Notes from An Alien

~ Explorations In Reading, Writing & Publishing ~

Where Do Writers Find Their Ideas?

From that little bunny that pops out of the magician’s hat?

From dragons who’ve run out of knights to fight?

From bookies who moonlight as creative content dispensers?

Ya think??

One of the most common sources claimed for the brilliant ideas writers sometimes display is the fabled Muse. I’ll come back to that source in a minute…

Some writers steal their ideas.

I’m not talking about plagiarism. What they do is “borrow” plots, characters, or themes from books they’ve read. Then, they dress them in different clothes, do some creative plastic surgery, or otherwise mold them into more original guises.

Some people contend there are an extremely limited number of plots and character types available to humans and all writers are always dipping into that pool of dreams. This relates to the Muse and I’ll bring it back up shortly…

There are writers who will tell you there is no magic or psychological mystery to how they come up with ideas for stories. These folks are in the minority and just might be unaware that they’re attributing far to much power to their naturally-limited conscious mind…

Most of us don’t go around all day, or sit at our desks all day, and remain aware of the vast territories of a resource we all share, the Collective Unconscious.

Apparently, we all have a rich storehouse of Archetypes, deep in a space in our minds, that holds idea-complexes that “drive” us to create stories; or, if we don’t take care of our mental hygiene, drive us to sociopathic acts. Hence, many writers’ conversations about the therapeutic value of their work…

The archetypes of the collective unconscious include powerful, basic ideas represented as mythic characters like: The Mother, The Virgin, The Hag, The Hero, The Child, The Lover, The Beast, and, of course, the Beloved Muse who seems to be destined to carry these ideas from their deep haunts up to the light of the writer’s conscious mind…

All this psycho-mumble may or may not be true. But, the entire contents of a book that thrills us and helps us change our lives may or may not be true…

I’m betting on the bookie :-)
Where do your bright ideas come from?
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41 responses to “Where Do Writers Find Their Ideas?

  1. Gwen February 4, 2011 at 5:55 pm

    I think a lot of our ideas come from our surroundings. Real life with a twist. I think we do borrow from others. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If you read and like a vampire story you try and write your own… end of the world stories are very common. I am attempting to write one of those.


    • Alexander M Zoltai February 4, 2011 at 6:07 pm

      Hi, Gwen!

      Yes, we do borrow lots of what we write, some from conscious sources, some from little-known sources…

      I imagine writing within a specific genre presents a unique challenge–the balance of the borrowings with the creative use of what’s borrowed.


  2. Karla Telega February 4, 2011 at 6:47 pm

    There are so many sub-genres in Mysteries, that it’s easy to borrow a little of the structure, or formula from each. In real life, different disciplines have tried to break human characteristics into stereotypical descriptions, but my characters are inspired by people I know, and I don’t think I could fit them into any one category. They’re unique to me.


    • Alexander M Zoltai February 4, 2011 at 8:27 pm

      It’s great you know the kind of people who can inspire your character creation…

      As far as stereotypical people, they only exist if the person, for whatever reasons, refuses to develop their God-given individuality. I think this applies to all people, fictional and real…

      As far as stereotypical human characteristics, these, beyond what could be termed our common humanity, are the shabby clothes worn by worn-out people…


  3. Simone Benedict February 4, 2011 at 8:52 pm

    I’m betting on the bookie, too! I can’t claim any ‘bright’ ideas, but many of my ideas come to me through a quirky view of the way the world works.


    • Alexander M Zoltai February 5, 2011 at 12:07 am

      “…many of my ideas come to me through a quirky view of the way the world works.”

      Oh, my, do, please, expand on that sentence!!!


      • Simone Benedict February 5, 2011 at 1:06 am

        Kind of like today when the water man came to turn my water off. I forgot to pay again. I went running outside with the money for him. On the way I thought it’d be funny to yell, “Hey you! Get off my land!” And throw snowballs at him. Luckily he knows me so he just laughed when I said that and volleyed a few of his own snowballs back at me.

        That’s an example of how my ideas come to me. What I mean by this example is I like to take a rather stressful situation from real life, then in a story turn it into something different.


  4. HaleyWhitehall February 5, 2011 at 4:01 am

    Alexander, I absolutely love this post! I believe in the Collective Unconscious if only I knew how it functioned. I get many of my ideas in dreams. I guess that is my collective unconscious at work. Sometimes ideas just pop into my head without anything prompting them. Later when i try to think of how I got the idea no logical answer. Nothing I had watched on TV, read or the people I’ve observed make sense as influences. I am convinced that some ideas are divinely given and I have found those to be the most powerful story ideas.


    • Alexander M Zoltai February 5, 2011 at 4:28 am


      You’re the person who suggested the idea to me :-)

      I’ve studied Jung for years and have taken pains to do what he called Active Imagination; mostly to bring my Muse to a higher level of conscious apprehension. Still, any conscious “understanding” of the actual working of the Collective Unconscious is, at best, mere reflections cast on the actions we take because of the glimpses our conscious mind can grasp…


      • HaleyWhitehall February 5, 2011 at 4:33 am

        Hmm this topic really interests me. I will have to study Jung’s Active Imagination myself. I like the idea of bringing my Muse to a higher level of conscious apprehension. Clio and I have our issues. Maybe that would help our relationship :)


        • Alexander M Zoltai February 5, 2011 at 4:35 am

          Get ready for a Wild Ride!!! And, read all the Jung you can…


          • Simone Benedict February 5, 2011 at 4:45 am

            Are you sure Alexander? I agree everyone should read Jung, but did he really get it? Did he ever create anything? Can a non-artist understand imagination of the artist? I believe I learned a lot more about the imagination from reading the personal correspondence of William Blake than I did Jung. And a lot of other writings by artists, as well.


            • Alexander M Zoltai February 5, 2011 at 6:19 am

              I’ve never read the personal correspondence of Blake, Simone. I might agree with you if I ever do…

              I feel Jung created the only form of psychology that freely admits the human spirit into its structure. Plus, I’ve actually done the things Jung suggests and they’ve helped me with my creativity…

              Interesting how two writers can find their elixirs in quite different wells, eh?


              • HaleyWhitehall February 5, 2011 at 6:39 am

                Well, Simone, I will have to make time to read the personal correspondence of William Blake too. You made a good point– a non-artist cannot truly understand the imagination of an artist. However, I’m sure I’ll learn from both Jung and Blake.


                • Alexander M Zoltai February 5, 2011 at 6:50 am

                  I couldn’t help it, Simone and Haley, I had to go find a quote by Jung about artists. From my study of his life, I know he had an artistic side but he was so very busy with his patients that most of his obvious artistic work was focused on the architecture of his house. Still, being a psychotherapist could be considered an art, eh? Anyway, here’s that quote I found:

                  “The biographies of great artists make it abundantly clear that the creative urge is often so imperious that it battens on their humanity and yokes everything to the service of the work, even at the cost of health and ordinary human happiness. The unborn work in the psyche of the artist is a force of nature that achieves its end either with tyrannical might or with the subtle cunning of nature herself, quite regardless of the personal fate of the man who is its vehicle.”


                  • Simone Benedict February 5, 2011 at 7:13 am

                    I think I was reading Blake’s correspondence at the Library of Congress during my intern years, but Project Gutenberg has an great free ebook: William Blake a Study of his life and work that does a good analysis of his view of his imagination and how he lived his life in it.

                    You’re right to say our elixirs are different, Alexander. I’m glad Jung was helpful to you. With the quote though it seems we are victims that need help in some way. I’ll admit I haven’t read Jung since 1990, my how time flies, but in this quote a bio is a secondary source to a great artist’s life. Was Jung saying this so others could see his personal experience with artists? Or did he draw his conclusions from reading artists’ biographies? Feel free to analyze my elixir if you get a chance to read about Blake :-)


                    • Alexander M Zoltai February 5, 2011 at 4:14 pm

                      Oh, my, Simone. I sure hope this response doesn’t sound like I’m arguing with you. Critical conversation or even friendly jousting with ideas are great but I abhor arguments. And, even if I liked to argue, I couldn’t now since you wrote about my book offer in your blog :-)

                      First, I will honestly try to read Blake but my days are now very full of all I must do to properly promote my book before publication. Self-publishing means self-promotion and lots of other self-stuff…

                      I can see how the mention of biographies could make you think Jung was somehow “outside” the artistic experience, yet my remembrance of his artistic activity in my last response in this thread was irremembered <if that's not a real word, it should be).

                      I searched a bit more and found this site that has this quote: “Jung himself painted and sculpted his dreams and visions so that he could better understand them.”

                      I hope I can rearrange my thinking about my schedule and get to reading Blake. Till then, here’s a possibly friendlier quote from Jung on art:

                      “Therein lies the social significance of art: It is constantly at work educating the spirit of the age, conjuring up the forms in which the age is more lacking. The unsatisfied yearning of the artist reaches back to the primordial image in the unconscious, which is best fitted to compensate the inadequacy and one-sidedness of the present. The artist seizes on this image and, in raising it from deepest unconsciousness, he brings it into relation with conscious values, thereby transforming it until it can be accepted by the minds of his contemporaries according to their powers.”


                  • Once February 5, 2011 at 11:34 am

                    There are so many levels to any given question that it seems to me to be somewhat simplistic to goad a writer into revealing where he got the material for his work, especially some particular work he has written. When it comes down to it, it certainly is evident that with many great writers, in fact some of the greatest writers of all time who were so great at what they did that the language underwent a massive change, revolution, evolution, even a transformation such that they are recognized as the “Father” of this or that stage of development of the language in which they wrote were not, at the same time, innovators when it came to content. Generally speaking, often it is acknowledged that with Chaucer came the swift acknowledgement from about the end of the 14th Century of the transition between the Anglo-Saxon, or “Old English” versions of the Germanic language we call English to what became Middle English; we associate the same sort of transformation with the effects of the works of William Shakespeare. Chaucer is at times called the “Father of Middle English” while Shakespeare is credited more often than not with being the “Father of Modern English.” Neither were original in the content of their work as both “borrowed” their plots and characters from earlier works and historians. What made their particular works of monumental importance was the evident ability that both of them had to recreate formerly known classical narrations from earlier times but in a manner that called attention to the crafting of the dialogue and narration that was in and of itself superior to the originals from which they “stole” their material. How’re you going to keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paris? Once exposed to Chaucer (apparently, considering the almost instant positive reaction of the English to Canterbury Tales there was not going back; once exposed to Shakespeare’s peculiar expression using his own dialect of English, not to mention his minting of some 1,800 words that are still in use today, Shakespeare’s dialect and vocabulary rapidly became the standard or model for what we refer to as “Modern English” beginning around 1550, especially as it coincided with the end of civil wars in England with the reigns of all the Tudors and most especially after the defeat of the Spanish Armada 1588 that secured ascendency of the English Kingdom among the super powers of the entire period of the Renaissance in Europe. At any rate, the idea of originality so far as content is concerned is beside the point with the greatest writers of all time, the likes of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dante, Virgil, Homer, et cetera.

                    These writers could get away with this because clearly, they understood and comprehended their language in a manner that engaged their peoples in an unforgettable manner and in such a way that a kind of avalanche of change came to pass because they were in fact artists, not artisans; their respective experience in the observation of life and captured within the “tale” that each of them told through sheer magnitude of intimate intercourse with their respective peoples and periods, matched by the advent of similar fortunes in the history of their homelands at the time of their writing married the effect of greatness in their art spent and given bent almost by accident because they did what they did at a time of change whose time had come.

                    There is more to this, of course, than what I have cited here, but having said this, still your comments on the possibilities of original content as having everything and little to do with plagiarism are well grounded; originality in content rarely has to do with any work of art’s success.


  5. Shaina Richmond February 5, 2011 at 1:43 pm

    My ideas come from my own life experiences – nothing else. It could be due to the fact that I’m kind of a ‘lazy reader.’ I like to write, but I’m not so big on reading….


    • Alexander M Zoltai February 5, 2011 at 4:38 pm


      That’s for coming over from Facebook to share your comment with my readers :-)

      I certainly understand your need to write much more than you read. And, even though a few big-name writers say that one has to read widely if one wants to write, I feel the writing act itself is a form of reading.

      You read your life, the outside and the inside, and you write about it.
      I encourage everyone to read Shaina’s blog !!!


  6. Simone Benedict February 5, 2011 at 5:26 pm

    I also hope you don’t take my questioning as argument. I’ll admit I enjoy a debate if the aim is to learn. It’s difficult enough to do that face to face, but even more difficult in the virtual world. I’ve been clicking madly on my ‘read subscriptions’ button as I await your promised post. ;-)


  7. Catana February 6, 2011 at 4:11 pm

    My ideas usually come from my fascination with the quirks of the human mind and with how societies impact on their thinking and their lives. Psychology and science fiction combined. Nothing mysterious about muses or collective unconscious.


  8. Tomas February 8, 2011 at 3:42 am

    Dear Alexander,
    Thank you for writing about how the writers come up with ideas for stories. I have tried to apply that to the painters too – to check out my personal creative work and was greatly enriched ultimately. It was good to comprehend the essence of my being more consciously than I was used see it. While the writers and the visual artists remained the identical twins, some differences became the obvious too. I never need any idea to start my canvas. As I take my paintbrush, I need just to open my eyes. The creativity starts later, with the need to respond to the caught symbols with personal being. Then the painters look around too and thus become the artists.
    The experience of the light’s omnipresence awakes out of itself, we need the prompts just to guide the way we are breathing.


    • Alexander M Zoltai February 8, 2011 at 2:50 pm

      Thank you for your comment, Tomas.

      If anyone could see the commonalities between writers and painters, it would be you :-)

      What a totally beautiful thing you’ve written: “The experience of the light’s omnipresence awakes out of itself…”


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  11. Jackie Paulson 1966 March 6, 2011 at 8:51 am

    Archetypes- I am learning about this now. What a great reading, and learning experience. I joined good reads too. :) I have to ponder all of the wonderful conversations on this comment section. Just wanted you to know I was visiting today and will be back!


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