Novel ideas

Where do ideas for novels come from?

Having decided to take this novel writing thing seriously, I then panicked. What would my novel be about? Would my idea be ‘good enough’? Could I make it fill out a whole book? My mind went blank, as it typically does when put under stress. Then I took a deep breath and relaxed a little.

Writers use their experiences, so ideas for novels can come from many places. It might be a passion, or an interest, or a hobby. It might be something that happened to the writer, or to a relative, or to a friend or to somebody vaguely known. It might be a news story from the TV or radio. It might be a book, or a film or a picture. It might be a word, or some music or a sound. It might be that interesting old man who walks his dog along the street every day.

The truth was, I knew what my novel was going to be about. It was a story I had been developing in my mind for many years. I’d even once started to write it down. The seed of my novel had begun with a sense of place. My place was the last home I lived in. An old, damp stone house nestled in the woods with a stream running past. This house and its surroundings inspired in me a feeling of poignancy. I wanted to write a story which reflected that feeling.  I began to create scenes and characters in my mind during my daily walks in the woods along the stream.

When you are a writer, your mind is constantly searching for and thinking about stories. We are story collectors. We find inspiration anywhere and everywhere.

Where do you get your novel ideas?

Write about what you know

When I first started to think about writing my novel, I decided it might be useful to enrol on an online course on FutureLearn, Start Writing Fiction. I signed up with the worrying feeling I was about to make a fool of myself, but it turned out to be a genuinely useful experience.

Considering it is free, the course is excellent and I recommend it as a warm-up to beginning writing again. There are lots of helpful tips on writing rituals, keeping a notebook, developing plots, inventing characters and generally getting going. The best thing about it for me though, was the fact I had to share my work for peer review. I hadn’t shown any of my writing to anybody for years. Everything I wrote had been screwed up and dumped in the bin. Sometimes, I’d gone further and burnt it.

The first time I clicked the mouse to share a piece of my work, I felt physically sick. My hands were shaking and butterflies were beating frantically at the walls of my stomach. It sounds pathetic now but I was terrified. I thought if someone tells me my work is worthless then my dream of getting this novel written is finished before I even begin. As it turned out, I received some positive comments which gave my confidence the boost it needed. There were one or two less positive remarks too. I agreed with some of them but not all. Those comments helped me to improve my writing and also realize that you can never please everyone. Getting the chance to review what other people had written was useful too. We should always be learning from other writers.

One of the first lessons on the course was writing about what you know. This is the advice given to all new writers. It had me in an immediate panic because my mind was yelling at me, your life is ordinary and uneventful, what do you know? What can you write about? Of course, no writer actually writes about their life exactly as it is. We are story tellers, after all. Writing about what you know means using your experiences, observing the detail in the environment and the people around you. Everyone’s life is a novel. We all have stories to tell. I knew I had a story brewing inside me. It had been there a long time. I’d begun writing it once before but it had ended up, you’ve guessed it, in the bin.

So to begin with, that lesson about writing what you know had me in a state. I wrote this poem about my feelings:

Write about what you


But what if you know


Empty head; a vacuum, vault, void.

Memories, dreams, sensations

slipping; sieving out of


Imagination once projected colour

cinema in the brain.

Thoughts now pile in corners; collect


Grasping at the whispered straws of an