How Authors Get Story Ideas


Writing novels starts from a story ideas. It is one thing to have the idea and another thing entirely to develop it, but for sure, there must be an egg before the chicken. The ideas drop in various ways to different writers – from observations around, personal experience, experience of others, news stories, socio-political trends to powerful sources like dreams. During the week, I reflected on some of my sources. Long before I discovered my writing gift, my father told us a story of how a village retailer was framed up by her enemies, and I felt oh, how wicked can man be. He said someone had knocked on her door in the dead of the night to buy cigarettes, and when she refused to sell, the person had said he would die if he didn’t smoke. At daybreak, the retailer woke up to find the dead body the cigarette buyer dropped there. In a developed world, this looked like a simple case to investigate, but in the village, how do you handle that? Several years later, I developed that idea into my novel, LOVE WARS, part of which I share here. I also have Melissa Donovan talk about how some novelists got their story ideas.

Seated dejectedly alone in one corner of the dingy cell, Gifty Banny had reviewed her situation twice in an attempt to understand what had hit her. Her luck, she knew too well, was that she was the only inmate there – she would have been molested if there were older cellmates, as is the case in Nigerian prisons. All her thoughts were on one thing: how she got there! Twice she failed to get it, but that would not discourage her from making another try.
She took another look around the cell, and admitted that she did not have to be a medical doctor to know the threat of the environment to her health. Rays of sunlight hit her in the face as she re-examined the one-foot diameter hole up in the wall that was her only access to the external world.
She blinked twice and cut short the deep breath she was about to take. The ‘six by six’ room with a broken cement floor had a pungent odour of human waste. Instinctively, she cupped her cheek in her left palm, her right fingers covering her mouth and nostrils.
Who is behind this? What did I do wrong? She found herself wondering aloud. She had spent the Christmas as she normally would: early morning meditation at home to thank God for Jesus Christ; breakfast of tea and boiled eggs; a church service and the hosting of the few female friends she had made in her one-year stay in Lagos.

Her hardwork attracted her to Chief Ajomo, a multi-millionnaire, and the young man simply called Mike. But she managed to keep a safe distance from both of them. This Christmas day, she had gone to bed early in her Ogudu part of Lagos to avoid either of them. Ajomo, in particular, had been persistent with his telephone calls for a date, but she had resisted that with the excuse that a Christmas day should not be defiled.
An early riser, she always had a deep sleep no matter how short it was. So when the doorbell got her scrambling out of bed four hours after she went to bed at eight p.m., she was a confused lot. The bell rang again, sending her impulsively to the living room of the two-bedroom flat, clutching her nightgown. For no physical reason she knew, she always slept naked even if she had to share the bed with a man. She had slept with only two men in her eight years of adulthood.

The first man, whom she sometimes felt was the cause of her sleeping naked, was her casual friend during her youth service days in Ilorin, Kwara State. He was also a youth corper, an exceptionally quiet, caring and handsome gentleman. His name was Steve Bamidele, but people called him Shy. Steve was smart enough to know many women’s secret passion for such men, although many of them would swear they would never be caught with shy men.
Gifty liked Steve and she showed it at the least opportunity. One of such occasions was the Sunday when Steve staggered into her place, drunk. Without asking him why he was drunk and why he was at her place, she prepared a fresh tomato drink for him and gave him food to eat. By the time he stabilised, it was eleven-thirty p.m. That was about the time he caught her stealing a look at her watch, anxiety written all over her.
‘Don’t worry. Even if we share the same bed, I will not bother you”, Steve assured her and started for the bedroom. Gifty remained rooted to the spot confused as he hopped into her bed. Before she could say anything, he had fallen asleep. She took another look at the fragile-looking man she liked, and remained quiet. In her confusion, she decided to share the bed with him so she could take care of him if the need arose. But she did so armed in a pair of jeans trousers with a belt, under a buttoned blouse.

Late at night when Steve woke her up, she instinctively ran a check to ensure that her guard had not been broken open.
Steve raised his head slowly, propped it with an open palm and said: “I thought you trusted me. I told you I will not be of any bother to you”.
That robbed her off her wits. “But you know we are not going out? I….” She tried a defence.
“I know, I also know that we will not come this close if I was just an ordinary friend.”
“ But I am a lady, Steve? You have not come out to say you love me.”
“ That is the woman in you. From a study I have made, true love is not said, at least, not in the first many months of a relationship. True love is demonstrated in those months.”
“ I will know that with time,” she said quickly and adjusted her pillow.
“ We will know,” Steve returned. He too adjusted his pillow, but that was all Gifty would see his hand do. She woke up at daybreak to discover that when she found Steve pulling away her clothes, it was in a dream. Their relationship remained that way, until Steve travelled overseas two months later.
If she had looked well, she perhaps would have agreed with Steve. The first man she truly loved, way back at medical school, had been all over her with songs and love notes. He was a lecturer and a bachelor, but despite the promises of marriage, he dumped her three months after he disvirgined her. She never got to spend a whole night with him.

This Boxing Day morning, as she struggled into a pair of trousers, she wondered which of the men chasing her was trying to be funny. It was not until she heard: Doctor, if you don’t attend to me I will die o, that the fear of Lagos struck her. The high rate of robbery and murders in Lagos scared her with the same force as the opportunities the city offered.
She decided to tarry a little to understand what was happening. If there is reason for me to suspect armed robbery, I will call the police, she decided as she tiptoed to the telephone receiver at her far right. She was not to get there.
“ I am dying ooo,” she heard a shrill cry and then a thud, like the dropping of a heavy bag.
“ Yei!” she shouted involuntarily and slumped on her knees to pray, but she stopped when she heard somebody walking away. Gifty got on her knees at that spot and continued to pray.
Next came the sound of a siren that tore the quiet of the night into shreds. The owner of the footsteps must have called in an ambulance; she consoled herself and got up for the door.

She was wrong; she soon discovered as the police announced their presence with repeated bangs on the door. Right in front of her door was an apparently dead man in a black suit. Co-tenants had fled.
“I didn’t do this. God knows I didn’t,” she broke down into tears, as the whole neighbourhood continued to pour into the compound. A new tenant in the area, she had no friends among the lot. Instead of sympathy, she got torrents of abuses.
For the police, their decision was simple. “Lady, you will explain this at the station. For now you have the right to remain silent…”
From nowhere, a stream of courage surged in Gifty, charging her brain. Rigor mortis, she remembered, and said, “My God never fails”.
pix: Love Wars.jpg

Steven King, Mark Twain and Suzanne Collins
No Imagination Necessary: Mark Twain is a shining example. His idea for Huckleberry Finn wasn’t an idea at all; he simply based the character on someone he knew from real life. It turns out that the beloved character was practically a replica of Twain’s childhood friend, Tom Blankenship:
Mark Twain said: “In Huckleberry Finn I have drawn Tom Blankenship exactly as he was. He was ignorant, unwashed, insufficiently fed; but he had as good a heart as ever any boy had. His liberties were totally unrestricted. He was the only really independent person—boy or man—in the community, and by consequence he was tranquilly and continuously happy and envied by the rest of us.”
Making Connections: Suzanne Collins broke the mold with Hunger Games, arguably the most successful post-Harry Potter series to date. So how did she do it? Collins explained: “One night, I was lying in bed and I was very tired, and I was just sort of channel surfing on television. And, I was going through, flipping through images of reality television where there were these young people competing for a million dollars or a bachelor or whatever. And then I was flipping and I was seeing footage from the Iraq War. And these two things began to sort of fuse together in a very unsettling way, and that is when I, really, I think was the moment where I really got the idea for Katniss’s story.”

Dreaming Things Up
One of the most successful living authors of our time, Stephen King, attributes a dream as the inspiration for Misery, a novel that was also made into a film and off-Broadway play:
“Like the ideas for some of my other novels, that came to me in a dream… I fell asleep on the plane, and dreamt about a woman who held a writer prisoner and killed him, skinned him, fed the remains to her pig and bound his novel in human skin. His skin, the writer’s skin. I said to myself, ‘I have to write this story.”– Stephen King