Where Do Authors Get Their Ideas?

Herbert the Ghost by illustrator Tiffany Tutti
Secret in the Stars,
Book 1
 Abi Wunder Mystery series

By Linda Wilson @LinWilsonauthor  

Authors’ ideas for their stories come in many sizes and shapes. One might begin with an event that the author has witnessed or heard about. In the author’s trusty notebook, always with her, she jots down people, events, feelings, really anything that she observes. Later, one of these observations might fascinate her enough to develop into a story. Another author might read lots of stories in the chosen genre—such as mystery or adventure—and a story idea begins to form. And yet another might begin with a character, or even a title. James Howe thought of his character Bunnicula long before he wrote the book. R.L. Stine wrote the books in his Goosebumps series only after thinking up the titles. Many story ideas result from research into a similar or entirely different topic than your blossoming story idea. Jotting down your thoughts and ideas is a good practice. Many an author has learned that they think they’re going to remember an idea then find later that it is lost to them simply because they didn’t write it down. 

Secret in the Stars, Book 1 of the Abi Wunder Mystery series, began with an event: a visit to a Bed & Breakfast where I used to live in Purcellville, Virginia. One special occasion we had so many guests, some needed to stay at a B & B a mile down the road from our house. Before our guests arrived, I paid the B & B a visit. The 17th century white-washed stone building loomed high on a hill, down a long, winding dirt road. Along the way, cows grazed on lush green grass and flowers bloomed in gardens, completing the Virginia country charm. The proprietress sat me down in the old-fashioned parlor and regaled me with tales of the many renovations her husband had recently completed. The kitchen, modern, yet decorated with antique earthenware jars, pitchers, teapots and tin boxes, had been his latest project, she crowed. On our way upstairs to see the bedrooms, I thought she said, “Oh, here’s my husband now.” I turned, expecting to see her husband climbing up the stairs behind us. But I saw no one. Her eyes fell on a silhouette stenciled on the wall. I followed her gaze, of a man in overalls and straw hat, lantern in hand, appearing to hurry up the stairs. Without another word, she continued up to the second-floor landing.

I followed, perplexed. Where was her husband, I wondered? I asked her, still expecting to see him. She looked surprised and said, “Oh, he died a year ago.” Died? But he’s here. I can feel his presence. He hadn’t yet left her side. I knew that, though how I’ll never know. But I felt the truth of his presence in my bones. She tilted her head in the oddest way and further explained, “Why, I lost my Herbert a year ago, to the day!” I still get goose bumps every time I think of this eerie coincidence. She added, “I painted Herbert’s silhouette on the wall, as he so often looked on his way to bed.” Color rose to her cheeks, “I suppose it’s silly, but it’s my way of keeping his memory alive.”

And that’s how the Hilltop ghost story came to be. Of course, Herbert and the Hilltop Inn are entirely fiction. But perhaps you can see why I’ve never been able to forget the experience. One eerie incident and the Abi Wunder series was born. 

My idea for Book 2 in the Abi Wunder Mystery series, Secret in the Mist, formed while doing research for Book 1. I learned that the town of Purcellville had once attracted a Quaker population who had moved to the area from Pennsylvania in the early 1700s. In 2005 when we moved in, from my bedroom window I enjoyed a pastoral view of the gentle slope of a grassy hill that bordered West Virginia, a marsh that attracted red-wing blackbirds, bullfrogs, and tall grasses and cattails; and an old abandoned farmhouse and barn, across the road from our house. After studying photos of people who lived in the Purcellville area in the 1700s and 1800s, it wasn’t a far stretch to envision a young girl who might have lost her life in a riding accident, and had returned to locate her long-lost horse. The Misty Maiden, as the ghost came to be called, rises out of the marsh and tantalizes Abi and Jess with several appearances. Abi realizes the ghost wouldn’t have come back if she didn't need help; and the two friends embark on their next adventure.

Tall Boots, a picture book that I have submitted for possible publication with a traditional publisher, is about a young girl who is in a beginning 4-H horseback riding class. As a beginner, she wears red rubber boots that were really her galoshes, and dreams of becoming a skilled rider who one day would wear bonified tall, black leather riding boots. In the story, she finds herself in the ring with the advanced class at a 4-H show. Her horse jumps the hurdle, a skill she hadn’t yet learned. She is rewarded with a 4-H medallion that qualifies her to join the advanced class. This is a fictionalized version of a true story, an experience one of our neighbors had had, which at the time, I recognized as a potential story. 

A Packrat Holiday: Thistletoe’s Gift, a picture book available soon, illustrated by Nancy Batra, came about from a white-water rafting trip I took with my family down the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. At night, we slept under the stars and rarely needed a blanket. The climate is so dry there are virtually no mosquitoes or insects, which in itself was a freedom seldom enjoyed on camping trips. In the morning, we’d find tiny footprints all over our campsite—packrats—searching for little treasures, whatever they could find. After our trip, I researched packrats and loved the little creatures so much that I envisioned a home life for them in their underground den made of twigs and cactus bits under a rocky crevice.

Once I latch onto an idea, I like to plan out my story. I’ve created a Snapshot of the process I went through while developing Secret in the Stars. 

Snapshot of Secret in the Stars

Event that sparked the idea: My eerie encounter with a “ghost” at a B & B

Protagonist: Abi

Sidekick: Jess

Ghost: Herbert

Antagonist: Norman & Angel

Blame Herbert’s wife, Dee, for his death and want to tear down the inn

Main Characters: Pop, Abi’s grandfather, Dee, Herbert’s dog Star, Jess

Setting: The Hilltop Inn, lake & woods

Plot: Abi must save the inn and prove Dee’s innocence

Conflict: Abi vs Norman & Angel

Resolution: Abi finds a way to reach her goal

How characters are affected: Each character learns something

What Abi learns: Abi realizes that she possesses a natural ability to know unexplained phenomenon. She doesn’t learn where this ability comes from until Book 2, Secret in the Mist.

How Abi has grown: The story started with Abi as a little girl, unhappy that she’s missing Art Camp, and not paying attention to her appearance. She grows into helping others and herself.

   The Abi Wunder Mystery series is a trilogy. The end of Book 1, Secret in the Stars, hints at what’s to come in Book 2, Secret in the Mist, and Book 3, Secrets of the Heart, completes Abi’s journey into herspecial ability to see into the unknown, with an insight into what she can do with it in her future.

When I first started Secret in the Stars, I couldn’t have filled out the entire plan. If this process works for you, fill out only the parts that you know, then spend time thinking about how you want to form your story, jot down notes, until you have enough to begin writing. Remember this rule of thumb: give yourself time to develop your story. If you lay the groundwork first, such as by creating a diagram or snapshot of the story parts, then you have most of the work done before you even begin to write. Once I developed this process, it saved me a lot of time. And it has helped me enjoy writing stories much more than when I used to wing it. 

Linda Wilson, is a former elementary teacher and ICL graduate. She has published over 150 articles for children and adults, and several short stories for children. Visit Linda at https://www.lindawilsonauthor.com and on Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/author/lindawilsonchildrensauthor.


Terry Whalin said...


Thank you for this important article. Many writers wonder where do we get our ideas--and as you pointed out in this article, they come from many different places. The key is writing them down and then taking action and executing the idea.


lastpg said...

Absolutely! Just writing down ideas doesn't cut it. Writers need to spend the time to develop the ideas into stories and articles. And that takes some time to study and learn. You've made excellent points! Thanks!

Karen Cioffi said...

Linda, this is great advice for writers to understand how an experience can be a catalyst for a story. I've have experiences that motivated me to write poems and even two songs. As Terry mentioned, the key is to write those experiences down then take action when you're ready.

deborah lyn said...

Well said and shared Linda! Thank you.

lastpg said...

Thank you Karen and Deborah. Taking action is important, maybe while leaning against a tree or jotting down notes on a walk. Inspiration can come at the oddest times. But then seat-time must happen to get the story written and published.

Carolyn Howard-Johnson said...

What would be writers do for inspirations with other authors who share! Thank you, Linda. Lovely!
Best and Happy Holidays,

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