The Written Word — Mining for Ideas



“It seems to me that those songs that have been any good, I have nothing much to do with the writing of them. The words have just crawled down my sleeve and come out on the page.” -Joan Baez




Most writers, no doubt, understand what Ms. Baez means when she describes words that so naturally crawl out onto the page. But seriously, these words don’t just appear from thin air. Neither for a songwriter nor any other kind of writer. It comes from an inspired — idea. The source of which might be anchored in our life’s experiences, our dreams, headline news, or from inspiration discovered in the folds of a novel.  

Life’s experiences are an excellent source of ideas, but how many of us are at once a doctor, lawyer, or scientist? How many have walked on the moon, flown fighters in combat, thrashed about in a hurricane, or explored an ocean floor for ancient treasure? How many have personally witnessed epic events in humanity’s past that have forever changed the course of history? Ooh… then there are those experiences of oppression, torture, and murder… Few of us will draw ideas from real-life experiences such as those. Least, I hope not.

But we HAVE experienced these things, haven’t we…? Vicariously, from a safe distance, by way of literature, theater, television, blissful dreams, or horrid nightmares? So experiences aren’t limited to REAL life for writers who are naturally blessed with hyperactive imaginations. Hmm, mining for story ideas is just another in a list of great reasons to sustain the discipline (or is it a voracious appetite) for reading … don’t you think?

With Joan Baez, I’m sure the words flow naturally for all the reasons above. She’s a woman who’s passionate about the environment, human rights, and nonviolence (both domestic and civic). She reads, she researches, she lives, she dreams. And from all these things she creates lyrical stories that seem for her, so naturally spun. So as aspiring writers, we have to appreciate that some preparation is needed on our part before we also experience the same kind of free-flowing creativity that Joan describes… 

For an aspiring writer, compelling stories should begin with a compelling idea, but where do we mine these things? 

  • Sharpen Your Awareness

Ideas may come from any of the sources described above. You might find inspiration in life changing events – yours and others. Scour the world around you for headlines that evoke passion, fear, adoration, or loathing. And don’t discount your dreams (waking or sleeping). But even great ideas for a novel are often fleeting so, as a new writer, start now. Get organized!

  • Write It Down

Most ideas happen spontaneously. Jot them down whenever and wherever you are. Write them immediately, not later. Keep a writing journal or a notepad handy for this purpose. If necessary use a cocktail napkin, a receipt, the palm of your hand … anything.

  •  Flesh out the details

As soon as possible, gather as many details as you can. How did the idea come to spark your imagination? What was the setting? The scene? Describe how the inspirational event came about, when, and why? Convert all these thoughts into words. Note the specifics – Day, night, city street, or desolate wilderness…

  • Develop the idea

Now’s the time to morph the idea into a story. Exercise your imagination. Ideas don’t often develop themselves, and as a new writer, you shouldn’t expect this seemingly simple phase of your story to happen quickly. It has to evolve. An idea has to be explored, researched, and nurtured to full potential.

Begin by expanding on it. Write your own personal perceptions of the people and place that inspired it – what makes the event unique. Envision primary characters that might fit the story idea. This is important. Whether your story is character driven or plot driven, you’ll want to have a good visual of your major players — distinctive features, flaws, or attributes. What are these characters fighting for, what stands in their way, what would you imagine is their ultimate goal, and the final resolution? Project yourself into the story. How does it affect you? You have your own capacity to feel, to experience, and to sense the emotion. It’s what makes your voice and style different from every other author. 

  • Research the idea

You’ve probably heard the adage – Write What You Know. Good advice, but how many interpret this in the wrong way? No… It doesn’t mean you should only write about the things you’ve experienced. It means you should write about things that intrigue – ideas that compel you to get into the books or scour the internet. If you do the research, then you ARE writing about “What You Know.” And during your research, don’t forget to jot down new emerging ideas (no matter how minor). These ideas woven into the plot might readily become a chapter, a scene or an interesting plot twist.

One point about research – readers demand accuracy, even in fiction. As many elements of realism as you can find in your research will help anchor your reader and insure that they are pulled deeper into your imaginary world. If you want a good head start as a new writer, you shouldn’t hesitate to write in the genre that you most enjoy reading. 

  • Condense the idea into a Theme 

Form the evolving idea developed above, write its theme – one line describing the underlying meaning of the story. When you’ve found it, write it on a paste-it note and stick it to the computer.

Example: The innocence of youth rarely surrenders to reason.

  • Now Expand the idea into a short summary

Turn the idea of your story into an imaginative vision of what it might become. It might look like the short narrative on the rear cover of a book, or the blurb describing an upcoming blockbuster movie. Use your own voice and style, present the characters, and briefly tell their story.  If you can, try to blend all the elements of story building you’ve brainstormed above (Character, Goal, Motivation, Conflict, Journey, Climax, and Resolution).

Example (is there something familiar here):  

With the economy in the dumps, mortgages in default, and jobs moving overseas, Jack and Diane realize this is their last hope to stay together. Fame and fortune for this — the first couple to circumnavigate the globe in a balloon — is their only chance to avoid separate transfers to opposite ends of the continent. 

No time for regrets now…  A dizzying exhilaration stirs their stomachs with the accelerated rise of the ship as they release the tethers holding the helium-filled saucer to the earth. Layered with  pliable solar cells, the skin of the high-tech craft shimmers in the fading light before it vanishes into a thick layer of clouds. Though the untested craft they’ve commandeered might be considered stolen property, that’s not exactly the problem. The problem is that Jack and Diane are only ten, and the raging tropical storm approaching Corpus Christi is driving them further out to sea.

But with Jack’s arm secure around her shoulder, Diane isn’t afraid. The boy, a child prodigy and son of a brilliant engineer, has played all the flight telemetry simulations on his father’s computers and has never once been defeated by wind, weather, or treacherous mountain ranges.

And of course, there’s Jack’s first crush, the girl next door. Diane, the gifted gymnast and her impressive logistic internet connections around the world with hundreds of athletes their age. A tightly spun international web of secrecy they’ll rely on as their global support team.

Together they’ll cross continents and oceans, outmaneuver storms, navigate through dangerous mountain passes, and sail upon a hundred mile-an-hour wind, then hover over villages and fields to collect baskets of food. They’ll hide among the clouds and trick military radar in a global trek across borders that will confound presidents and dictators who thrive on suspicion and fear. But, for seven days, a world will unite, holding its breath for the safe return of a missing ship filled with the hopes and dreams of innocence.   

  • Save your work

Save your work in a folder on your computer and/or in a desk drawer. You might have gathered several ideas before beginning work on your first manuscript, but it doesn’t mean you’re done with the hunt for compelling ideas. Keep an eye on the market place — what’s hot and what’s not. Stay vigilant. Always look for new ideas. If you don’t write the story you’ve stumbled across, then eventually … someone else will.


11 Responses to The Written Word — Mining for Ideas

  1. jbrayweber says:

    Great advice, Rounder. Very thorough. I especially like your last sentence. It’s entirely true.

    Wonderful post!!!


  2. Emily Bryan says:

    Brilliant post! Your process is clear and concise. Thanks for sharing.


  3. Hi, Jenn!

    Writing the next best seller isn’t so hard, is it? All the words are right there in the dictionary. Toss out about ninety thousand of them, put ’em in the right order and there you are! What’s the fuss about. :O

    Thanks for chiming in on the artwork.


  4. Thanks, Emily!

    You’re too gracious. And love the website. The “Wright Stuff” (really like that) is the perfect reference for writers.



  5. Jessica says:

    Great tips! I know if I don’t write my ideas down, I forget them. Sad but true. I love your idea of boiling the idea down to a theme. Thanks for sharing!


  6. Hi, Jessica! Always great to hear from you.

    I think anything that stretches the mind (makes ya think) or adds clear perspective to a new project is a good thing.

    Look forward to you sharing advice or experiences on our partner group “Authors, Agents, and Aspiring Writers”

    Happy writing! –John!


  7. […] The Written Word: Mining for Ideas John Roundtree helps you mine your life for ideas. […]


  8. All really good points. I particularly agree with your take on ‘write what you know’. If we all wrote what we had personally experienced we should get very worried about the number of people who write about murder!


  9. Hello, Dirty-White-Candy!

    Wonderful handle.

    I agree. There are horror/slasher writers out there who must have serious nightmares, if they’re writing from experience. LOL

    Have you seen the series, Dexter. The serial killer is essentially the protagonist. My wife and I are hooked on it. Very well writen with a sympathetic murderer, character strengths/weaknesses, hooks, pinicle points, unanticipated plot twists, and each season has a satisfying conclusion. There are few TV shows that can take an unbelievable plot and make it believable. Strange to be written so effectively considering the theme.


  10. Alice says:


    That was an incredilbe article!! It was also just what I needed after sending my firsy manuscript off (and getting 10 rejections). I have some other ideas I can work on (plus I’m revising ‘Chosen One’ and working on the second book in the trilogy). To keep myself going, I’ll use your advice to come with and flesh out other ideas while I work on the trilogy. Thanks.


  11. Hi, Alice!

    Glad it helped. Happy Holidays and Happier Writing!



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