Book ideas come to authors via many conduits. Through history or current events. Passion or indignation. Through myths, songs and legends. Family jokes and dramas. If you are hunting for your next fantastic story idea, try these 12 sources of inspiration:
1: Explore myths and legends
There are fascinating myths in cultures all over the world, both contemporary and ancient.
Example of an interesting myth – Persephone
In the Greek myth of Persephone, the Goddess Demeter’s daughter is abducted by the king of the underworld, Hades. While Demeter searches far and wide for Persephone, she neglects her duties overseeing the natural environment and crops wither and die.
Ultimately she strikes a bargain with Hades whereby she can have her daughter for three quarters of the year. (The myth thus explains why we have winter.)
Why myths are useful for finding story ideas
Myths often inspire stories because:
- They contain powerful, relatable symbols and imagery (for example, the world freezing over literally while a mother searches for her daughter)
- They often have an explanatory purpose (the differences between the earth’s seasons is explained via Demeter’s mourning): their inner logic makes sense
- Myths give us effective story structures showing cause and effect (abduction and search, feud and resolution, crime and punishment)
Read myths and think about their creative potential for book ideas. You could:
- Write a novel that re-imagines a myth in a contemporary setting. How would Demeter’s search differ in an urban, concrete jungle?
- Write a novel drawing on the story structure of a myth (E.g. a mother searching for her daughter has to strike a bargain with her daughter’s captor)
What if you want to find story ideas via a factual rather than mythic source?
2: Investigate historical events
Book ideas derived from historical events are everywhere. An example: Markus Zusak’s popular 2005 novel The Book Thief, about the power of writing (and reading) under an oppressive regime.
Real historical events are fodder for more than a book idea. They give us existing characters to research, imagine and reinvent, along with settings, moods and details that bring your writing to life.
As this article on how to write historical fiction suggests, you could base a novel on Ernest Hemingway’s time in Paris in the 1930s, for example. The historical event you use doesn’t have to be a major event or catastrophe, either. It could be something as trivial as a brief love affair between two significant historical characters.
How does drawing on historical events for book ideas differ from writing historical fiction? You don’t have to recreate the specific era exactly as it was. Instead, you could:
- Use the details of story from a historical event and alter elements (places, names and dates) to create your own fictional version
- Make historical events significant to your characters’ backstories but not the main focus of the story
3: Find book ideas in documentaries
Visual sources are particularly helpful for finding new story ideas. Documentaries broaden your knowledge of a subject. They can also make you think about how something works, why something happened and lead to your own ‘what if’ questions.
Ideas you could discover by watching documentaries on subjects that interest you could include questions such as:
- ‘What if a vaccine for x serious illness had never been developed?’
- ‘What if a man filming and living amongst bears was attacked by them?’ (This is actually the premise of Werner Herzog’s unsettling film Grizzly Man).
4: Find story ideas in old journal entries
Keeping a journal is an essential exercise for writers.
Besides helping you to process and understand your own thoughts and impressions, it helps you recollect the small anecdotes and interesting tidbits you hear throughout the day, many of which could be the germs of novel ideas.
Famous authors who’ve kept journals of their daily lives include Anais Nin, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway and many others. Said Woolf of journaling and creative writing:
‘…the advantage of the method is that it sweeps up accidentally several stray matters which I should exclude if I hesitated, but which are the diamonds of the dustheap.’
If you don’t keep a journal yet, it’s easy to make this part of your day. Keep a journal next to your bed and write for 10 minutes each night before lights out. Write any story ideas that occur to you in the process or as you read over earlier entries in the back of the book.
5. Use the free ‘Central Idea’ section of the Now Novel
Shameless plug: The ‘Central Idea’ section of the Now Novel dashboard is devoted to finding a story idea out of your interests and asking simple, step-by-step questions. Try it now – it’s free (you can add your idea automatically to a helpful outline you build as you go and add detailed character profiles, settings and more).
6: Trawl historical archives
It’s all very well to read historical accounts of events, but archival materials themselves can be fascinating sources of inspiration. You might find an old letter written in a script that inspires the idea for a fictional character.
Online digital archives include the British library’s vast online photo collection (including newspapers dating back to the 1600s), The Digital Public Library of America (which includes options to search for materials by geographic location), and many others.
7: Get inspired by other authors’ novels
As Stephen King and countless other authors have advised, you need to read to become an author. Other people’s stories show us a great deal about how to plot, characterize, create fictional worlds and more.
Existing novels are also great sources for book idea.
Examples of successful books inspired by other authors
Many celebrated books were written in response to (or in dialogue with) previous stories.
Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer-winning novel The Hours (1998) draws on Virginia Woolf’s famous novel Mrs Dalloway (1925). Like Woolf’s Modernist novel, Cunningham’s book begins with a woman named Clarissa preparing to host a party, but she lives in contemporary New York rather than Victorian England.
Cunningham also weaves Woolf the author in as a character, creating a complex fictional world in which echoes of the famous author’s novella about love and madness is juxtaposed with reworkings of her characters.
Another respected novel that was inspired by a famous work is Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea (1966). It tells a story from the point of view of a secondary character in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847), the ‘madwoman’ in the attic.
When drawing inspiration from a novel for your own work, you could:
- Tell a new story based on the perspective of a mostly silent or absent secondary character (like Jean Rhys does)
- Retell the same story in a different time period with new events and deviations mixed in
8: Pursue new experiences to find ideas for a book
Benjamin Disraeli wrote:
‘Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.’
If you’re finding it hard to come up with a book idea, actively pursue new, out-of-the-ordinary experiences.
Perhaps you’ve never been to a particular town near to your own. Or you’ve always wanted to learn a particular skill. Pursue new experiences that will broaden your perspective. Go to local talks on interesting subjects in your area. Becoming a great storyteller starts with a burning curiosity about the world around you.
9: Use short stories to develop your ideas
Starting a novel is daunting. Finishing a novel is daunting too. Both take commitment, dedication, and sustained work.
Writing a short story is a good way to test out a book idea. Many famous works of literature started out as short stories that authors used as process work. The Nobel-winning author Toni Morrison’s first book started out as a short story, for example.
When writing a short story, ask yourself:
- Can I expand this idea into a full-length novel?
- What reasons are there for making the story longer?
Find a reason to increase the length of your short story (for example your character makes an important decision – what will the outcome be?) This can be the guiding idea for your book.
10: Ask ‘what if’ questions?
‘What if Germany and its allies had won the Second World War? What if a cure for a major virus was found but pharmaceutical companies refused to produce it out of fear of losing profits? What if a man woke up a giant cockroach?’
Often simply coming up with ‘what if’ questions is a productive creative exercise. That’s why it’s part of the Now Novel story outlining dashboard.
‘What if’ questions are especially useful for devising sci-fi or speculative fiction book ideas. Thinking how a fictional world might differ from our own will help you create a complex alternate reality.
11: Draw inspiration from music
The idea for a book doesn’t necessarily have to come from a visual or written source.
Try creating a playlist of different songs or instrumental pieces and do some freewriting while the music is playing in the background. Let the mood of the music filter into the mood and tone of your writing.
Listening to music as you write might be distracting. Even so the atmosphere or feelings evoked by music may pull you in other interesting directions than your current creative frame of mind.
12: Experiment with creative constraints
A french group of mathematicians and writers, OuLiPo (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle), wrote using ‘constraints’ to explore the creative potential of writing with arbitrary rules.
One author, Georges Perec, wrote an entire novel without using the letter ‘e’ (the most common in the French language). The novel, La Disparition also uses the letter’s disappearance as a pivotal, mysterious plot point.
Another famous author, Italo Calvino, wrote a book based on the premise that a man climbs into trees and decides not to ever come down again.
Each of these ideas show the magic that can happen when you let loose and allow yourself to play and imagine, saving criticism for later.
Use the Now Novel dashboard to outline your story and brainstorm ideas, from first ideas to characters, plot, and setting.