Plucked From the Ether

Zoë Sharp

“Where do you get your ideas?”

It’s a question that crops up at almost every reader event I do as an author, in one form or another.

Interestingly enough, I don’t hear it quite so much at events where there are a lot of would-be writers. Maybe that’s because all writers feel they should know where to get their ideas, and admitting that sometimes the store cupboard runs a little bare is akin to an admission of failure.

I’ve heard all kinds of answers from authors, too, varying from “” to “Walmart”, and although these may sound unduly flippant, probably the truth is that most writers don’t actually know, and they’re worried that if they try to analyse it too much, the magic will somehow disappear. Ideas just … arrive. It’s like trying to remember an obscure fact that you know is tucked away somewhere in a recess of your memory. You try and avoid thinking about it, and suddenly up it pops, but you’ve no clue how it got there.

For me, ideas really are a state of mind.

At the library event I did last week I used my New Car analogy when it came to where ideas come from, and received a few puzzled looks until I expanded on this theory.

So you decide you’re going to buy a new car – doesn’t have to be new new, just new to you. And as soon as you’re behind the wheel suddenly it seems that everyone on the road is driving the same kind of car, possibly even in the very same colour. You see them everywhere. This doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s been a rush on that particular model. In fact, I’d hazard a guess that they were probably always out there. It was simply that you didn’t notice them before.

Your eyes may have been open, but your mind wasn’t.

It’s exactly the same with being a writer and having ideas for stories. They’re out there. All the time. They’re floating in the ether, whispering at you from magazines, newspapers, the radio, TV, and the internet. It’s a babble of voices that sometimes makes it hard to hear when people speak, and explains the distracted frown that writers tend to wear a lot of the time. It’s the reason we wake in the night and scrabble for pen and paper from the bedside table, or seriously consider hanging a Chinagraph pencil in the shower so you can scribble vital notes on the glass screen without having to get out first.

Our brains are being constantly bombarded with sensory information and most people learn to filter out the background chatter to avoid being completely overwhelmed. Writers lack part of that filtering system, I think. We get everything, good and bad, the nuggets and the spoil.

The difficult part is working out which is which and turning it into something coherent.

Mind you, right from the moment Charlie Fox arrived in my mind, I knew I’d be a fool to ignore her. Besides anything else, she probably would have broken my arms and legs if I’d tried. 

When I look back at the books I’ve written so far in the series, the strongest are always the ones that sprang from the simplest ideas. I also like to turn things around on people, so that what they expect is not always what they get. Hence writing about Northern Ireland without paramilitary action, and taking a very different slant on a California cult.

For her latest outing, FIFTH VICTIM, the story kicked off with the idea of loss, and what that means to different people. How you don’t appreciate what you have until you’re faced with losing everything, and the effect that has on Charlie and on the people she’s tasked to protect. Who has the most to lose, I wondered? The people who apparently have it all.

If I’m honest I have to say I don’t know where the initial idea came from. It floated past me one day and I was lucky enough to grab it and hold on tight.

But once I’d got my grubby little mitts on it, I nailed it down and started to play with it – although not in a nasty serial-killer kind of way … I simply wrote down each development as it occurred to me, and then played the ‘what if’ game, jotting down all kinds of possible outcomes and scenarios until eventually the whole thing more or less came together.

So, ‘Rati, where do YOU get your ideas? And what’s the best basic idea for a book or movie you’ve come across? Note I said  ‘idea’ – the execution didn’t have to live up to the premise. Although, if it didn’t why not?

I’ve been lucky enough to have been invited to contribute to some great blogs over the past week. Hope you’ll take the time to check them out, if you feel so inclined:

Elizabeth A White’s blog

FIFTH VICTIM pg 69 test

Writers Read

And My Book, The Movie

This week’s Word of the Week is chorizont, or chorizonist, meaning a person who disputes the identity of authorship, especially one who ascribes the Iliad and Odyssey to different authors. From the Greek chorizon, separating.

Next Tuesday is my Wildcard day. I was lucky enough to catch up with the highly acclaimed Timothy Hallinan to talk about the e-book publication of the latest in his Simeon Grist mystery series. Don’t miss it!

27 thoughts on “Plucked From the Ether

  1. Alan Tucker

    So true, Zoe! Personally, I love watching the Science channel and Animal Planet. Those types of things seem to really get my mind flowing and thinking about what is possible. Great post!

  2. Sarah W

    Most writers I know have subconscious minds like magpies, gathering any bit of information that catches their attention, rattling it to see what noise it makes and opening it up to pull out the stuffing, and shoving it against other hoarded bits to see how they’ll fit.

    Pair this with imaginations that are completely incapable of looking at a person or situation or even an abandoned sock lying on the ground without asking, “What if . . .?” and one realizes that *finding* ideas isn’t the amazing part.

    The amazing thing is that anyone equipped like this can manage to focus on a *single* idea long enough to get a whole book prepped and written and polished and *done.*

  3. Schwartz, Stephen Jay

    This is funny because, right after I was first published, Brett Battles told me that the most common question I would hear at conference panels was, "Where do your ideas come from?" This was his first question to me at my book launch, and now it's kind-of an inside joke between us. I usually start things off at his launches with the same question.
    I love your new car analogy. That's the best. All my past answers pale by comparison.
    I agree that the ideas are all around us. The problem I have is that when I get an idea I want to drop everything I'm doing and follow it to the end. This doesn't bode well when you have other obligations in your day. Therefore, I tend to put a wall between myself and these new ideas until I'm in a place where I can fully explore them. Which ain't a good thing, because then I'm sitting around at a cafe, waiting for an idea to appear.

  4. Lisa Alber

    I'm amazed by writer friends who say they have millions of ideas, and every day more new story ideas. I wonder where ideas come from for the prolific types because, frankly, my idea cup does not overrunneth. That said, when something does strike me, I'm amazed at how good it feels–the spark. The oh yeah yeah yeah, let me write that down. (Last night, a snippet from the 11:00 news sparked me.)

    I have an idea basket. Literally, a pretty red-woven basket that sits on my desk. Whenever something sparks, I write it down and throw it in the basket. Even if I never use it, I've at least acknowledged it. Feels like I'm keeping the creative causeways open that way.

  5. Tammy Cravit

    I've made the joke before that it's a good thing I became a writer, because the only other thing that my talent for retaining random scraps of interesting information would be good for is playing Trivial Pursuit, and there's no good way to make a career of that.

    For me, the ideas that tend to stick in my head are those that revolve around what it is that makes ordinary people do extraordinary things, heroic or dastardly. Every serial killer was a kid once, and it's not hard to imagine Ted Bundy sitting in a geography class in some school in Philadelphia. One wonders what he was daydreaming about. Likewise, I find it fascinating to ponder what it is that makes ordinary people choose to become cops, soldiers, firefighters. What makes a suburban housewife from Cleveland rush into a burning building, at the risk of her own safety, to save a child she doesn't even know? I'm intensely fascinated by what drives our behavior, and it's in these extremes where I think behavior becomes the most interesting.

    I've experienced the problem Stephen described, and because I have some ADD-ish tendencies, it can be a problem. I have a "notebook" in Evernote ( – a terrific tool, BTW) for story ideas. When I think of something that I just must pursue, I allocate myself 5 minutes (with a timer) to capture a few paragraphs with enough context around the idea to allow me to trust that I won't forget it later. That done, I can put it aside and get back to work.

    While writing this comment, I've been pondering your story about the inspiration for Fifth Victim, Zoë. I find myself wondering about the relative psychological impact of loss on the wealthy vs. those who aren't, and how one thing that rich and poor may have in common is the depth to which they're willing to go to protect the people and things that matter to them. In my mind, I'm juxtaposing Charlie's clients with the Burke character in Andrew Vachss's novels, in this regard.

  6. David Corbett

    I apparently lack the gene for "high concept" ideas, and I tend not to like them very much, but the new NBC series AWAKE is based on a curious premise and I find myself really drawn in by it — so far. A police detective (the great Jason Isaacs) suffers a terrible car crash involving both his wife and his son. When he wakes up, the son is dead. But when he falls asleep and wakes up again, it's his wife who's dead. He shifts between these two irreconcilable but strangely linked realities day after day — with different shrinks trying to help him out in each reality. How the showrunner came up with this idea is beyond me, but it's weirdly compelling.

    I'm more inspired by setting and character, which is how I think another great TV show, LUCK, evolved. It takes place at the Santa Anita racetrack, and follows the lives of trainers, jockeys, owners, agents, gamblers high and low, con men, even a do-gooder played by Joan Allen who's riveting in the part.

    So a show like LUCK feels more natural to me. I usually start with a place, a situation, a problem, then ask myself who populates that world, and write from there.

  7. Allison Davis

    I want one of those chinawhachamacallits for the shower. Brilliant.

    My latest manuscript idea came from a photo in the NYT of a young latina woman in full army gear standing next to a tank, and I wondered what would happen when she came home. So I guess that is chacter driven, even though the idea came from the media. Part of the idea for the book came from seeing the laborers waiting on the corners in the Mission for day jobs, and how vulnerable they are. And part came from my desire to tell a certain story or give a certain viewpoint on current events, and this protagonist was perfect for that. So for me, I get a theme, and then other things begin to appear and attach to that theme, not unlike your "car" analogy. Once I begin to focus, the story comes into view.

    Although I let the second manuscript rest when this one character kept appearing and upstaging my protagonist who was rather a weakly formed character anyway — so the subconscious does some work there, too. I didn't want to write about an old white man in the 1950's, at least not yet so i put the book down because he wouldn't go away. I'll have to get back to that at some point. I liked the guy, don't get me wrong, I just didn't want to write it now.

  8. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Stephen
    Actually, I think the best answer to the question “Where do your ideas come from?” is “I get them from the people I keep in my basement …” Only trouble is, people don’t tend to stick around long enough to buy any books 🙂

  9. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Lisa
    I love the idea of your idea basket. I also make notes to myself, but sometimes, alas, they are so cryptic that when I find them again I’ve no idea what they meant!

  10. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Tammy
    I love triva, but am hopeless at trivial pursuit. I know I’d be crap at game shows because my brain freezes when I’m asked to recall some vital fact on demand.

    “Every serial killer was a kid once, and it's not hard to imagine Ted Bundy sitting in a geography class in some school in Philadelphia. One wonders what he was daydreaming about.”

    I’d hazard a guess that he was imagining the duct tape over the teacher’s mouth …

    Interesting point about FIFTH VICTIM, too. Thank you for that 🙂

  11. Zoë Sharp

    Hi David
    Actually, both those TV shows sound well worth checking out. Because we don’t have TV as such – just a TV set connected to a DVD player – I wait for recommendations and then just buy the box set. Hmm …

    Still, I’ve read a few novels that had a wonderful premise, badly executed, that made it to publication when it strikes me that a lesser premise, brilliantly done, might not have made the cut. Sad really, isn’t it?

  12. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Allison
    Photographs are amazing for sparking ideas. I often look at old photos and world-build around them.

    And it can be very exciting when a character arrives and takes over … but annoying at the same time. I’ve had minor characters totally rewrite their part when I wasn’t looking. Sometimes you have to let them take the stage to see what happens, and sometimes you have to duct tape them and throw them in the metaphorical trunk of your car for later.

    Ah, that’s just me then?

  13. jenny milchman

    The ether is a good metaphor for it. I always say that my ideas come from those "there but for the grace go I" moments. The thin line between what you want and what you fear most.

  14. Pari Noskin

    I get my ideas most easily when I'm not looking for them, when I'm taking walks or driving somewhere or in the shower. It's remembering them that becomes the challenge then, because when I'm in that state of mind the ideas come quickly and it's all I can to do capture one or two.

  15. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Pari
    Looks like all authors should have a chinagraph pencil for their shower stall. And yes, writing them down in such a way that they make sense later is often the problem …

  16. Marina Sofia

    I loved your explanation of 'the distracted frown that writers tend to wear a lot of the time'. I get so distracted sometimes trying to remember an idea or a happy turn of phrase while driving or cooking, that I try to repeat it over and over again in my head until I can safely write it down. My children have got used to me suddenly replying to their 'What is there for dinner?' question with 'The corpse is in the river.' I think they are busy making up a story about that…

  17. Joe Moore

    Zoe, I seem to get a lot of ideas and/or solutions to plotting problems in the shower. Perhaps it’s because showering is a mindless, daily task, so the brain can truly wander without having to concentrate on the task itself.

    Best idea I ever heard: a serial killer ravaging a small coastal New England tourist town. Oh, and by the way, the serial killer was a great white shark.

  18. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Marina
    The time to worry is if you say, "The corpse is in the river," to your kids and they respond with, "No, Mom, it's in the back yard …"

  19. Reine

    Hey Zoë- love this topic. I usually just start writing. This was a huge break for me the first time I tried it. Was actually an assignment in one of my psychology classes. We had to keep five dialogue journals going simultaneously by five "characters" with ourself: 1. Self/ Inner Spirit; 2. Self/Outer Spirit; 3. Self/Counselor; 4. Self/Professor; 5. Self/Significant Other. A few substitutions were allowed. No one wanted to do it. We didn't see how we could do it. The professor, a Jungian feminist analyst, said that we needed to trust that something to say was available to us. We would not pass the course if we didn't do it– didn't hand in a minimum of 10pp per week. So guess what. We all did it. Writing was changed forever – for all of us, I think.

  20. Reine

    Now I use more structure, but it seems more automatic. I can see where the outline is, but it isn't always planned. Ive only recently given outlining a try. Sometimes it is a fantastic help, and other times it seems to get in the way and stop my thinking. But drivel can happen easily without some idea of where I'm going. It was easier when I could use my keyboard or paper and pencil all the time, as much as I wanted. I've been learning lately how much I rely on the visual feedback when writing, since I've been using audio more and more. I'm finding that harder for some reason.

  21. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Reine

    I tend to rough out a scene in note form before I start, and I've found that helps. I outline, but accept that it's for information only and not set in stone!

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