It’s amazing how often I – and most writers – get asked a question like Where do you get your ideas? There are as many answers to that question as there are writers but here are some of the ones I’ve laughed over: I get them at I pick them in my garden. I go to the idea store at the mall.

And actually, some or all of these might have a semblance of truth. Ideas truly are everywhere—including on the internet, in your garden, at the mall.

For me, the problem is not finding ideas, but finding the time to write the hundreds of ideas I currently have chasing each other around my brain. I don’t even have time to write down any but the most urgent of those ideas—most of which I never get around to writing. If I wrote full time for the rest of my life, I wouldn’t even write the ideas running circles in my head right now, let alone the ones that come to me almost every single day.

If you ask me this question my answer would be—everywhere.

I see or hear or read great story ideas every single day. I hear them—one of the skills almost all writers come to the table with is eavesdropping—on the bus or in a store lineup or on the radio. I read them in magazines and newspapers or books. I see them in paintings or graffiti or the shape of a building or a couple walking down the street. I hear them in stories people tell me. I read them in poetry or cartoon strips. I see them in a smooth rock on the beach. I find them—often—traveling.

If this is all a bit abstract, I’ll try and make it concrete for you.

First, I have to tell you that almost everything I’ve written begins with a single phrase—either a title or a first line—that appears full blown in my head. The entire story follows from that.

My first book, Dragonflies and Dinosaurs, began with seeing. I was on my regular walk down the Seawall. Right about here in the picture. It was a spring day and it was low tide. I always count herons when I’m walking the beach and this day there were a whole lot of them. A sentence popped into my head and it stuck there. We measured our progress by herons. I thought that sentence was the beginning of a poem. I learned I was wrong when the sentence changed because of a road trip I took with my sister from Edmonton to the Royal Tyrrell Dinosaur Museum. In the book, the sentence is We measured our progress by red-tailed hawks and the iridescent carcasses of dragonflies flickering against the windshield in the warm light of the setting sun.

It took me a month to get that first sentence right. I didn’t write it down, I just carried it around with me until it felt perfectly right. I didn’t think about what kind of story it might be, didn’t think anything but getting that sentence right, until it rang with the clarity of a bell in my head. Then I wrote it down and the entire novel grew out of that single sentence without me even considering what it might be.

One of my favorite stories—which will one day be part of a collection of the same title—is called Naked for Jesus, a piece of graffiti I saw on my way to work very early one morning. Again, the story grew from this single phrase without any conscious help from me.

I more often than not write stories from the title—though I haven’t always kept the title to publication. That title, or sometimes first phrase, can come from anywhere. Right now, though, I’m working on a series of ten linked stories, all of which have Stevie Wonder song titles. Fellow bloggers Lisa DiDio, Anna Leigh Keaton, Deborah Blake and 6 others co-wrote an e-anthology this year based on song titles with the word love in them.

There is a sentence in my head. It’s been there for years and one day, when I have the time and the—I don’t know what exactly to call this but it might be courage or knowledge or readiness—space to write it, I will write this. I overhead it on a bus one weekday evening–FYI, public transit is a great place to eavesdrop, as are coffee shops and malls and restaurants. Two women sat behind me. I never saw their faces but I knew they were older. One woman said to the other, I woke up this morning and he was lying dead beside me. There’s a story there though I don’t have any idea what it is.

If you tell me a story, I might—as writers often do—steal a small piece of it and make it my own, turn it into a story you won’t recognize. As writers, we tend to be listeners, observers in the way that photographers or painters or actors are. We’re thieves, magpies, collectors of shiny things. We keep them in a box somewhere and wait until the moment is right to exhibit them to the world. We steal far more than we can ever use, but we crave them just the same.

Kate Austin


9 responses to “Inspiration…

  1. Raymond Bolton

    So for you, as for me, the stories tell themselves. *wry grin* It’s as though you’re not inventing the tale, but merely recounting what already happened. We are similar creatures.

    • That’s defiinitely true – though both you and Lisa have a process, I think, that’s more character driven than mine. Mine begins with a single sentence or phrase that seldom, if ever, even has a character in it.


  2. My ideas seemingly come from nowhere, smacking me upside the head. Every once in a while I’ll see or read something that makes me go…what if? And a new idea is born.

    Like you, I need the title and/or the first sentence before I can start, but quite often I get the characters first. I can only ignore them for so long before the riots start and I have to give them at least one chapter – or maybe two – before they’ll settle down and let me go back to the current project. When I am writing, the characters are with me constantly, awake and asleep. Sometimes they feel more real to me than they probably should. =)

    Fabulous first sentence. I love it!

    • Raymond Bolton

      And they teach you about themselves, don’t they? You think your protagonist is going to react in a certain way to a certain situation, but when you get there, she looks back from the page and says, “I don’t act that way.” And then the plot has to go off in a new direction to accommodate her.

      • I have, upon more than one occasion, had a character drop a revelation that has me sitting back, stunned, staring at the monitor and thinking, holy crap. What am I going to do with THAT??

        In the end, it’s usually the best possible twist for the plot, so I’ve learned to trust them.

    • Lisa, I always hear writers saying the characters speak to them – and I’m sure they do, though they don’t do that (at least consciously) for me. I’d like that, actually.


  3. Raymond Bolton

    And Lisa’s right: fabulous first sentence. If I hadn’t read one of your manuscripts, I would have a hard time believing that was the opening sentence to your first book.

    But I have and I do.

  4. Sorry, I’m late to the party. 😀

    Awesome post, Kate. It’s so true. *laughs* I’ve got more story ideas than I know what to do with! I’ve finally gotten to the point where I think of something new and then I follow it up with … “can I fix this into something I’m working on right now?”

    More often now the answer is yes. When it’s not it gets scribbled down in the notebook (or in the computer file) for future reference.

    Like Lisa mentioned a lot of my stories start with the characters too. *laughs* And they often surprise the heck out of me.


    • I want my characters to talk to me (*pout*) – they don’t. I get lines sometimes, occasionally a paragraph visiting me in the night, but never a character.

      You guys are lucky.


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