, then tiring — but eventually it’s funny, and sometimes it even gives you material for your next book. All the comments on this list have been offered to me or other writer friends in almost exactly these words:

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Excerpt from Arianna

Today I’m sharing with you chapter one of my current work in progress, Arianna:

“Welcome to Jeanine Marcus Salon and Spa.  How may I help you?”

“Oh, my God.  What did you do to your hair, Arianna?”

I looked up from examining my nails, the one on my index finger black and the others blood red.  Being the receptionist at the mall salon was a mostly mindless job, but when I heard her voice, it was like being in high school all over again.  I was the easy girl, the one who slept around and never committed — whether to a boy or anything.  I was dirty and used, a feeling I’d known since I was eight years old.  Squirming in my seat at the old memories, I snapped my mind back to the present moment.

“Mandy Snyder,” I said, trying to keep my face pleasant and my tone professional.

Mandy raised a perfectly-sculpted eyebrow at me.  “I never expected to find you working here.”

I smiled thinly.  “I try to be unpredictable.  Are you here for a root touch up?”

Mandy touched her hair, where the dark brown protested the platinum blonde that trailed halfway down her back — probably extensions.

“No, an eyebrow wax.”  She glared.  “I’m seeing Desmond at 2:00.”

I checked the computer screen and confirmed her appointment.  “Ah, there you are.  Have a seat.  He’ll be right with you.”

“Oh, before I go, I just wanted to say, you know…sorry about your parents.”

As she pivoted and nearly hit me in the face with her faux-hair, I breathed in deeply and exhaled.  She sounded anything about sorry.  I was still reeling, a month later, from the phone call I’d gotten that had changed everything; the plane my parents were on as they were flying back from their twenty-fifth anniversary honeymoon in Europe had crashed somewhere in the Atlantic.  A freak occurrence of engine failure or something equally not understood by me.  The whole thing was something I couldn’t wrap my mind around.  First shock, then gut-wrenching grief, leaving a shell of emptiness in its wake.  And here I was in the company of Mandy Snyder, whose false sincerity was just another reminder that my life was stuck on a downward spiral.

I had the payout from the crash, but what good was money when it couldn’t bring back my parents?

I touched my hair, playing with the ends, knowing my mom would have hated that it was now bright red, like a fire engine.  I’d also gotten two more piercings since their death — one in the le bret and one on my left eyebrow, which mirrored the long-established right eyebrow.

What did girls like Mandy Snyder know, anyway?  I tried not to seethe as Desmond Rousseau — our salon’s resident gay French hairstylist who bragged about his experience working in the Big Apple — came and escorted her back.  Her parents were probably toting the bill every two weeks when she made her visit to the salon.

Last time Mandy had seen me, my hair had been its natural dark brown.  And my parents had been alive.

Not that Mandy had been any nicer toward me then.

I fished my cell phone out of my purse and glanced around the lobby to make sure no one was watching.  I smiled that I had an unread text.  Maybe Brad had finally taken ten seconds to text me.  I opened it, scowling at the twenty percent off reminder from one of the mall’s department stores.  I’d only signed up for the stupid texts to get five percent off a purchase for my mom last Christmas, so feeling done with receiving the store’s reminders, I texted STOP to the number, hoping it would work.

Text OK to confirm that you no longer wish to receive text messages from Quentin Quincy’s, came the auto-reply as my phone pinged.

I groaned and typed a quick OK, only it went through as PK.  My phone alerted me again with the reply: Invalid response.

I growled at the stupid thing.  Not only was my phone my enemy in that moment, but what kind of name was Quentin Quincy’s for a store?  Everyone dubbed it “Double Q” around here, which was just was bad.  The name reeked of a bra size beyond what I could imagine.  Just as I was about to toss the worthless piece of battery-draining tech back into my too-light-on-cash and too-heavy-in-credit-card-debt purse, a cold voice said, “I hope that’s not a phone I see, Arianna.”  Damn you, Brad.  Why couldn’t you have at least been the reason I’m in trouble with my boss?

I stuffed the phone between my thighs and looked directly into the face of my ice queen supervisor, Gwen Hall.  Gwen was one of those women who tried to dress like she was twenty when she was well over forty.  Despite her stick-thin figure and Botox-injected face, she wasn’t fooling me.  Her five-inch heels clicked with the same cold as her voice on the faux-marble flooring as she came to a halt at the desk where I was sitting.  Drumming her freshly-manicured nails on the surface, she raised an eyebrow at me.  

I wanted to tell her where she could shove her plastic ass, but I just painted on a smile worthy of any fake model and said, “No, Gwen.  Of course not.”

“Hmm.”  She withdrew her claw from the desk and glared down at me.  She didn’t need the extra five inches to be intimidating to most people at her five-ten height, but she didn’t scare me.  “Don’t let me see you at it again.  How do you expect to ever finish beauty school and work here if you can’t even do the job you’ve been given?”

She turned away.  I frowned at the back of her inverted-bob, the auburn hue one of our new shades for the fall.  Did she think this was charity, that she was doing me some sort of favor?  I was working here to pay for the exorbitant cost of beauty school.  At least that had been my reason before the payout.

“You’d better stick to it this time, Arianna,” my mom had reminded me on multiple occasions.  “There was that attempt at a veterinary assistant degree, and then you thought you’d try real estate.  How many different majors have you declared?”

I had a measly associate’s of arts degree from Tri-C and little to show for it.  I turned twenty-five last week and was living with my nana now that my parents were gone.  I didn’t want to disappoint my mother, even though she was no longer here to breathe down my neck about my failures.

What I’d give now to feel her breath on my neck, to hear her criticisms.  At the end of the day, I knew she’d only been concerned for me.  She’d seen the way I dressed and had always encouraged my individuality, but I was old enough now to know that I could’ve been a better daughter.

Mandy was back, snapping me out of my thoughts.  She didn’t look any different as she forked over her credit card to pay.

“Do you wish to leave a tip?” I asked.

“Desmond already has it.  You know I always tip in cash.”

“Right.”  After the receipt printed, I asked her to sign.  She practically tossed the pen at me when she finished and turned with a flick of her hair.  “Have a nice day,” I called after her.

She didn’t look back.

x x x

Grateful that evening to be back home, I let down my guard and felt like a little girl in front of my nana.  I’d had enough of being at work and of forcing myself to fit in some sort of mold of happiness when I was anything but.

“Nana, I feel stupid saying it, but it’s just not fair.  Why did they have to die?”

“Where’s this coming from, Ari?  You haven’t so much as spoken about it since it happened.”

“That girl from high school, Mandy-I’m-Better-Than-You-Snyder, came into the salon today.  She said she was sorry about my parents, but she didn’t sound sorry at all.  She’s still got her parents.  What’s she know?”

“My mom lost her parents when she was a bit younger than you and then her brother in the war.  I remember her saying she spent years being angry at God for it and how she hid herself away from others.  You know what she often said her biggest regret was?”

“What’s that?”

“Wasting so many years on bitterness.  It wasn’t until she met my father that she found happiness again.  Of course, it wasn’t easy for either of them.  They had both suffered loss at young ages.”

“He was married before, right?  My great-grandfather?”

“Yes.  He never spoke about his first wife, but what I’m saying, dear, is that you’re still young.  You have your whole life ahead of you. Don’t be like my mother.”

“But you lost your daughter, Nana.  How can you be okay with that?”

“I wouldn’t say I’m okay with it.  I just am more experienced with losing loved ones, Ari.  Not a day goes by where I don’t think of your parents, my dear Sam, or my own parents.”

“I wish I’d known Great-Grandma Lorna.”

“Do you remember the picture?”

“What picture?”

“Give me a minute, dear.  I’ll be right back.”

I watched Nana walk out of the room with as much vigor as someone much younger, even though she had just turned seventy.  She wore her salt and pepper hair in a clip at the base of her neck.  And she was as sharp as a tack.  

She returned with an old, small wooden box, placed it on her dining room table, and beckoned me to join her.  When she opened the box, the faint smell of cigars met my nose.  She withdrew a few old photos, the kind that are black and white.  To me, it’s always been a bit odd to see printed pictures.  Everything’s digital these days.  I’ve got most of my life in photos stored on old CDs, hard drives, and various smart phones…or posted on Facebook.

I sat next to her as she went through the old pictures like a deck of cards.  She finally got to the colored ones, many of which were faded.  When she reached one of the more recent ones, she held it up for me.

“This is you when you were a baby.  It’s a four-generation picture of your great-grandma, me, your mom, and you.”

I held the picture in awe, studying the faces.  Nana was much younger, her hair dark and halfway down her back.  My own mother was right around my age now.  The old lady holding me was beaming and had her eyes on my little face, which was scrunched up, my mouth frozen in a wail.  I flipped the picture over and found the date: August 22, 1992.

“I was only a few of weeks old,” I said.  “I don’t remember ever seeing this picture, Nana.”

She smiled sadly, taking it from me and looking at it.  “It was the only picture of all of us.  Had we known my mother was going to pass the next month, we would’ve taken more.  She was so happy to meet you, Ari.  Her health had always been good.  We thought she had many years left.”

“She looks very happy.  I wish I knew more about my family.  Will you tell me, Nana?”

“Of course.  If you wish, dear.  Why the sudden interest in your heritage?”

“It’s just– Like you said about your mom, and then there’s my parents…here one day and then gone the next.  I took them for granted while they were alive, Nana.  It wasn’t right.  If I’d known–”  I couldn’t keep talking as my throat closed up.  I choked back tears, but it was no use.

My nana put the picture down and pulled me to her.  “We have each other, Ari.  I’ll tell you anything you wish to know about your family, but for now, I’d like you to have this picture.”

I composed myself and broke off the hug, wiping the last of the tears away.  I picked up the photo and held it close, saying, “This was taken in this very room.”

“Ah, so it was.  You know, if you’d like, I have a Bible with the family tree in it.  Perhaps it’s time I passed it on.”

Before I could reply, Nana left me again.  She returned with a familiar Bible.  It was large and heavy, and every Christmas, my papa used to read the story out of Luke about Jesus’s birth.  Nana set the book down on the table with a thud and opened to the back.  She moved her finger along the page, stopping when she reached my parents’ names.

“I guess it’s time I filled this part in,” she said, indicating the space for the date of their deaths.

I swallowed thickly and nodded.  “Yeah, I guess so.”

As Nana wrote in her loopy penmanship “June 15, 2017” in both spots, it was further confirmation that my parents were gone.  She closed the Bible and slid it toward me.  “Maybe you’d like to take a look at it now?”

“Yeah, maybe.”  I slid the picture in between some pages and picked up the tome.  “Thanks, Nana.”  I kissed the top of her head and went upstairs to my room.

I placed the Bible on the vanity and dropped onto the bed, flopping back into the comfort of the musty quilt and pillows.  This room had always been the one I slept in whenever I stayed the night as a kid, and before that, it had belonged to my mom.  Even the quilt had a history in the family, although until now, I’d never cared enough to ask who had made it.  All I knew was it was over a hundred years old and that it smelled funny.  Now, it was like a hug, a part of my mom.

I fell asleep.  When I woke, the sun was much lower in the sky.  I sat up and stretched, automatically reaching for my phone on the nightstand.  I checked my email and deleted a bunch of junk, sighed at no texts, and went on Facebook.  When was Brad going to text?  He was due back from Florida today.  Even out of state, it wasn’t like he couldn’t be bothered to send a ten-second text here and there.  Of course, before my boyfriend left, he’d made promises to be in touch.  Now, all I’d get would be excuses when I would no doubt have to play the nosy girlfriend and press him as to why I hadn’t heard from him.  You’d think two years of dating would mean something.

After a few minutes of reading about my friends’ spectacular lives, from birthday parties I hadn’t been invited to, to a baby born to Anita Johnson — the most popular girl back in high school — I groaned and tossed the phone into the pillows as I stood.  None of those people were really my friends.  When I say “friends,” I mean the Facebook sort.

My gaze fell on the Bible.  The sun was shining on it through a parting in the curtains as I walked to the vanity and took a seat.  Amongst my makeup, ponytail holders, hair products, and beauty magazines, the Bible seemed out of place, a precious relic among cheap junk.  I opened it to the page where I’d placed the picture and smiled at the beginning of the Gospel of Luke.  How appropriate.  I flipped through the pages until I came to the family tree near the end.  My nana, Juliette Blake Stanford, had been born in 1947 to Laura Ashford Blake and Tristan Blake.  

“Laura?” I asked myself.  She’d been Lorna.  That was odd.  One question of many to ask Nana.  My great-grandfather had no parents listed.  Another strange thing.  Hadn’t Nana known any of her grandparents?

I closed the Bible and decided my questions could wait until tomorrow or another day.  Today had been taxing enough.  My stomach growled as my eyes fell on a black three-ring binder filled with papers and a journal next to it.  There would be time for looking at those later.  I left my worries and my family history for now and joined Nana in the kitchen to make dinner.

Like what you’ve read?  Please subscribe to my blog, where I post an excerpt from one of my stories every Saturday.

Also, check out my novel, Hannah’s Rainbow: Every Color Beautiful, available for only $2.99 on Amazon: Hannah’s Rainbow: Every Color Beautiful