October 29, 2020
One question that successful writers are often asked is "Where do you get your ideas?"
That happens especially to genre writers who often deal with plots that aren't exactly reflective of the life we all life. Most of us are never going to live in space, meet a dragon, or solve a murder, but our characters might, and that means we need to come up with ideas for how to accomplish these things. This is especially true if you write many books in the same genre. I've written dozens of mysteries, and yet I still have many more ahead of me that will be written.
But how do I avoid writing the same book over and over? How do I come up with new ideas? And how will you? Coming up with ideas for mysteries is often quite specific for each writer's process, and ideas can come from many different directions, so we're going to look as some of the ways ideas spring up so that you can try them for your own writing.
Many writers begin by coming up with a strong main character and once that character begins to become real for the writer, ideas for a mystery for that person to solve begin popping up. Imagine a character who never saw a book he didn't love. A mystery for him might pop up because of something he found in an old book purchased from a thrift shop, used bookstore, or yard sale. Maybe he finds a treasure map, or a note begging for help, or a very old letter that reveals a crime. Any of those could lead to an exciting and unique book and all came to mind because of a choice to have a character who loves books. What if you create a character who lives for baseball? That character might discover a mystery when he goes to the ballpark to watch a game, or spot suspicious behavior when he's gone to the park to practice, or become concerned by a teammate who is clearly in trouble.
So if you're a writer who enjoys coming up with characters as your first step in the writing process, the person you create will often lead you to the best idea for the mystery plot. Keep in mind that unique and specific characters will help you with the mystery idea process. A vanilla, "every kid" character will be far less helpful, so you may need to look elsewhere for your idea.
If you aren't really someone who comes up with the character first, and prefer to find the mystery in another way, the setting can be an excellent idea source. For example, many adult cozy mysteries are very much setting oriented. Bookshop mysteries, coffee shop mysteries, tea shop mysteries, and bakery mysteries are all very popular. And these kinds of settings can all work for young adult mysteries (where the character might have an after-school or summer job in such a setting) or even for middle grade (if the business belongs to the parents and the child helps out there), so they can be a great starting point for a kidlit mystery as well as a mystery for adult. Shops put a character in contact with unusual people, any of which might have a secret that they reveal inadvertently to the main character. Other shop plots might deal with theft, break-ins, or even unexplained creepiness (like products that move at night or strange sounds). And remodeling or repairs in a shop can reveal all sorts of things in the walls.
But shops are only one option. There are many setting choices that are much more specific to the lives of kids and teens. For instance, a camp mystery can involve someone stealing from cabins, or the disappearance of a camper, or a monster in the woods. But if you set your mystery at a birthday party, totally different possibilities come to mind: a mysterious gift or the disappearance of one, or the disappearance of a guest. A sleepover mystery might involve the question of why one person at the sleepover is distressed, or could involve a disappearance once the lights go out, or a scary noise outside.
Consider making a list of potential settings and then brainstorm at least three mystery possibilities for every setting. What mystery might happen on a trip to the public library? What mystery might happen while camping with family or while visiting a museum or a farm? Even if you don't use any of the ideas for a specific setting, the brainstorming process will strengthen your idea-generating muscles.
Ideas All Around Me
Some people want an idea or a premise before they ever begin. To do this, you often need a rather serendipitous idea, and those aren't generated, they're found. Newspaper stories, science articles, conversations with friends, and even dreams have prompted excellent mystery ideas. If you've spent time strengthening your idea muscles through brainstorming sessions, you'll find yourself much quicker to find ideas in unexpected places. However, these serendipitous idea moments are often unplanned and come when you're not thinking about writing at all. So it's a good idea to always carry a note-taking method around with you. I like paper and pencil, but I know many authors who take notes on their phones in these situations to keep the idea from slipping away.
Sometimes the situation of "needing a mystery idea right now" can feel like a hindrance to free and easy idea generation. The stress of needing an idea can block your ability to find one. In situations like this, there are options. Try entering "mystery writers get ideas" in a search engine. When I did this, it brought back ten different mystery writing prompt sites, so if you're feeling stuck, there's help out there for you in the form of prompts. (And the ICL/IFW membership group, The Writers’ Block, supplies writing prompts and tips every month.)
Even if none of the prompts themselves are a good fit, often reading through these sorts of things help jump start your own idea generator, and you'll come up with an idea of your own. Another way to get the idea generating engine kick started would be reading mystery novel blurbs. Again, you don't want to simply copy the blurbs you're reading. Instead, wading through lots of blurbs will often get your brain into "create" mode, and you'll begin coming up with ideas of your own. Just by reading prompts, you can often crack open the idea block and get things going again.
So the answer to where a writer gets ideas? It’s everywhere. It's all in how you approach the search. Keep trying different things and you'll find the method that works best, and most consistently for you.
Jan Fields is a former Institute of Children's Literature Instructor and a full-time, freelance author.
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