How To Find And Capture Ideas For Your Novel with Joanna Penn

– Hello creatives,
I’m Joanna Penn from
and today I’m talking about how to find and capture
ideas for your novel. So one of the most common
questions that writers get asked is, where do
you get your ideas from? Now it’s funny now
because I’ve written quite a lot of novels,
but I still remember back when I used to
work in the cubicle farm in my old day job
and I never thought I would ever be able
to write a novel. I didn’t think I was creative,
I mean I wasn’t creative, I was implementing
accounts payable and I just had no ideas at all. So I actually had
to retrain my brain in order to start finding ideas and putting them
together into stories. So how can you
start to find ideas? Number one, trust
your curiosity. And in fact, even
more than that, you have to learn to
identify your curiosity. And this is really about
what you’re interested in. So if you go to a
new place or you walk into a bookstore,
where do you go first? If you walk into a museum, which section do
you want to go to? If you go to a park, which
people do you find interesting? What are the things
that catch your eye? Now, as authors,
we’re also readers, so what are the
genres that you read, what are the covers that
capture your attention? And this sort of
tuning in to what you’re curious about is
the beginnings of ideas. So I get a lot of ideas from
different books and websites. This is one of the books I
really like, Atlas Obscura. And this idea of
different places with interesting
objects and things, that’s where I get a lot of
my ideas for my ARKANE series. Because of course every
day we’re surrounded by millions of sensory
details and stimuli and people and things
and we could get completely overwhelmed,
but our brains hone in to the things that we’re
actually curious about. So start identifying
those and if you’re having a problem identifying them,
start thinking back to when you were at a time in your
life when you did notice. So what did you enjoy
when you were a child, what did you like looking at? Or, like I remember I always
wanted to be an archeologist. And when I was sort of
12, 13, I used to get a lot of ancient Egyptian
books and coloring books and that sort of
obsession with Egypt has carried through
into my novels. And of course ideas are
a bit like a muscle. So if you walk into
a gym right now and try to pick up like
50 kilos or something you won’t be able
to do that because you haven’t
developed the muscle. But if you start small and
you start working up to it, then that is something that
might be possible for you. And in the same way when
you start listening, when you start tuning in to
what you’re curious about, in that way you will start
to get more and more ideas. Because what inevitably happens, or what’s happened to me,
is you go from someone who doesn’t have any
ideas to someone who has so many ideas you don’t know
which one to write next. Number two, consume
in order to produce. Now one of the most common
reasons for writer’s block is that you’re trying to
create from an empty mind. And in fact I like The
Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron who talks about going
on an artist date, because you need to put
stuff into your head so that you can then
let ideas percolate and then you’ll be able to write from what is inside your head. But if you are not adding
new things into your brain it’s going to be very hard
to produce words on the page. So the idea of the artist
date is to make time, actually put a
time in your diary as if you were having a
date with somebody else and go and fill
your creative well. So that might be an art gallery, it might be a walk in
nature, it might be a trip, I do quite a lot of travel,
it might be traveling on YouTube or traveling
on Google Earth or something like that,
it might be reading, it might be anything
that actually adds new material
into your brain. You also need to
consider getting outside
your comfort zone because that’s where you’re
going to experience things that will give you ideas
beyond your normal life. So, for example, with my
book Desecration this, the idea for this book and
in fact the opening scene is set in the Hunterian
Museum in London, which is basically a
medical specimen museum. And I walked in there and I
had a real visceral reaction to seeing the human body
parts in these jars. And my first thought
because, let’s fact it, writers are weird,
is, what if there was a murder in the
middle of this museum? So there’s a dead body
surrounded by these body parts and how would that, you
know why would that happen in this sort of anatomy museum? So and that memory, that
sort of visceral reaction to a physical place, is what
starts many of my books. Another idea is to use a
MacGuffin, which in mysteries and thrillers is a thing
that the characters seek. So a really kind
of common one in the religious
thrillers that I enjoy is the Ark of the Covenant
and in fact I’ve used that in Ark of Blood, one
of my ARKANE thrillers. And basically,
obviously I haven’t seen the Ark of the Covenant,
nobody has, but it’s one of these fabled objects
that people seek. And you can use an object like, well any kind of object
in terms of a MacGuffin, and weave your
own original story around something other
authors have used. Another consideration is, what
fascinates you about people, or are there particular
characters that you see, or people that you notice
that are interesting, or even jobs that you think
it might be cool to do? So again, in Desecration,
I have a character who works at the British
Museum as a researcher. And I’ve been to the
British Museum a lot and I love it and the idea of
being a researcher somewhere where they would have access
to all these cool objects made me want to write a
character who was there and imagine what would
happen behind the scenes. So if you meet people
who are interesting or you see a film or
TV or you read a book about people who
are interesting, then write down some notes
about that character. And of course you can
and we all do use aspects of the real people in
our lives in our books, but just make sure you’re
making a sort of amalgamation of those people and
don’t use a real person in exactly the same
way in your fiction. Another way to spark ideas
is to use real events. So this book, Risen
Gods, which is a sort of dark fantasy thriller
set in New Zealand, now in 2011 there was a
devastating tidal wave and earthquakes that
really kind of destroyed the city of Christchurch
in New Zealand. Now I lived in New
Zealand for seven years and it’s a country that’s
on the Pacific Rim of Fire and it has a lot of
volcanic activity. So I imagined, what if
you were out sailing on that bay as the
tidal wave came in? And what if actually below
the surface of New Zealand there were gods
who wanted to take their land back, the
Maori gods for example? So that’s a, this is a
story that’s based on a real happening, so
the 2011 earthquake, but also a what
if question about thinking outside of
what actually happened or the reasons why it happened. So using real events in
fiction you can either, you know, if you’re writing
a historical novel of course you can use them in
a more normal way, but if you write fantasy
like me or thriller, you can take that into the
level of a different story. What if questions are also a
really good basis for stories. So take something like
The Stand by Stephen King which is, you know,
what if 99 percent of the population is
wiped out by a plague? And that book is
nearly 40 years old now and yet the
post-Apocalyptic genre continues to be more
and more popular as people imagine, what
if you are the one left after the destruction
of humanity? Or on a more, I
guess, upbeat note, what if a billionaire
came and offered you a contract to be
his live in lover, which some people may recognize
from Fifty Shades of Grey. Or something like The
Martian by Andy Weir, which started out as
a self-published book, which is, what if you
were stranded on Mars? So these are some
of the questions that could spark other ideas. Another way to spark ideas
is through the use of quotes. And many authors will put
quotes at the beginning of their novels as
a sort of reminder of the things that
sparked the idea. So at the beginning of my
thriller, Destroyer of Worlds is a quote from
the Bhagavad Gita, which was also
quoted by Oppenheimer when the first atomic
bomb went off which is, I am become Death,
destroyer of worlds. And so that quote I used
as the basis for a story about an ancient artifact
that is also a weapon that could destroy
India and the world because that’s what
you do with thrillers, you make it really big stakes. But that one quote encapsulated
the idea of the whole book. Then of course
you can use themes or societal issues
that you care about, but of course you don’t
want to be preachy, you want to use that in
ways within your story that people almost don’t realize
you’re talking about that. So this novel, it’s
a fantasy thriller, was written at a time when
the politics of the world were a lot around
borders and refugees and when Brexit happened
in Britain and the change in status around nationalism
and basically around borders. And that became the
backdrop of the book and I began to get fascinated
with maps and cartography, and what happened when
you draw a line on a map and who’s on one side and
who’s on the other side. These are big
issues but I turned it into a fantasy adventure. And I care about that topic a
lot, but if you read the book you might not even realize
that that is a theme. Then of course you can use
ideas from other books, because after all
we’re all readers. And as Pulitzer
Prize winning author Cormac McCarthy said, books
are made out of books. And of course there’s a
big difference between using your reading to
spark ideas and plagiarism, which is directly copying
things from other people. So we don’t plagiarize but
we do look at other ideas and mash them together and
create new things from them. So for example, my
short story collection A Thousand Fiendish Angels
is based on Dante’s Inferno. Now of course Inferno
is out of copyright, it’s very old now,
and my short stories were actually commissioned
for the launch of Dan Brown’s book,
Inferno, a few years back. And essentially I
got Dante’s book, I went through
it, I wrote notes, I wrote down the
language, how the sinners were kept down in Hell and then I incorporated that
into my own stories. And there are three
stories, a historical one, a modern day one, and
a post-Apocalyptic one all linked together by
a book of human skin because I write dark fiction. But of course the
stories themselves are full of references to Dante, but it’s not
plagiarized from Dante. One word of caution,
if you do take notes from other books,
be careful not to copy things down
word for word unless you’re going to use
it as a direct quote, you might just otherwise
plagiarize on purpose. So what I tend to do
is just take notes that are not a direct
copy, so that there’s just no way by accident
I can plagiarize. But really good to
take notes on books and it’s a huge part
of my research process. And then finally, make
sure you capture your ideas because there are
some people who think, oh, well, if it’s
a good enough idea I’ll remember it,
but it’s not true. When you start tuning in
to the number of ideas you have every day,
it’s just huge. And if you don’t write it down you won’t remember
it, I promise you. So you can write it
down in different ways. I have journals, and you
can see how fat this one is. I actually, I write in
them by hand and I also type sometimes and
print things out because I can actually type a lot
faster than I can write by hand. I use little ones which
I put in my handbag if I’m sort of
out and don’t have a bigger bag for
the larger notebook. I also use my phone
and I use Things app on the iPhone and
that syncs with my Mac so that I can pick
those notes up later, I also take a lot of photos. So when I do research
trips I, you know, I put those pictures on
Instagram @jfpennauthor and I also put them on Facebook and all the different places. I also have loads
more in my photo album that I use to
refer back to later to sort of refresh those ideas. Other people use apps like
Evernote or Scrivener. And of course it doesn’t
really matter how you do it, but it is important to
do it because otherwise you’ll just lose
track of those ideas. And if you start writing them
down you actually realize how many you have
and that’s cool. And then when you’re
writing a new book you can go back over your list, you can find things that
you thought were interesting and amalgamate them
into a new story. OK, so those are my
thoughts on how to find and capture ideas
for your novel. And if you’d like
more help, you can get your 7 Steps to Write
a Novel cheat sheet at TheCreativePenn.som/7steps. So happy writing and
I’ll see you next time.

23 Replies to “How To Find And Capture Ideas For Your Novel with Joanna Penn

  1. Fabulous ideas Joanna. You might consider writing/publishing a day planner based on what you just said. I would buy it!

  2. Really enjoying these videos! I would be interested in some more on dictating your story. Thank you for your amazing content.

  3. Sometimes I find the best way to get ideas for novels is to stop trying to look for it. I've gotten the best ideas just randomly when I least expected it.

  4. Extremely happy that you would be doing more writing videos! You're such an inspiration and somehow what you say is very easy to comprehend.

  5. I love that you've mentioned the MacGuffin! I think the idea of doing these videos (on the craft and the business) is a fantastic one. I'm looking forward to them. 🙂

  6. Thank you, Joanna! An extremely helpful video! Trying to get back to writing, and reminded me of how to get the creative juices flowing again. 🙂

  7. I get my ideas from everywhere. And when I say everywhere, I truly mean it.

    The place where I get most of my ideas however is in the shower. And that is the place where I lose most of them unfortunately. I hardly ever remember them once I step out the shower.

  8. Fantastic video Joanna, as always, but are you sitting on a space hopper ? I was slightly distracted by all the bouncing

  9. Great takeaways, Joanna! Just ordered a copy of "Atlas Obscura"… #inspired Also loving the videos and seeing your lovely face! ;D

  10. Great tips! You're so right about opening the floodgates of capturing ideas – write it down! Regarding avoiding plagiarism while taking notes, when I was getting my Master's back in the day, the opposite strategy worked for me. When I wanted to record an important idea or passage for future use, I copied it word for word and included quotation marks to indicate an exact quote, so that in future I could have something to reference to help me avoid inadvertently using an exact phrase without attribution.

  11. Hi Joanna,
    great video, love your material.
    I have a question about plagiarism.
    I am researching a project that deals with material from early church fathers. I want to write a book that gives commentary on their writings and uses their original writings.
    What are the guidelines and suggested boundaries for using very old material like that?

    Don't steal my ideas or I will hunt you down and seek an autograph. 🙂 Just kidding, I'm too busy writing. 🙂

  12. Loved your video. Also, thought I'd let you know I shared your video on my blog here:

  13. great video! I have a story idea – my great grandfathers journey and life, however I don't want to write a biography, but I don't know how to tweek it into something else – any suggestions where to find inspiration?

  14. FABULOUS tips… but I especially love the suggestions for starting small… for those of us whose creative minds have atrophied over the years 🙂 Looking forward to exercising this muscle!

  15. Great ideas! How do you get over thinking your ideas are stupid or won't work? Not just the idea for the story as a whole, but the little ideas within the story for subplots, etc., I often feel that my ideas are stupid or won't work. So how to get over that and just give the ideas a try?

  16. I often get ideas when looking at pictures and paintings and a story will just begin to come alive. I also am artistic and create collages and junk journals and through these stories and ideas also begin to come alive. Whether they will ever get told, I don't know but pictures is a way I get a lot of ideas.

  17. What if I have an abundance of ideas, but then have a problem with turning those into complete stories? …Because that's the problem I'm having. Plenty of mind images that stuck with me for years, but whenever I sit down to write, there isn't any narrative, and when I ask questions to find one, the image becomes diluted and nonsensical. Any advice?

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