One of the Best Ways to Find Writing Ideas

The Gleaners. Jean-François Millet. 1857

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

I'm currently in the process of researching and plotting a book. In the grand scheme of things, this current project will end up being the 16th book I've completed.

After 15 other books, I find myself asking questions like: How in the world can I find ideas for another story? What if I've used up all my best ideas already? What if I pick a plot, character, or theme that is repetitious of something I've already written (or that someone else has written)?

Whether our fifth or fifteenth book, we must always be on the lookout for fresh, unique, and vibrant story ideas. Modern writers just can't afford to publish something unoriginal or mediocre, especially in today's overcrowded book market. It's already tough enough to grip our readers' hearts and minds with a fresh story, much less one that lacks luster.

So how do we do it? How can we keep on finding unique plots and characters time after time?

As I've been plotting my current book, I've realized that one of the best ways for writers to find ideas is through READING voraciously.

Obviously there are numerous benefits to reading, especially for writers. We can keep abreast of what is being published. We can stay familiar with genre expectations. We can improve our own story-telling. We can study fiction-writing techniques. And we can support fellow authors.

But one of the most important reasons for writers to read voraciously is to glean story ideas. Notice I didn't say steal or copy ideas. Obviously we'd get into a LOT of trouble if we take what someone else has created and rewrite it to make it ours. That's pretty much the same thing as plagiarizing.

No, I'm talking about gleaning. In the olden days, gleaning was a farming term. It basically meant that poorer people could walk along behind harvesters and pick up the crops or grains that were left. One little bit here. One little bit there. With enough time and effort, the poor person could fill a sack with enough to get them by.

Gleaning in our reading works the same way. We read with our eyes wide open, constantly scanning the landscape of the story. We search for little morsels that interest us that we can stick in a bag (aka file) and perhaps use in one of our stories.

For example, I'm currently reading The Secret Garden with my two youngest children. The main character Mary falls in love with the gardens surrounding her new home, particularly a hidden garden. The book is full of references to various flowers, horticulture, etc. And so it gave me the idea to make my newest heroine a lover of flowers.

Now of course, I gave my heroine a deeper motivation for why she plants her flower garden than simply to round out her characterization with a fun, different hobby. I try not to randomly assign my characters hobbies or interests just for the sake of giving them one. Instead I attempt to relate everything together to the plot like a giant puzzle where all the pieces eventually fit together.

But the point is that I took that tiny tidbit of an idea from The Secret Garden and I made it something much bigger and relevant to my story.

I can't tell you how many kernels I glean from books I'm reading, when I stop and think, "Oh I like that idea, but what if I changed it and did this instead?"

The books we read spark our imagination, turn on our creativity, and get us thinking in a deeper way than ordinary.

I not only glean ideas from the fiction I'm reading but also from the non-fiction. In fact, for my historical romances, I garner even more ideas from biographies and other history books than anything else. I would guess that contemporary writers could gather a wealth of ideas from reading newspapers, magazine articles, or memoirs.

We might pull an interesting setting idea from one book. Cut a character trait or two from another. Find a fascinating plot twist somewhere else. And when we start piecing them all together into the frame of our story, then we end up with a creation that is uniquely our own.

My Summary: Writers, if you're struggling with finding ideas, then read voraciously. If you're already reading, then keep your eyes open and look around. You'll be surprised at what you glean!

Where do YOU find you find your best writing ideas? Do you ever get ideas from the books you're reading? 


  1. These are great quotes. I've always liked the saying if you want to be a writer, read. I like the gleaning idea and how you explained it with The Secret Garden.

  2. Hands down, the best ideas come from reading other novels! I'm impressed that you glean from non-fiction, too. For some reason, I don't find as much creativity-sparking there as I do with fiction.

    I think Kate Morton took some kernels away from The Secret Garden for her novel The Forgotten Garden. It's a book that probably has inspired many others, too.

  3. Oh, I agree! I've gotten some of my best ideas through minor characters of books I've read. Love this!

  4. My best ideas come from music. I'll listen to a particular piece and an idea for a scene to fit it will come to mind. I go from there.

  5. "Gleaning!" Looks like a chicken-egg paradox.

    No "gleaning", no writing. You will have no idea on what and how to write.

    No writing, no effective gleaning. You will never understand and learn how to glean.

    Interesting hint to find the balance between inspiration and plagiarizing.

  6. Absolutely! I think you are right on, Jody! Great post!!! :)

  7. Love the idea of gleaning. It makes perfect sense when you think about it.

    I also find ideas for my stories in music. You never know when a lyric to a song will inspire a scene or a new character. Also, sometimes I get ideas for future characters or a setting by watching a television show.

  8. I get great ideas from images. This is one reason why I spend far too much time on Pinterest.
    My goal is to write fiction that integrates lesser known history from the area I live in. Visiting museums is a fun part of the research process.

  9. Thank you for sharing, everyone! It's interesting to hear that several of you also find ideas from music! Sometimes I find themes from lyrics or the inspiration for a character arc. But I hadn't thought about gleaning more from music. I'll have to keep that in mind!

  10. I get many great ideas from news headlines and television shows. They spark a creative process that takes its own direction once it's started. Then I jot down the ideas before I forget them. I've discovered the hard way that something inspirational and revolutionary is soon forgotten unless I make a record of it.

  11. Although I'm not a novelist, I find MANY ideas from the books/subjects we read about in our homeschool. Quite a few of the educational/non-fiction articles I've written have their roots in the kernels I've gleaned from my children's assignments. In fact, I once wrote an article about finding writing ideas while helping children with homework. :) Great post!

  12. That pesky apostrophe in my last name. Blogger does NOT like it. Sheesh! :)

  13. I often, as you nicely called it, glean ideas from books, TV-shows, anime, etc. And after reading about underrepresented minorities such as characters of colour or LGBT characters I started getting tons of ideas for stories about them instead of the old boring straight white leads. :D


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