Category Archives: writer’s block

“What If….” Generating Story Ideas

One of the most common questions I get asked when people find out I’m a writer is “Where do you get your story ideas?” It sounds like a straightforward question, but answering it is much more complex, however, than I think most people realize.

The simple answer is “They just come to me,” but that makes it sound like some sort of mystical dreamlike process involving fairies or a magic spell or something.

Honestly, sometimes they do come in dreams, but the majority of them don’t, and I don’t know anyone who’s tried to write who didn’t struggle with this issue when they first began.

For me, every story begins with daydreaming about a “what if” scenario.

  • What if vampires were real and one sat down and told his life story to a reporter?
  • What if young medical student found a way to bring the dead back to life?
  • What if on the other side of the mirror, there was another world?
  • What if a poor girl meets a rich guy at a party and they hate each other right away because of bad first impressions?

All of those are the basic premises of books that went on to become wildly successful, but each started from a simple “what if” situation.

The vampire series I wrote began as “What if Marie Antoinette was a vampire and was still alive?” Everything else in the plot developed out of that with a series of reporter’s questions – who, what, when, where, why, how.

  • If she’s a vampire, where is she living now?
  • Why did she move there?
  • How did she adapt to the modern world?
  • What does she do for a living?
  • How did she escape the guillotine?
  • Who helped her?

Once I answered those questions, I  continued asking more “what if” questions to keep searching for a plot.

Asking “What if she still has enemies?” led to more reporter’s questions.

  • Who are they?
  • Why do they hate her?
  • What do they want?
  • Where did she meet them?
  • How long have they been searching for her?

My plot grew out of those questions/answers.

Whenever I find myself stuck, I return to asking myself questions to think through the next scene or plot point.

I keep multiple notebooks where I write down these ideas whenever they come to me. But I find that just waiting around for a muse to arrive doesn’t work. I have to give it a push. My muse is lazy, and she doesn’t seem to bring me story ideas in some magical way. For me, it comes from consciously seeking out story. Allowing myself time to daydream. Actively encouraging daydreaming, in fact.

If I wake up from a dream with an idea for a story, it’s because I’ve been asking myself those what if questions before bed, and my brain worked on the problem while I was sleeping. There’s nothing mystical about it.

There isn’t a trick to suddenly having good ideas for stories. You can’t just sit with blank paper and wait for the story to arrive. Generating them takes effort and practice. Not every idea is going to work, and not every story will become successful. But the more you actively train your brain to daydream in a productive way, the more you learn how to generate interesting stories.


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The Thing About the Writing Thing

I write stuff because I don’t know how to not write stuff. It’s just something I have always done. I tell stories. Sometimes, when I think they’re interesting enough, I write them down. I would write for myself even if I thought no one else would ever read it.

However, I’m going to be honest right now. I want other people to read it. Not in an academic sort of way. I don’t care if something I write gets put into a textbook and studied 100 years from now. Well, okay, a teeny part of me would be flattered. But let’s be serious. That’s about as likely as winning the lottery. I just want to write stuff that people like. Things that entertain. And, yes, I would like to be paid for it. Because if I get paid for it, I can afford the time to write more of it.

Keats Life and LettersI don’t care about writing a book that has a “moral” or a “message” for the reader. Frankly, if a writer cares more about a story’s message than about the characters and whether the reader is entertained, I’m not interested in reading it. That doesn’t mean entertaining books can’t teach us something. I’m just saying, I don’t believe that should be the primary goal of fiction.

Keats wrote in his letters about the purpose of poetry, saying that:

We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us—and if we do not agree, seems to put its hand in its breeches pocket. Poetry should be great & unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one’s soul, and does not startle it or amaze it with itself but with its subject.—How beautiful are the retired flowers! how would they lose their beauty were they to throng into the highway crying out, ‘admire me I am a violet! dote upon me I am a primrose! (Selections from Keats’s letters, Poetry Foundation)

I think you could substitute the word “fiction” where he says “poetry.” I don’t read fiction to be lectured to. If I gain some sort of insight after reading  a story, that’s a bonus. But first and foremost, I want to be caught up by the words. I want to find the book so engaging that I can’t stop reading it. I want to be excited enough to share it with others.

That’s what I aspire to do as a writer. To create something that fascinates the reader. To tell a story that is worth the telling.

Character Questionnaire from The Script Lab – Whenever I get stuck and can’t seem to make forward motion on a story, I work on character. For me, character is where all story comes from. If you know the characters deeply, then every action and reaction flows from that. You can anticipate what they will say, how they will react in given situations, ways that they will challenge other characters, etc. Sometimes, knowing your character means doing research, though it may also mean simply digging deep within to conjure up those details that make the character come alive for the reader.

One last thing about writing that I want to share is this TED talk video with Amy Tan talking about Where Does Creativity Hide, which is a question I find fascinating as well:

Random Interesting Stuff (or How I Cut My Distractions and Got Busy Writing Book 2)

How to Break Through Your Creative Block by Maria Popova for Brain Pickings
I’m working on this. I get easily distracted and sidetracked with to-do lists and social media, and then the next thing I know I’m taking a nap. My solution is two-fold.

  1. This blog is going to be my repository of distracting but interesting stuff. Rather than posting several times a day, I’m going to try to limit myself to a few posts at the beginning and end of the day, saving up interesting ephemera for one single blogpost every day or so.
  2. When I’m staring at a blank page or screen, unsure how to start, I take about 5-10 minutes and do a prewriting just to get things rolling. Instead of worrying about how I’m going to say just the right thing, I start instead with writing about what I’m going to write about. I don’t worry about grammar or paragraph breaks or any of that. Sometimes it’s just a list. But I’m thinking about the scene and what I want to have happen. By the time I’ve told myself what I’m going to tell, it’s easy to start telling it. The hard work is done.

Why Dogs Make Fun Writing Partners by Jennifer Robson for Writer’s Digest
I loved this article, and I couldn’t agree more. Layla needs a break about as often as I need a new cup of coffee, so that’s a partnership that works. Plus, she keeps my feet warm. I keep her bed right behind my chair, though she often chooses to lie down under my desk or on the rug at my side. She’s a good companion since she doesn’t say much but is an excellent listener.

“The Poisoner’s Handbook,” American Experience . WGBH | PBS
My high school English teacher sent me a link to this video on Facebook, and it was definitely worth watching. I’ve always loved murder mysteries and true crime, so it was interesting to me to see the development of this end of CSI work.

Vampires: Folklore, fantasy and fact – Michael Molina 


I don’t think I really need to explain why I find this short video sent to me by a friend so fascinating and fun.

Vampire ForensicsVampire Forensics
I bought this book for my Kindle, and I’m really enjoying the details inside. Though I can’t reveal just how (spoilers!), there are definite ways this book will inform some of the things that happen in Book 2. As a reader, I always like knowing that an author has done his/her homework, so I want to be sure I’m following through on that expectation too.

I’ve got a few more books on their way, and I’ll be doing some book reviews once I’m finished reading for those who are interested in vampire lore and history.

History of Magic and Experimental Science
I bought this set of books at the last library book sale. None of them had been read in 30 years or more, but the title alone is fascinating. It’s an encyclopedic study of how superstitions about witchcraft and alchemy developed over the course of several centuries into what we now call the sciences.

These books are far too lengthy for me to read straight through beginning to end, but they are wonderful to dip in and out of. Vampires and other supernatural creatures are discussed throughout history, beginning with the Greek NeoPlatonists. Creepy geeky goodness. There are certainly ways in which I will be using information found here.