Where do you get your inspiration? is a question a lot of writers get asked. I find it really hard to answer and usually wind up mumbling, “I dunno. I just type.”

Not a satisfactory or particularly honest answer. The problem is that it’s a really complicated question for which every writer has a different answer depending on who’s asking them, and when, and which book they’re talking about.

Some writers, like Maureen Johnson, are inspired by free monkeys. Others by imminent deadlines or the need to pay their bills. And others by the need to tell stories or the urging of their extremely bullying muse. Some of us are inspired by all of these. (Especially the monkeys and even more so when they’re in knife fights.)

Most of the time I have no clue where my stories come from. And even when I do know (like with the Fairy novel) it’s only a partial answer because there are always lots of other things that feed in. Usually I don’t figure out what they are until long after a book is finished. If ever. And usually I feel like I’m making up the inspirations retroactively.

That’s the dirty secret: most of the time I have no idea what I’m doing. I suspect I am not alone.

So what inspires you in your writing? Let’s build up a list so that we can all crib from it when we next get asked this question.


  1. Matt on #

    My favorite line to hand out (which also happens to be true) is this: “I had a dream when I was fourteen. Everything comes from that.” And then I ask where the bathroom is to let them think about it a while.

    But seriously, aside from the occasional dream, I feel like pretty much all art is found, it’s just that artists (a group which most definitely includes writers) are looking harder than others. I’m inspired by my life, by the lives of those I encounter, and by the world around me. It’s just that I’m always looking to plagiarize life and the universe and everything by writing down something that (hopefully) allows others to see something I’ve seen.

    That was unnecessarily long-winded, and I apologize.

    Here’s something shorter: I’m inspired by my wife and my baby girl. And beauty. And shiny objects.

  2. alisa on #

    i’m not sure if this is really an inspiration or not, but whenever i read or watch something i really like, it makes me want to stop reading/watching, and go write. 🙂

    is that the kind of thing you’re looking for? because as for where the stuff i write comes from, i’m just as clueless as the next gal. 😀

  3. alisa on #

    —oooohhh… yeah… like matt said, dreams. in fact, nearly all my vivid imagery comes from dreams. 😀

  4. marrije on #

    all my inspirations are stolen from either michael chabon or paul auster.

  5. kevin wignall on #

    like you, i can almost never remember where the ideas come from – it just seems that suddenly you’re working on a story that feels like it’s always been there.

    so, i don’t know where the inspiration comes from but it never hurts to look for it in the bottom of a wine bottle.

  6. Dess on #

    my inspiation comes from… erm… well… mostly conversations with my friends where we go off on very odd tangents that would make no sense to an outsider. my dreams too. i dont remeber where most of my stories come from. they just… do.
    off topic: i finished magic lessons yesterday. sooooooo good. cant wait to get to barnes and noble to get magic’s child.

  7. scott w on #

    I think the reason many novelists are dumbstruck by the inspiration question has to do with Einstein’s 1%/99% dictum. It takes ages to write a novel—wrangling character arcs, untangling motivations, tweaking scenes, editing sentences—so that years-ago eleven seconds when you got the idea can seem rather distant, even trivial.

    I’ve got dozens of “inspirations” (ideas for novels), but none is worth anything until I do a lot of typing.

  8. Justine on #

    Matt: I like the idea of all art being found.

    Alisa: Me too! I think it’s partly cause I’m trying to figure out how they did what they did and to see if I can do that too. I must be alone in having gotten pretty much nothing from dreams.

    Marrije: Plagiarist! (kidding!)

    Kevin: I’m a YA writer. We don’t drink!

    Dess: And that’s why hanging around gossiping is actually research. So pleased you liked Magic Lessons. Thanks so much for letting me know.

    Scott: Good point! It belatedly makes me realise that the people asking that question are never writers themselves. Also why all the writing on writing that I enjoy and find useful is about craft not about inspiration. I guess I mostly don’t care where the ideas come from; I care how they’re made into story.

  9. Dawn on #

    I’d have to say personally, it’s the muse thing. Whenever it strikes is usually when I get the best ideas. Sometimes I just write and write a whole bunch of junk until my muse feels bad enough to start helping me out. Strangely enough, I get really good ideas when I’m in the shower. I guess the monotony of something so ritual gives my brain the chance to think things out and wander.

  10. Rebecca on #

    i hate this question. i’ve gotten inspiration from dreams, which sounds so cliche, but it’s true. and i’ve gotten it from shows and books and movies and life. but, inspiration is just that–inspiration. it’s an idea, but it’s not the story. most of the time, i don’t have a sudden flash of inspiration. i have hours and hours of torment, worry, angst, and beating of my head against stationary objects. sometimes i actually type stuff down. i guess you could say my muse is a writing muse, not an inspiration muse. i have the ideas and the concepts and sometimes the plot, but some days i can write for hours and some days i can’t write anything at all. the ideas are still there, but the writing doesn’t always come out the way i want it to.

    “I’m a YA writer. We don’t drink!”

    they didn’t put that one in the job description. i may have to rethink this whole “become a ya writer” ambition.

  11. Penni on #

    Everything Matt said, but I have two girls.

    But yes, I agree that art is found. I think most of my writing comes from little magpie pickings, shiny things, things I overhear, things I read, all of them are accidents. I’ve already got a backlog of ideas so I am never looking for new ones and when I find them (or they find me) part of me resists them, because there’s always something I could be getting on with. But some are just so shiny and so alluring I can’t actually put them down again. I think this resistence is actually stage two of the great idea. Stage three is when you go, ‘well all right, if, if I am going to write you, then how would that go?’ If the idea can answer this question for you, you might reluctantly shove it in your pocket and plan to have a good look at it later, but half hope it loses some of its shine because writing whole novels is also hard work.

    Or maybe that’s all just me.

    It’s only when I’m well into something that I know it really is a good idea and that the shine won’t wear off. Starting and finishing novels is heaps of fun. The middle bit is quite tricky.

  12. Jordyn on #

    Usually people or circumstances around me inspire me. The last story I wrote, the initial inspiration was my friend, whose parents were going through a (nasty) divorce.

    The story (novel? dare I call it that?) I’m working on now I got initial inspiration for from the relationship me and my sister have even though our personalities are worlds apart.

    So basically, I think usually the characters/premise comes from a situation around me, but my characters are never carbon copies of people, so nobody knows where the inspiration comes from except for me.

  13. Ally on #

    I wish i could write a book..and if i did the inspiration would defiantly be everything that has happened in my life(moving schools a bunch, growing up in stuttgart, my father passing, parents divorcing, step-dad going to iraq) i don’t think anybody would want to read would probably be depressing and boring.

    I think taking pictures is like sort of stroytelling kind of. like today for a field trip we went to Mt. holly cemetary which is like 200 years old and it had some of the prettiest and bigest headstones i have ever seen and i got some really pretty and cool it’s pretty much a very lazy but awesome way of telling stories (in a way, depends on what your taking a picture of)
    (okay sorry i just brought up a whole other story)

  14. kate c on #

    i’m definitely not like penni (or justine for that matter) in that i never have a huge backlog of ideas or inspirations waiting to be rolled out and played with. if I can line up a couple of vague notions to get on with after I finish whatever I’m doing now, I’m happy.

    i suspect i actually work best if i’m given restrictions (preferably by someone else). then i can start to play with different possibilities and ways around. otherwise i just thrash about in a vast ocean of unconnected thoughts.

    or else i decide i want to write a book like someone else’s, eg i thought it would be cool to write Tom’s Midnight Garden. not so easy, as it turns out…!

  15. Mary S. on #

    Well, sometimes I tell people that ideas creep up and strike me when I’m not looking, and that it kind of hurts–like plugging in a badly frayed electrical cord in a humid room. The mental image of that usually distracts them.

    But, in all honesty, I don’t have a clue.

    Lots and lots of thoughts go around in my brain, and at some point I get to obsessing over some of them, and sooner or later I may decide that I have a story and that I’m going to write it. Things progress from there, and it’s got very little to do with ideas and a lot to do with making things up that need to be made up.

    I think stories are already there, and then you just have to get your thoughts around them and then words around your thoughts and all that onto the paper. Doesn’t always work, but that’s the goal.

    By the way, I really enjoy reading your blog. I’ve been at it for a few months now, actually, but I’ve gotten all brave and confident since exchanging messages with you so now I promise I’ll start trying to…*gasp*…say things in response. *wideeyes*

    I love you’re books, too. You do wonders with first person, imo.


  16. Nicholas Waller on #

    I like the story that John Fowles got the inspiration for “The French Lieutentant’s Woman” on waking in 1966 with a vision of an enigmatic woman from the past standing on the Cobb at Lyme Regis staring out to sea (; especially that it was an image central enough to survive (with amendment, in that we can see Meryl Streep’s face) all the way through to at least one of the film posters in 1981 (

  17. Kelly McCullough on #

    I build them. The intial frament of an idea for one of my stories or novels could come from anywhere, old research, a dream, a conversation at WisCon, two words clicking together in my head. But that’s not a story, that’s a starting point. The real work happens when I take that moment, whatever it is, and start sticking bits onto it and asking, “well yes, but _then_ what happens?”

  18. Nichole on #

    “I’m a YA writer. We don’t drink!” – Now that’s funny!

    Back when I actually wrote, my “inspiration” amounted to a great lack of sleep and deadlines rushing towards me. It wasn’t pretty.

    These days, my writing is limited to blogs and Christmas Cards.

    Blogs = whatever is happening with me or crazy things I saw/heard lately. I like to think they are amusing, but aren’t meant for a large audience or mass production of any kind.

    Christmas Cards – well, anyone who knows about my Christmas Cards knows that I look for my inspiration at the bottom of a wine bottle (but don’t always find it). It’s a standard rule that the cards must be sealed and sent without reading them again. My Nana really looks forward to getting a card from me every year. Sigh…writing Christmas Cards is rough stuff. Seriously.

  19. Dess on #

    Justine Says:
    May 9th, 2007 at 6:34 pm

    Marrije: Plagiarist! (kidding!)

    you know what really suprised me when i found this out? Romeo and Juliet was not an original work. Shakespeare took it from Arthur Brooke’s poem “The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet” so marrije, you are not alone.

  20. tim pratt on #

    Desperation and margaritas.

  21. Sean on #

    I’m inspired by beauty. Like, I remember once, driving over a huge bridge through the fog, and the way the street lamps had yellow halos…and I was inspired enough to start a new story just so I could incorporate the imagery. I’m also inspired by beauty in people…if I see somebody who strikes me, I’ll try to memorize their structure so I can write them into something. I actually feel kind of shallow when I say that, as if non-beautiful people don’t matter. I just…don’t really notice them.

  22. Jedi Ninja on #

    Let’s face it. Nobody likes to admit it, but we all get “borrow” our ideas from other authors. After all, with so many millions of stories published nowadays, it’s nearly impossible to come up with a truly original idea. Thus, most ideas for stories are not entirely original but based off other stories. The only truly original works of literature is ancient literature, which is why ancient literature is usually studied in schools, even though it’s extremely boring and nowhere near as good as modern literature.

    I know that my writing isn’t entirely original. I’ve written short stories in all kinds of genres, and nearly all of them are based on Star Was in some way or another (I’m a big fan :D) Not necessarily the plot of Star Wars, but the feel of it. Books by Michael Crichton and Joel C. Rosenberg are also especially inspiring.

    I don’t believe in muses, but about once a month, I’ll get a sudden inspiration for a story idea at about 11 PM, and then I’ll have to grab a pen and manically scrawl a brief outline onto a piece of paper. I won’t be able to sleep until it’s written down because I’ll be afraid that forget the idea. It can be annoying, actually, but also brilliant. Then I’ll usually start writing it (picking up the nearest Crichton or Rosenberg book whenever I hit writers block) within the next few days, while the idea is still fresh in my mind. I’ve found that if I wait too long, then I’ll lose interest in the idea and start viewing it more pessimistically. Sometimes the idea becomes a great story. Sometimes it becomes a great story after eight revisions. Sometimes it just becomes a mediocre story. Sometimes it just fails. But it’s always worth a try.

  23. marrije on #

    jedi ninja, i’m most interested to hear why you ‘pick[…] up the nearest Crichton or Rosenberg book whenever I hit writers block’.

    why are they such a good cure, and who is this rosenberg anyway (yeah i know i could just google him/her, but it’s much more fun this way)?

  24. Jedi Ninja on #

    Joel C. Rosenburg is the author of a series of four novels (beginning with “The Last Jihad”) that are similar to books by Tom Clancy, but even better in my opinion. Michael Crichton, as you probably know, is a science fiction author famous for such books as “Jurassic Park,” “The Andromeda Strain,” and my personal favorite, “Sphere.”

    They’re cures for writer’s block for me because they’re writing style is similar to my own. Especially Rosenberg. He writes books almost exactly the same way I would. So reading his books helps me get ideas for my own stories, helping me get past writers block.

    This won’t work for everyone. But I think everyone has certain authors that write in a style similar to their own; authors they can learn from.

  25. marrije on #

    excellent, jedi ninja, thanks!

    i’m currently doing this very weird thing where i’m copying the new michael chabon by hand, one page a day. its a way of making myself pay attention to what exactly he is doing with the story, at the sentence level, which I usually miss most of because i read too quickly. it’s a fascinating exercise, and I’m learning tons.

  26. Jedi Ninja on #

    Interesting idea. Often times, when I get stuck writing a certain scene, I’ll open a book with a similar scene and analyze that scene, sentence by sentence, paying attention to how the setting is described. For instance, when I was writing a scene on a space station, I referred to the space station scene in the book “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

  27. Steve Buchheit on #

    Inspiration comes from life, from reading, from being awake and aware. Also, jokes help a lot. Being able to do mash-ups and ask they, “hey, wait, if we tweak this here” kind of questions works as well.

    And then there’s the muse. She’s always driving me.

  28. TypesetJez on #

    I rarely ever know where my inspiration comes from, but one of my books, I do know. My family was driving back from Christmas in January at my grandmother’s house and she lives in the middle of nowhere and about 2.5 hours from our house. We pass this little bit of trees amidst all the fields where there’s still some snow and frost and in the middle of it is this…thing. I’m still not sure what it was, but it looked like it was made of wood. I spent the next few days making up a story about what that thing was and how it connected with a bunch of different things and next thing I knew I had a book to write.

  29. little willow on #

    Things that I see. Things that I hear. Things that I dream. Things that I wish.

  30. marrije on #

    the new macy gray cd.

    it’s amazing, really, how much i’ve been conditioned by hearing her voice: i usually play at least one of her cds on heavy rotation during nanowrimo. my boyfriend got me her new one yesterday, and as soon as we put it on i got itchy typing fingers.

  31. Benjamin Rosenbaum on #

    Reliable standbys:

    1) Writing rules. As in, breaking them.

    2) Noticing standard tropes and thinking them through rigorously. (But where would they go to the bathroom?)

    3) Things I am annoyed that no one else is saying for me.

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