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Where Do You Get Ideas

This might seem like a silly question but is it ok to use a news story for the basis of a novel? The story in question is about 3 particular non-celebrity teenagers. I’m fascinated by what happened and would like to write a fictional account of the events that might have led to the incident but I don’t want to infringe on anyone’s rights obviously.

Never a silly question! There are no silly questions, just questions that aggravate me. This, however, is not a question that aggravates me. It’s a great question.

You can get your ideas from anywhere you want. I think news stories are probably the basis of more novels than I can count, just like other novels are the basis for novels. As are music lyrics, actual life events, dreams, brilliant agents, and your mom’s bedtime stories.

To be honest with you, when it comes to a great idea, it’s not the idea or where it came from that really matters, it’s what you do with it. I wish I knew how many times I read an article, saw a news story or read a book and had an “aha” moment. Ask my authors. I’m regularly taking notes on “brilliant” (I use that word loosely) ideas and shipping them off to my clients for execution.

Being fascinated is the first step to creating a great story. As long as you’re not using actual names, details, etc. In other words, as long as you’re fictionalizing the story you can do whatever you want with it. That’s the beauty of fiction.


Category: Blog



  1. How about this: Have you ever read a badly-written query, plucked out the interesting idea or concept and given it to one of your clients for execution?

  2. No, she would not do that. Agents don't steal ideas, at least reputable ones don't. Don't worry about that!

    Thanks for answering this question! It's been on my mind, too. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction in brilliant ways.

  3. I think we all do this to one extent or another. No matter what incident or story sparks an idea, it's what happens once we take the idea and run with it that turns it into our own work.

    It's all about imagination and voice and the act of creating a story. And work. LOTS of work!

  4. What a great question and answer!

    I'm all about the visual. I can see something either real or in a picture or in a movie (a lone flower in a 2oo-year-old cemetery inspired the book that snagged me my agent; an antique circus poster inspired another). But whatever it is, it has to be either vividly beautiful or haunting in some way to trigger that fascination factor.

    I have pictures upon pictures saved in my computer that in some way "spoke" to me, and I'll one day get around to writing out all of those ideas. If I live to be one hundred, that is. ;-P

  5. I've wondered this, as well. We are such a litigious society. How much fictionalizing is enough? Rhetorical question–I know you're an agent, not a lawyer 🙂

    I agree with Anita…visual cues are so compelling.

  6. I've gotten lots of ideas from documentaries! I am a nature show junkie too so I pull ideas from those. Other books too. Sometimes there will be a toss away line in a book and I think "Wait a minute! What about this…"

  7. That is good to hear. There is a song by a well-known singer that I would love to turn into a book. Every time I'd hear the song, I could see the events unfolding. I have always said, "that should be a book", and even though it's not my genre, I'd love to take a stab at it.

  8. @Jenny S.– I am not a lawyer, so take this with salt/skepticism/etc., but if a TV show can get away with a "ripped from the headlines" story, so could a novel. I think it's a matter of not using names, and it's probably wise to make events unfold a little differently in your book. For example, you might get in trouble if you fictionalized the Natalee Holloway case. But writing about a different, fictional girl who goes on a trip to an exotic island and disappears…well, of course that's allowed.

  9. "Triggers" fascinate me. Every author I've talked with has them, and the diversity of things that can prompt writing (or any other creative art) is amazing.

    I'm currently working on a fiction manuscript that was triggered by a single sentence in a book on the history of black powder. Staying open to that inspiration is probably one of the best talents a writer can acquire. (Well, if you don't count things like grammar, punctuation, style, plot and character development … you know, the "easy stuff…")

  10. It depends. Some manuscripts result from where I'm living at the time (landscape, friends, etc)–others from something as fleeting as an observed couple on a street corner. Usually the inspirations for my stories are relationship-based, but in my genre (women's fiction) that tends to be the driving force of my stories no matter what.

    Of course, as well all know, the ideas are the easy part…fleshing them out into a manuscript is the challenge.

  11. It can something as simple as the line in a song or a quirky thought I have. Something random I hear somewhere can spark the idea for me. I think it's an interesting sujbect but nebulous and hard to nail down. 🙂

  12. I have a quick question, if that's all right. So many different agencies state that they are not excepting "science fiction", but fantasy is often classified with Science Fiction. If I've written a fantasy novel and I'm looking for an agent, should I assume that the agent won't accept my genre simply because they don't accept science fiction, or vise versa?

    Also, my novel just happens to be christian fantasy, but is that considered a cross-over genre? Because there are those out there who want fantasy but not christian, or christian but not fantasy… or who will except either but not if the two are combined. It gets really confusing.

    Thank you for taking the time to read this. These questions have been bothering me for some time.

  13. I also would really like to know an answer to the question in the first comment by anonymous – How about this: Have you ever read a badly-written query, plucked out the interesting idea or concept and given it to one of your clients for execution?

    And my own question, when you have seen what could be a good idea for one of your authors, have you ever sent that idea, at the same time, to more than one writer?

  14. I get my stories from dreams. But I kind of cheat in that I take my multi-vitamin at night (I tend not to up-chuck in my sleep) and the zinc in it gives you crazy dreams. No, really. Google it.

  15. Susan, is your publisher going to mention this as part of the publicity? What's the title?

    "My first published book was based on a news story. It's actually the hook that got me published. ;o)


    "That is good to hear. There is a song by a well-known singer that I would love to turn into a book. Every time I'd hear the song, I could see the events unfolding. I have always said, "that should be a book", and even though it's not my genre, I'd love to take a stab at it."

    Uh, this one is really iffy. It sounds like you're planning on ripping off a ballad and writing it as a novel? And it's not even your genre? How about you just enjoy the visual film you see in your head whenever you hear this song? Otherwise, you may find you've spent 6 months on something that you don't really have the rights to, that really wasn't suited to your talents anyway.

  16. I am constantly inspired by the news! The news is just crazy these days (Barefoot Bandit, anyone?). The truth truly is stranger than fiction, but fiction can be quite entertaining as well. 😀

  17. From the blog: "To be honest with you, when it comes to a great idea, it’s not the idea or where it came from that really matters, it’s what you do with it."

    That's so easy for a non-writer to say.

    If you admit it is a "great idea," then maybe it matters to the writer who had it stolen from her from another writer, who beat her to publication? Maybe it matters to the film company who went to great lengths to protect the concept, even coding screenplay pages in invisible ink, so if the pages got out, they could trace it back to the employee that shared it?

    Of course execution matters, but that doesn't take away from the value of a "great idea." Or the importance of protecting it.

  18. Last post was me – I wanted to add that a news story is not a "great idea" in and of itself. It's just a news story and very few have a beginning, middle and an end with all the dips inbetween. They just have the spark of the story.

    That is different from a writer's plotline, a writer's premise for a story. Or, like one person suggested, a writer's song ballad.

  19. I eavesdrop on conversations people are having at my local Panera. And I have realized that the conversations are different in various parts of the City (Chicago) but basically the same ideas!

  20. Anonymous 9:10 am —
    No, we certainly wouldn't take ideas from bad query letters and give them to our writers. Frankly, we don't need to. Between our own agency brainstorming sessions and our clients' ideas, they have plenty to work on.

    There have been a handful of times that we've received queries that had the same "hook" as a project one of our clients was simultaneously working on. This isn't the miraculous coincidence that some might believe. I know that writers usually don't like to hear this, but there really are very few original ideas anymore. More often it's a unique "take" on a familiar idea and in those cases it's all about the execution. And truthfully, that's not something that would be easy for just any writer to copy. So why would we ask our clients to try, when they're more likely to execute their own great ideas much better?

    Anonymous 6:51 pm —
    If we brainstorm and come up with a great idea at the office, we never have more than one author pursue the project at the same time. If the first client we approach isn't interested in it, then we may pass it on to someone else. But it would never really be in our best interest to have our own clients competing against each other. We'd just give another great idea to that second author. That way we're potentially selling two projects instead of competing against each other for one.

    The only circumstance when we might have a situation where our authors were both pursuing the same project is if a publisher came to us with a specific project they want us to fulfill. These projects need to be pursued quickly, before the publisher approaches other agencies. In that circumstance it's possible that if we had two clients with similar qualifications (especially for nonfiction), then we might have them each put together a proposal and let the editor decide which they prefer. But honestly, I can't remember us ever falling into that situation either.

  21. Kim, thank you for clearing that up, and also letting us in on how agencies work with story ideas. I find the whole thing exciting and fascinating.

    I've long since gotten over my fear of agents stealing my ideas. Now I'm just trying to write what I think is an original idea before I see it in a Pixar film. 😉 It's extremely difficult to be original these days.

  22. @ Anon. 8:26

    There's absolutely no reason not to turn a ballad into a novel if you do it the same way you'd do with the news: change names, fictionalize details, etc. The essential core of the story is likely to still be there, minus any chance of being hauled up for copyright infringement.

    As for "not suited to your talents," that remark comes very close to being insulting. At best, it's ill-considered, since you presumably don't know the writer, or have any idea what her talents are. While experimenting in a different genre does not work out well for some, it does for others. The writer will never know whether it would have worked or not unless she tries.

    My opinion: good luck and go for it!

  23. What about historical fiction?
    Surely it's OK to use real names and actual events to describe scenes, action and characters?

  24. @ Anonymous, 10:58am July 13:

    I'll bite on this one – and as it happens I am a copyright attorney as well as a writer (…of historical fiction), so here's the scoop.

    There is no copyright on historical facts. The copyright on historical fiction applies to the fictitious elements (character, setting, plot to the extent the author chooses which scenes to dramatize from among the facts and to the extent the author "creates" fictitious scenes and/or dialogue) and to the choice of facts the author includes. For example, every commenter in this thread could write a novel about the sinking of the Titanic without necessarily violating existing copyrights, but the minute you copy the unique elements of the love story from the Cameron film (and probably the minute you name your main character "Rose") you're in danger, and probably over the line.

    If you're writing about people who are still living at the time of writing and publication, there are additional issues – but most definitions of "historical fiction" don't consider works written during the subject's lifetime to be "historical fiction" anyway.

    There's plenty more to say, but that's the nutshell version, and I'd rather not hijack the comment thread any more than absolutely necessary to be helpful.

  25. Lucy, I really wasn't making a value judgement. This is regarding the writer who wanted to use a ballad as the basis of her story because she could see the scenes, even though it wasn't her genre.

    Of course you can take someone's ballad and change the names and try to build a novel from it. You can also take fairy tales or the news or whatever.

    But I encourage writers to go beyond the first impulse of "Oh, that would make a great story" because they appreciate the visual scenes or events suggested by that piece of art. No doubt others love that ballad because it does that for everyone. Does that mean you should use it to write your next novel (even though it isn't your genre)? Maybe, if you're that passionate about it. If it were me, I'd contact the "well-known writer" and see if they are open to this. You'll have the punch of their celebrity when marketing time comes around.

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