Where do you get your ideas? And other stupid questions . . .

I sat down to write this blog while my kids colored in my office after dinner. I procrastinated because I had no idea what to write. I had an idea earlier this week, but it disappeared. It wasn't any good (at least, that's what I tell myself when I lose and idea.)

I walked away from the computer for awhile–watched tv with the kids, read to them, put them to bed, worked on page proofs for awhile, then picked up my oldest daughter who'd gone to Arco Arena to watch the Division I basketball sectional championships with her team. (Brag moment: Said Daughter's team won the varsity girls sections, Div V, last night–and the boys team won their sections, too. Yeah!)

When I returned, I rotated the laundry, checked the doors, and made myself a margarita–after all, it was nearly midnight and I was wired on caffeine consumed earlier that evening. I wanted to finish the chapter I was on of my proofs and go to bed . . . I knew I'd lose an hour of sleep because of that damn daylight savings time. As I was running the lime on the rim of my glass, I heard the cat playing with a toy behind the table. I was actually kind of happy about it, because he's getting old and lazy. Then I heard this horrendous squeal and I thought, Oh, f*&#, Toulouse got a rat.

But it didn't sound like a rat.

I run down the hall to get my husband to put the poor rodent out of its misery. He flips on all the lights and discovers it's a baby bunny. It's not moving, but after I get a bucket and a rag he announces that it's not dead, it might be injured, but he thinks it's just scared (no shit) so he takes it out behind my office where I see the jackrabbits all the time and leaves it in the tall grass–with the rag covering it like a blanket because it's cold out. (We live in the country on a couple acres.)

I'm thinking, Thank God the little kids weren't awake to see it. It reminded us of the time our other cat, Neelix, brought us a dead bunny . . . on Easter morning. (And you thought Toni had all the fun!) We found it before the kids.

So I pour my margarita, chat with my husband who'd returned only five minutes before the bunny-meets-cat incident, learn he won not one but TWO guns at the NRA dinner, and then proceed to my office for an hour or two of proofs. 

Decide to check my email and see that Typepad is open and think, I almost forgot. Again. JT is going to kill me.

I put my hands on the keyboard and realized I had nothing to say.

I turned around, stared at my bookshelves, hoping inspiration would strike.

And remembered that Tess Gerritsen touched upon this last November in her post Curiosity and the Writer when she said:

"When story ideas come to me, it's seldom because I actively went looking for them.  More often, they arise out of some interest that's completely separate from my job as a writer."

When you're actively looking for a story idea, it does not come. Believe me, I'm the poster child of looking for inspiration.

But this reminded me that the number one question I get from readers is: Where do you get your ideas?

I hate that question.

Except now, because I suddenly have an idea. 

Perhaps I'm a bit harsh in the title to state that asking someone where they get their ideas is stupid. I suppose that it's an offshoot of what you ask someone when you don't know anything about their career.

Except, I kind of put it up there with the stupid questions cops get. A friend of mine said that more than once he's been asked, "Have you ever had to shoot someone?"

I can't say where my ideas come from specifically. And it kind of pains me to have to think about it, because depending on my mood or the day of the week, I'll have a different answer. I can say where details come from, however.

I used to write at a specific Starbucks in Elk Grove because it had a back room. I liked it because foot traffic didn't distract me. They played the music loud (this was before I had an iPod) and I had a great spot to write–in the corner where no one could come up behind me. 

The first sign that the new manager was going to be a problem was when the volume of the music dropped. I can't write with soft music. Either no music or loud, but if it's soft I find myself straining to hear, which is distracting. Then she rearranged the tables in the back room. If that wasn't annoying enough, when I finally got comfortable in a new spot, she rearranged them again

But the final straw wasn't really her fault. This particular Starbucks became the meeting ground for couples who were taking their internet relationship to the next level. Yep, the address must have been in the top ten of the Match.com safe list, because practically overnight my favorite writing spot was overrun with "
first meets."

As a writer, this was hugely distracting.

Perhaps if the music was turned up to a decent volume, it wouldn't have bothered me. But I was straining to listen to conversations, and worse, my eyes would glance up to observe body language. I could tell instantly if it was a mutual attraction (never saw one) or if one party liked the other, but it wasn't mutual (common) or if they both didn't like each other (majority.) 

But the verdict after about two weeks? I couldn't write at that Starbucks anymore. I went to Panera Bread–which had it's pros and cons–before finding what I call my "favorite" Starbucks 🙂

But I got to thinking about how safe it is to meet up with someone online. The safety rules suggest to meet in a public place, bring someone with you, etc. Makes sense. My cousin met someone through an online group of people who had the same interest. They ended up getting married and have a daughter and are past their 10 year anniversary. My personal trainer met his girlfriend of more than a year online. And they're both normal. (Well, he likes to torture people in the name of fitness, but some people consider that normal.) So obviously this works for people.

Yet . . . because my mind is wired this way . . . I tried to think of all the nefarious possibilities. And I realized that if you meet someone you've met online, you assume that they are honest. Or, if they've lied, it's about their weight, or their age, or the photoshopped their picture . . . or used one ten years old.

What if they used a different picture? What if they pretended to be someone they weren't? Like a 19 year old college student?

And suddenly I had the solution to a plot problem. I hadn't been able to get it straight in my head how someone as smart as Lucy Kincaid, in a family full of cops, could have put herself in a position to get kidnapped. But if the kidnapper knew what she looked like . . . but she didn't know what he looked like . . . he could grab her before she ever got into Starbucks.

All that happened before Chapter One of FEAR NO EVIL . . . but I had to have it worked out in my head before I could write the book. Because it was the first plot critical point.

But in all honesty, people don't want that answer. They want a bigger answer. The reason behind a small plot point, not matter how critical, doesn't matter. They want to hear that we're born with a special gene and the ideas "just come to us" or that we have a repository of ideas on a password-protected website.

How I came up with the Prison Break trilogy idea (earthquake under San Quentin) was even longer and more convoluted than the initial set-up for FEAR. I realized after I told that story a couple times that no one cared about the ten little steps that led me to the premise. It was too much.

But ultimately, that's how I get most of my ideas. I read this, that, and the other thing and two weeks later a friend calls out of the blue and says something odd and LIGHTBULB! I have a premise. Or a turning point.

I'll admit, the big ideas aren't my problem. Meaning, I can come up with the overarching story idea pretty quick. But it's all the little details that make it work–the who, the what, the why, the how–and if I don't have those, the story ain't going anywhere.

The other stupid question I get ALL the time, my husband gets even more than I do: "So, do you research (nudge) the romance (wink)?"

Of course I do, dipshit, just like I research the murders. Want to help? I need to know how long it takes to die if you're injected with blood thinners and subjected to a hundred shallow incisions.

And then there's the, "How much do they pay you for a book?"

I just stare. I want to say, "Are you seriously asking me how much money I make? Would you ask a brain surgeon? A trial lawyer? A plumber?"

Instead, I'm polite (because it's usually a reporter) and I say, "Eight percent." If they persist, I go into painstaking detail about contracts.

My husband was confronted by a former colleague who'd read THE HUNT. He asked, "Aren't you worried about Allison?"

Dan, befuddled, asked, "Why?"

"Well, her books are very violent."

My husband is pretty good on his feet. Better than me, for sure. He responded, "Actually, I am kind of worried. She cut off the dick of a guy in her last book."

And the reader who asked, "How can you write such violent stories? You're a mother!" (This, specifically, was in response to what happened to Lucy Kincaid in FEAR NO EVIL.)

Why are people so worried about the violence? What about the sex? 

(Well, dammit, I just remembered what I'd thought to write about earlier this week . . . it must not have been a stupid idea after all. It'll just have to keep. If I forget it, well, something else will pop up . . . I hope.)

Okay, don't feel stupid . . . what's one question you've always wanted to ask an author?

And authors, what's a stupid question YOU'VE fielded?

33 thoughts on “Where do you get your ideas? And other stupid questions . . .

  1. Alexandra Sokoloff

    My theory about the “where do you get your ideas?” question is that that’s not really what they’re asking.

    I think the real question is more like – “Why in the name of all that is holy would you want to write about THAT?” And I don’t even mean something bloody or violent, but like – “Why would a man set a book in 20th century Japan from the point of view of geisha?” “Why would anyone spend a year of their life researching depression era circus trains?” (if they’re not getting paid for it, I mean; obviously doing that kind of research and writing is preferable to MOST jobs).

    The real question is WHY THAT? And the answer is slippery. I tend to mostly choose stories that I think I have a half a chance of actually pulling off. That’s really the bottom-line deciding factor. And always about halfway through it I realize I was wrong – there’s no way anyone could finish the damn thing and make it coherent. But somehow you work through it anyway.

    As to your question about stupid questions, I don’t know if I’ve ever gotten a stupid question. I’ve gotten a couple of disturbing ones, that I feel I would have to be a mental health professional to answer responsibly.

    I do for some reason get annoyed by the know-it-all – always a man – who hears that I’m a writer and says loftily “And what’s your DAY job?”

    It IS my day job. And my night job. And my weekend job. And my dreaming job. And my vacation job. And my every spare thought and thoughts I can’t spare job. And…

  2. toni mcgee causey

    A second reason I think people ask that question is that they see you’re holding a finished book and you clearly found an idea that was not only a “good enough” idea for a book, but one that a publishing company would pay you for, and they sort of want to know where they can get one of those. Or how to recognize one of them if they’re having one of them right now. It’s like you found the map to a treasure chest IN YOUR HEAD and they want to know if they have one, too. 😉

    I wasn’t kidding a couple of weeks ago when I said people sometimes ask me if I blow up things like Bobbie Faye. I say yes, and they hush (and back away slowly). I was also asked (multiple times) if I was worried that Homeland Security would “come get me” because of my research online or some of the things I write about. And my response is, if they don’t know how to do their job any better than that (separating fact from a fiction-writer), then we’re all in trouble anyway.

  3. PK the Bookeemonster

    Not a writer, but I’ll bet this question has popped up for you more than once: why does it take you a year to just to write a book? I’m sure askers of all these silly questions mean well and don’t realize that they’re *this close* to getting their eyes ripped out. For research purposes of course.

  4. Lori Armstrong

    The old “sex research” question is especially entertaining to answer when you write erotic romance, including threesomes, foursomes and same sex situations. Like you, A, I say, “Yeah, I’ve done everything I write about at least twice so I know I’ve gotten it right!” — WTF? Why do people ask that? My other response: “But the research for the mysteries? Now that is killer…So *can* I count on your help to bury the next body? I’ll even list you in the acknowledgments.”

    Worst question: How can you live in South Dakota and write about it? I’m sure nothing interesting ever happens there.

    Ooh, round about that time I’m mentally thumbing the safety on my gun and putting a little orange dot on their stupid forehead, because I’ve been asked that question dozens of times.

    Great post, congrats to the Mr. B on the gun wins 🙂

  5. Allison Brennan

    Alex, I love this:

    “It IS my day job. And my night job. And my weekend job. And my dreaming job. And my vacation job. And my every spare thought and thoughts I can’t spare job. And…”

    Hence, me working on page proofs after midnight . . .

    But you and Toni make me feel bad for hating the question. Maybe I’m taking it too literally. When I get the “How can you think this stuff up?” I know they’re talking about the actual plot or story because it’s violent/sexy/whatever, but when the ask, “Where do you get your ideas?” I think they really want to know because they don’t think, “I wonder if he’s going to kill her?” when they see online matchmaking meet up at Starbucks.

    PK, I get the opposite (How can you write so fast?) My answer is always, everyone writes at different speeds. Mostly I’m speaking to romance readers/writers and I say Nora Roberts writes four books a year and Susan Elizabeth Phillips writes one a year — and both are fantastic storytellers that take as long as they need to tell the story right.

    Hey, Lori! I’ll bet you get the questions (wink wink.) But the sex one ALWAYS ticks me off and I have conventional sex in my books–with five kids, I think they can safely assume that I’ve practiced a few times. Geesh. (And I told Dan he can have the Remington 870, I get the Colt .45.)

  6. J.T. Ellison

    I’m feeling abashed this morning. I’d never kill you for not putting up a blog post… I’ll just track you down and stand over you glaring until it goes up… Murderati’s enforcer, huh? Interesting concept. Do I get a billy club?

    I do get a lot of inane questions, but the one that infuriates me is when people ask what I do, I say I wrote psychological thrillers, and they say, “Why don’t you write children’s books? I hear there’s a lot of good money in that.”

    Also, I despise being asked about how much money I make and what my print runs are. I usually answer enough – Gah – talk about none of your business.

  7. Mary-Frances Makichen

    Allison,Great post. I especially enjoyed your husband’s response to his former colleague–talk about hilarious. I also liked that the fear of JT (as opposed to the fear of Roarke) was the driving force behind getting this post done. I’ve long suspected that she was a formidable woman:D!

  8. Doug

    Allison,To heck with this author crap….what happened to little Bunny FooFoo?….Please finish the story. And is this a series character. Are you starting a new line of childrens books?

  9. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Oh, okay, I thought of a stupid question – always for some reason asked by OTHER AUTHORS who should know better:

    “So how’s the book doing?”

    I DON’T KNOW. How do you answer that? Why are you asking? It’s worse than the “How much money do you make?” question because I don’t even know what they’re really asking, only that no one who asks it really seems to want you or the book to be doing well.

  10. pari

    “Why don’t you get on Oprah?”

    Um, that’s one.

    Great post, Allison.

    I know what you mean about getting those ideas in unglamourous ways: I figured out a major plot point talking it out with my youngest daughter on the way to the story yesterday.

  11. Doug

    Allison,actually when people ask “Where do you get your ideas?”…that is just the set up quesiton, what they really want to know is…how do you do the MAGIC!

    How do you take an idea, no matter where it comes from, and turn it into this thing I am holding in my hand? What is the process, what is the MAGIC.

    It is like asking a magican how they do an illusion or how does a painter paint a picture? Sure, they can watch a painter paint and grasp some of how they interpert the image they see into the painting that is produced, but a writer is a different story. They don’t understand how a writer like a magician uses misdirection…how particular words and sentence structure were used to manipulate their emotions. They don’t understand how walking the dogs or laying on the couch staring at the ceiling are part of the writing process.

    Also, people are naturally curious about the creative process. As far as I know, and I could be wrong, but we are the only mammals that create art for art’s sake.

    And the big reason they ask……everyone can write….heck I am writing this right now…so if I just knew or understood the process you used to take an idea and make a novel out of it, well, I should be able to write a novel also. Then I could be wealthy and famous and a Murderati…..and my life would be perfect.

    (Alex, as for how is the book doing?….GREAT…WONDERFUL….First rule of business is that business is always GREAT…even when it is not so good…..no one wants to do business with someone who’es business sucks. Word of mouth starts at home.)

  12. Becky Lejeune

    Haha, “why don’t you get on Oprah?”

    I once attended a Christopher Moore signing (actually been to two, but this happened at the first) where this very strange guy asked if a certain character had a beard (and there was a long backstory as to why he was asking but basically he thought that he looked like the character and so…) and Moore’s response was, “Do you think he has a beard?” It was supposed to be the final question of the night and thankfully Moore’s initial response was something along the lines of no way is THIS the final question.

  13. Dan Brennan

    Update on the bunny from Mr. Allison Brennan.

    I tucked him under a tuft of grass and wrapped the cloth around him such that he could easily push his way out in the morning. No it wasn’t out of love or kindness or anything like that. We obviously made the decision that the poor thing should live since the cat already had dinner, and there’s a 10-day waiting period in California for the guns I won, eliminating target practice as an option. However it was a fair bet that it was in shock, and that can result in lower body temperature, hence the “blanket.”

    So I checked this morning and sure enough the cloth had been unrolled and the bunny had departed through the tall grass. Allison kept the cat locked in the house all night after the commotion, so there’s a fair bet that little Thumper will live another day to romp and play and grow into a nice coyote meal down the road.

    Speaking of commotion if we can rewind to the beginning of the incident, (sound of harps) you really haven’t been startled until you’ve heard the sound of an injured rabbit screaming. Seriously. To be sitting at home with a glass of wine, lights low, browsing the Internet and startled by a noise INSIDE your home that sounds like a cross between an angry macaw and a terrified woman from a 1950s horror movie, is a shock you’ll never forget.

    Allison exclaimed “Dan! Toulouse has a mouse!’ and MY first thought was, “No, I think a bull elephant has Toulouse.” I have other guns and as the horrific shrieks continued, I briefly considered opening the safe and loading the pump shotgun with a couple of double ought shells.

    When it was all over and I had tucked in the terrified little bunny for the night, I turned to Allison and said, “Now do you understand why some people think cats are evil?”

  14. Gayle Carline

    In addition to books, I also write a weekly column for my local newspaper (the Placentia News-Times). It’s a humor essay, mostly about me and my family, and usually about something that happened to us during the week. The question I get over and over is much like “where do you get your ideas?” People ask me, “how do you think up this stuff every week?”

    Um. I wake up, eat, clean, run errands, talk to people, sleep, then do it all again. I don’t ‘think this stuff up’. I live my life, then I talk about it. It’s always true – albeit, exaggeratedly so.

    Last night, my son sang the National Anthem at the Clippers game. We had to get to the Staples Center early, so my husband drove separately – and parked in a different lot. The Reader’s Digest version is that my 16-year old son and I wandered the streets of LA last night at 11 p.m., past homeless people sleeping on sidewalks, looking for my minivan. As we passed one snoring lump of humanity on the pavement, I turned to my son and said, “You know the great thing about this? This can totally go in the column!”

    So please stop asking me where I think this stuff up.

  15. toni mcgee causey

    Heh. Alex, I think the “So how’s the book going?” question is just the polite writer-version of “So how are your kids doing?” Most people just mean it as an opening salvo, trying to start a conversation, and not knowing specifically what to ask. Even other writers, who, ahem, may have been jet lagged a bit and happy to see you and hoping your brand new release was doing well, but were too braindead at that very moment to think of something else to ask.


    The “So how are your kids / family doing?” opens the same problems… what if their kids or parents / family aren’t doing well, and now you’ve just reminded them, or made them feel awkward… but if you don’t ask, it’s like you’re not acknowledging they have people they care about. I think people generally mean well when they ask this one. I usually answer, “It’s doing fine, and it’s been a lot of fun.” And then ask them about their kids or family.

  16. Tami Brothers

    Great post!!! I just popped over here to mention this award, but ended up learning a bunch. Thank you for that!!!


    To the wonderful authors at Murderati ,

    I just wanted to let you know that your blog was nominated for an award by the ladies at Petit Fours and Hot Tamales. If you want to play along, you can read about it at http://petitfoursandhottamales.blogspot.com/search/label/Awards. Whether you accept or not, we do thank you and your blog for sharing such wonderful information.

    Have a great day.

    Tami Brothers(one of the 19 authors at http://petitfoursandhottamales.blogspot.com/)

  17. Denese

    I am not a book writer, but I love to write when it’s not “work” (which means academic writing). I guess for me, ideas come when my fingers hit the keys. Stuff just pops out.

    What I would like to know — and this maybe a stupid question — is how you plot the book before you ever sit down to write it? How would I ever do that when I create ideas when I’m writing?

    And how did you learn HOW TO plot the book (if that is even the right term)?

    Is there a Murderati writing school?

    PS– I have been checking in on you-all for a few months, and bought Cornelia Read’s book for my husband, Rich. Me buying a book for Rich is, well, very unusual. He is the most snooty of mystery readers. Most of my suggestions go at least partially unread.

    Well, he LOVES The Crazy School, and actually recites favorite passages from it (which I’ve never seen him do before except maybe if he’s reading Steinbeck)!

  18. kit

    Hi Allison,while the questions may seem stupid and/or intrusive(which they can be, I’m sure)to you…to a beginning writer, or someone considering attempting to write, they make perfect sense.That’s why this blog site and others like it are fantastic to come to…it takes the mystery away….and breaks it down in practical terms, that most people can understand.I’ts great to know you have a life outside of writing..yes, you’ve missed dates, burnt suppers, sweated over words, phrases, and life in general.there’s more ..but this is enough.

  19. J.D. Rhoades

    “What I would like to know — and this maybe a stupid question — is how you plot the book before you ever sit down to write it?”

    Some of us don’t. You may be what Our Alex calls a “pantser”, (as in ‘flying by the seat of your’) Go with what works for you.

    “How would I ever do that when I create ideas when I’m writing?”

    Well, even those who outline ahead of time often create new ideas which can alter the way it goes.

    “Is there a Murderati writing school?”

    You’re in it, Grasshopper.

  20. J.D. Rhoades

    “while the questions may seem stupid and/or intrusive(which they can be, I’m sure)to you…to a beginning writer, or someone considering attempting to write, they make perfect sense.”

    Which is why I do’t believe in the idea of “stupid questions.” There are some, though, that challenge my faith in that…”where can I buy your books?” is one of them. I occasionally answer with “behind the counter at the Gas N’ Go, right next to JUGGS and BARELY LEGAL.”

  21. Cornelia Read

    One of the bad questions I’ve done a really horrible job fielding was asked last weekend at a library panel in my hometown. The moderator queried, “what’s your opinion of self-publishing?” and I went to town on it… only to realize that the other two people on the panel were… um… “not traditionally published,” and then discovered at the reception afterwards that the same was true of a number of people in the audience. Who were pretty irate about it. Gulp.

    Oh well.

  22. Denese

    Can someone write about plotting a novel and how that happens? Do you use storyboards? Do you write an outline? What?

    And I want to thank this group of women writers — you’ve taken the time to “look” at me and respond to what I write. On blogs everywhere, that’s so rare.

  23. Denese

    Is the “Ahem” directed at me?

    Sometimes this style of communication gets so confusing.

    If I said something clumsy or wrong, I’m sorry.

  24. toni mcgee causey

    Hey Denese, Dusty’s teasing you because he and Rob and Brett are guys. 🙂

    And next Sunday, I’m going to be writing about some tools helpful for plotting–but check out Alex’s blogs and the links she’s got at the bottom… she’s been writing about some of those very plotting issues, so that might be a great place to check, if you haven’t seen those already.

  25. kathy durkin

    Writing about sex–good, violence, not so much.

    Glad that you cleared up the tale of the bunny, would have gone sleepless tonight from not knowing its fate.

    Kathy D.

  26. Zoë Sharp

    Hey Allison

    I’m just going to get a stamp made up that says, “Sorry to come late to this but …” – working all weekend again.

    And, Sunday’s job turned into such a disaster that, if I needed ideas, I would have been beating them off with a stick on that one. Sheesh.

    Great post, Allison, and thank Dan for the update on the Bunny. It’s one of the thing that tickles me most, as a Brit looking at the States, that Dan’s first thought when he heard screaming in the house was to go into the gun safe for heavy artillery. And the only thing you’d win at any kind of Association dinner over here would be a couple of bottles of cheap plonk. But two guns?!? That’s just greedy … ;-]

    Anyway, loved the post, and yes, ideas do just happen along, if you open up and learn to listen to that section of your brain which normally filters such things out.

    My favourite plotting place is in the car. I’m like a kid who won’t go to sleep unless you strap them into their kiddie seat and drive them around for a while.

    Yesterday, on our way to the abortive shoot, I worked out exactly what I need to do in the round robin chapter I have to do for Harrogate this year, and the jacket-copy pitch for the next series book. In the end, that and a pleasant dinner with friends on the way home, were the only things that stopped the day being a total washout.

    I’ve had all the usual silly questions, too, including someone who wantedto know if I needed multiple personalities in order to write, but “How much do you get paid?” is the one that bugs me the most. I wouldn’t ask that of anyone, regardless of profession. Sadly, there are a lot of people out there – mainly not writers, thankfully – who can’t wait to tell you …

  27. Katherine Howell

    I’m like you, JT, getting the people suggesting I write kids books. Why? Why??? And then there are those who suggest I send them to Oprah, cos she’s into books, wow that would do lots for your sales, heh heh. Or the ones who say but you seem such a nice person, how can you write about murders? And then there was the recent one when a friend was looking at an apartment for me, and having told the agent what I do, how the books are sold overseas, etc, he asked when I was going to grow up and get a real job?

  28. Deb Gallardo

    I think the reason so many people ask “Where do you get your story ideas?” is because what they really want to know is “Where can *I* find story ideas?” My theory is based on a statistic I read recently that says 90% of Americans admit they’d like to write a book someday. The real question is about THEM, not us.

    Deb Gallardo


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