The Germ of an Idea

By Louise                              


Every writer has a different approach to beginning a book. But there’s one thing that we all have in common: the germ of an idea.

It might be an image of a character that takes hold in your mind. Someone you’ve never met but you want to spend time with. Maybe it’s her ruptured sense of loyalty that intrigues you. Maybe it’s the chewed down fingernails and the skunk-white stripe in her red hair. For some reason, your character is the germ of the idea, the thing around which everything else in the novel will revolve.

Colin Cotterill’s’s work feels this way to me. I’ll bet he started with the character of Laotian Coroner Dr. Siri Paiboun, and took it from there.

Maybe the idea includes a situation or a job (like Cotterill’s coroner.) I wonder if Chris Grabenstein started out with the notion of two cops who worked at a Jersey shore amusement park, and then built a whole world around those rides.

I started Forcing Amaryllis with the idea of writing about a jury consultant because I’d been fascinated by the field since the days of the O.J. Simpson trial. In literature and in film, jury consultants have been portrayed as a combination of P.T. Barnum and Pavlov, with a little David Ogilvy and Satan thrown in for good measure. I wanted to create one who still had scruples.

The germ of an idea can come from anywhere.

Those tiny newspaper crime report summaries can be gems for starter ideas.  Like this one, from last October’s Oakland paper:

Starting Wednesday night, the sound of gunfire will become a criminal’s worst enemy, according to the Oakland Police Department. That’s because they’re now able to listen for gunshots through a network of sensors and high-tech computers piped directly into police headquarters. The system is called Shot Spotter. It uses a Global Positioning System to pinpoint the source of the gunfire.”

Ooh. Now that could be interesting.

The internet is also a wonderful source of unexpected plots. I was recently trolling through the ozone and came across these sad, lonely lines:

“Subject: I can’t find my daughter

I left Chicago in June of 1998 to come here to Tampa to live. My daughter got caught up in the streets of Chicago and I could not find her. Because I had already gotten the job in Tampa, I was forced to leave without her and I have not seen nor heard from her since. I really miss her and pray for her. I spent $100 on a finding company to find her, all to no avail. Her birth date is 7/30/83 and her name is Martha LuAnne Johnson. If you see her, please tell her I love her and contact me. Thanks for listening. I am now 54 years old, but seeing her would be the high point of my fast fading life.”

I can’t get this woman and her lost fifteen-year old out of my head. Did the girl just step away to get some gum and her mother boarded the bus without her? Was the child caught up in a gang or a romance and ran away to avoid a move to Florida? Somehow … someday … I’m going to write their story.

That germ of an idea is what Stephen King describes as the “what if?” What if vampires invaded a small New England village? (King’s Salem’s Lot) What if you lost your hand and had a new one grafted on, but the widow of the donor wanted visitation rights?  (John Irving’s The Fourth Hand) What if you got away with a crime seven years ago, but your partner is out of jail now and looking for you? (Marcus Sakey’s The Blade Itself) What if you just met this woman in a bar and the first words out of her mouth are “I just poisoned your drink?” (Duane Swierczynski’s The Blonde)

The “what ifs” can go some crazy places. If you’re a writer, they’re the things that keep your friends worrying about your sanity.

But here’s the dilemma: how do you know when that germ of an idea isn’t germinating? How do you know if it’s a big enough idea to support a hundred thousand words and a year of your life?

Can you recognize that an idea only has legs long enough for a short story? Or maybe a subplot? And dear Dog, have you ever walked away from an idea a hundred pages into the book saying, “There’s not enough here?”

So that’s my question for writers out there today. Have you ever stopped writing a book halfway through? How did you know that it wasn’t a book-worthy idea?

And for all of us mystery aficionados, have you ever read a book that made you think, “Damn, she’s stretched this measly little idea out so far it’s gonna snap like a bad bungee cord?”

Do tell.




PS: Check out the International Thriller Writers’ launch of its “Brunch & Bullets” luncheon series, debuting Saturday, March 17 at the Renaissance Hollywood Hotel in Hollywood, California. A second luncheon is slated for May 5 in Greenwich, Connecticut. For more information, go to

29 thoughts on “The Germ of an Idea

  1. Guyot

    What if… Louise was fooled by another internet urban legend?

    I find this story a little tough to swallow, mainly because of this statement:

    “Because I had already gotten the job in Tampa, I was forced to leave without her and I have not seen nor heard from her since.”

    See, any parent, ANY parent who gives only half a shit about their child would never have left. Ever. At all. No way. Impossible.

    Maybe a drug-addicted parent, or a parent who, for whatever unholy reason, didn’t care, but any other parent – no way.

    I’d check Snopes on this one.

    As to the writing question, my infamous (or is it notorious) attempts at a novel over the past three years were all halted anywhere from 30 to 60 pages into the writing because I realized I had no story.

    I might have had a setup (I’ve had some great setups!), or a character, or some cool scenes, but no story. “What if” does not work for novels or screenplays all the time. Meaning, a “What if” might be great for a short story or possibly even a novella, but not necessarily a full length novel, or 110 page screenplay.

    I think a lot of writers hit walls, and struggle and beat themselves up for pages and pages because they started typing too early.

    They got an image or a germ and just went, instead of letting it simmer, letting mature, and grow – to see if in fact it was an idea worthy of 90,000 words, as opposed to 3500.

  2. billie

    Great post – love thinking about the germs. 🙂

    In a way, I did what you ask – after not writing for 3 years during the time my two children were born, the pent-up germs came out like a geyser. And I wrote a gigantic novel using all of them. It was all over the place and had too many characters, too many subplots.

    I guess I just needed to get it all on the page – once I did, I realized it wasn’t a novel, it was a repository. And I went back in, plucked out one section that turned into my first novel, and focused on that. Later I went back and grabbed a few passages and a character and the second novel grew from those. The current wip stemmed more from the first novel – but recently I realized I’d made a mistake with a main character and guess where his replacement came from? That first big blob of a thing that I still have on my hard drive. 🙂

    I think I’ve plumbed all I can from it, but we’ll see!

    Sometimes I think the germ takes us to a place we initially *think* is the destination – but in reality that place is just a stepping stone to the real gold mine. I try to trust the mis-steps and keep moving w/o being tempted by short-cuts. Hope this makes sense – it feels a bit scattered as I’m typing it out.


  3. Mike MacLean

    Recently, I stopped 60 pages into a book. I thought the idea was fine—a pretty good “what if?” It just wasn’t my idea to write. I couldn’t connect myself to it, no matter how hard I tried.

  4. Louise Ure

    Oh Guyot, you cynic. Or you rosy-lipped optimist, assuming the best of humanity. Check out Laura Lippman’s blog from last Friday ( for a frightening story of child abandonment.

    But it’s interesting that both you and Mike seem to be able to differentiate the “who cares” from the “what ifs.” To know when an idea is irrelevant, or too small, or not the right thing to write about.

    Billie seems to fall in the other camp. Include it all, and sort it out later.

    Like you Billie, I’m always using some random scene or character or thought from an earlier piece of writing, and that’s a good lesson. Never get rid of anything. It will always come in handy at some point.

  5. billie

    “I think a lot of writers hit walls, and struggle and beat themselves up for pages and pages because they started typing too early.

    They got an image or a germ and just went, instead of letting it simmer, letting mature, and grow – to see if in fact it was an idea worthy of 90,000 words, as opposed to 3500.”

    This from Guyot resonates – it’s just that I seem to have to get the germs onto paper in some form and then let them simmer there until I know where to go with them.

    I have a collection of those black Moleskine blank books crammed with various notes and ideas and germs and quotes. Often I write something down with no clear idea why or how I will ever use it, and then much later, will come onto a place in the book where I need something – and I find it in the Moleskines.

    In any case, I completely admire the ability to write a decent way into any project and then realize it isn’t connecting. Saves a lot of misery later, I suspect.


  6. pari

    I started one novel, wrote 150 pages and realized the “what if” bored me. Bad sign.

    Good rule:If your own work bores you, chuck it.

    That’s what I did. I don’t even remember the “what if” from that one now.

  7. JT Ellison

    It’s an excellent question, Louise. I have a pretty good sense for what can be a novel and what’s more suited to shorts. Though I have 2 shorts that I’m working on now that might get legs. I’d rather get the germ down on paper, set it aside and see if it’s worthwhile.

    I think it was Stephen King who said he doesn’t write down the germs. If they’re good enough, they’ll stay with him and he can write the story. If they are too flimsy, they’ll fade away. I’ve had that happen and I think it’s accurate.

    Plus, there are plenty of germ that aren’t appropriate for my series, and those get funneled into shorts as well.

  8. AlnAndrsn

    I think it’s great the author of the missing/lost daughter post included the fact that this woman spent all of $100 trying to find her daughter. Ah…the sacrifices we parents make.

    If this story is true, I can assure you this…ain’t no way in hell this girl is living with the name “Martha LuAnne”.

  9. Alex Sokoloff

    I always write whole long outlines so at least I know theoretically that there’s a story there. That doesn’t mean I’m always able to take it to the end for whatever reason (I guess usually in my case a paying project took precedence) but *theoretically* I could.

    But maybe I’ll be able to take that unfinished story to the end eventually, so I never throw anything away, either. Whether I’ll be able to FIND it again is a whole other story.

  10. Louise Ure

    Billie, like you, I admire the guys who can recognize when an idea isn’t working. (I aspire to be one of them!)

    Alexand JT seem to have the same skill, but for different reasons. Alex because she can outline the whole plot and see if it has enough legs. (I can outline, but when I’m done, I can’t write the book. I’ve lost interest.)

    JT because she can recognize when the germ of an idea works for her current series or should be saved for something else.

    I learn something from you guys every day.

  11. Louise Ure

    Alan, your reaction to the $100 hunt was the same as my initial response. But my guess is that $100 bucks was pretty important to this woman. She didn’t sound completely literate in her post (I edited out a bunch of bad grammar) and she referred to a private detective’s inquiry as a “finding company.” But maybe that was one of those internet search things.

    And yep, I’ll bet that by now she’s no longer Martha LuAnne. More likely Sweet Thing or Brandi.

  12. Stacey Cochran

    To date, I’ve never abandoned a novel after more than about 20,000 words. I’m working on #10 as we speak, and I doubt every day that it will get published.

    I think I complete it anyway, out of some sense of hope that maybe it will get published, but mostly because of stubborn self-discipline. I believe (rather perversely) that no matter whether I write 20 novels that never find a publisher, this is simply what writers do.

    We start a novel. We work on it for a year. And then we finish it. No matter what.


  13. Elaine Flinn

    What? The ‘mother’ couldn’t call her new employer and tell them she had to find her daughter first? And since 1998??? She never found time to go back to look for her? Sounds like a scam set-up for ‘volunteer contributions’ to supposedly pay for a P.I. – or whatever.

    Oh…I almost forgot the subject here. The ‘what if’ thing. I use it – but to decide which antiques item to set my story around. Maybe it’s easier with a series when you have a cast of characters in place and a somewhat permanent locale.

  14. Elaine Flinn

    “And for all of us mystery aficionados, have you ever read a book that made you think, “Damn, she’s stretched this measly little idea out so far it’s gonna snap like a bad bungee cord?” “

    To your question: Yeah – far too many. :)And a few of my own ideas as well…which are hidden away -never to see the light of day. 🙂

  15. simon

    I tend to pick up story germs (a terrible disease) from newspapers and things. Accidents Waiting to Happen came from a TV news clip. A couple of my (as yet unpublished) books came from news stories. Truth is stranger than fiction and makes it so easy for me.


  16. Alex Sokoloff

    You know, there’s a whole other aspect to this idea of whether an idea is worth pursuing to the end, and maybe I should just blog about it myself because it is so crassly Hollywood – but what I’m talking about is High Concept.

    I think that before you start writing it’s pretty important to come up with not just one novel premise, but TEN. And then pick one not only that you’re passionate about, but that turns OTHER people on as well, so you’ve got even a minimum chance of selling it to a wider market.

    Not that the more obscure ideas aren’t worth pursuing, but I think a lot of the time authors don’t put enough thought into the actual premise, and whether it’s an idea that will make a READER pick up the book to begin with. Because if you don’t have that, well… what’s the point, exactly?

  17. Tom, T.O.

    No.No.I’m going to the ITW luncheon. (I’ll pay any amount for a free book!)(I was going to have a longer response, but realized there was nothing there to stretch.)

  18. Louise Ure

    Hi Stacey,

    You already know how much I admire your perseverance. And I know that each book you write gets better and better. You’re already a better writer than I am, because you can recognize that “drop it” point in less than 20,000 words. It takes me much, much longer than that.

    And Elaine, you’re right. The “what if” in a series is different than other story ideas — maybe even harder. Becuase it not only has to be an idea that intrigues you, but is also true to the character and back story you’ve already written.

    And yeah, this mother-looking-for-daughter could be a scam, although she never asked for money. Funny you mention the employer, though. The job she got was at the university in Tampa. I redacted that from the original message. They would have understood, don’t you think?

  19. Louise Ure

    Oy, Simon, you nailed it with that “truth is stranger than fiction” line. What do you think would have happened if we’d written about a female astronaut who travels cross country in diapers to kill her romantic rival? There would be Elmore Leonard comparisons all over the place. Hey, wait a minute … that may not be all bad.

    And Alex, yes, please do blog about “High Concept.” It’s something I’ve never understood. And while I hate the notion of “writing to an audience” rather than for ourselves, I’d still like to know more about it.

  20. Sharon Wheeler

    I’m always interested to hear what sparks writers off. And heck, yes, I can think of plenty of one-trick ponies out there. No names, no pack drill . . .

  21. patty smiley

    Paul said: I think a lot of writers hit walls, and struggle and beat themselves up for pages and pages because they started typing too early.

    Yup, I couldn’t agree more.

  22. Louise Ure

    I’m with you, Shaz. And you can see the gleam in their little beady eyes when a really good idea hits.

    Hi Patty! I agree with you and Guyot about “typing too early.” Unfortunately, I haven’t eradicated the disease yet.

  23. toni mcgee causey

    The ideas that really intrigue me and carry me for a whole work (novel or screenplay) have always been “why?” questions more than “what if?” — Maybe I’m just phrasing the same sort of thing from a different angle, though. I dunno, I never can seem to contract an idea down into a “what if?”

    I’ll be interested in that high concept one, Alex, though I have a lot of disagreement with Hwd over whether or not those really work, or if the success ultimately ends up being a self-fulfilling prophesy… the execs think something’s a big money-making high-concept idea because they can pitch it easily so it gets picked as the idea to pitch to the big stars, who are primarily only seeing high-concept stuff because it’s easier to pitch, so that’s what they choose and because they’re big stars, people recognize them and go to the opening weekend, thus making the ‘high concept’ idea a success. I think there are plenty of high-concept failures out there–we just tend to remember the big successes.

    Of course, I just may be cranky right now.

  24. Louise Ure

    Toni, when I think about the crime fiction I really love, they’re often the books that ask why. Maybe that’s literature’s version of high concept. Wouldn’t that be grand?

    And yes, welcome home from all your travels Simon! I’ll be out to see you and Steve Hockensmith and Tim Maleeny at the signing at Stacey’s (SF,CA) on the 27th!


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