5 Ways to Capture Brilliant Ideas for Your Novel

5 Ways to Capture Brilliant Ideas for Your Novel

I think it’s safe to open this post with a broad, sweeping generalization: We write because of inspiration. Not only because without inspiration we wouldn’t have anything to write about, but also because inspiration is the writer’s version of runner’s high. It’s this top-of-the-world, explosion-of-joy experience that makes the personal sacrifices and hard work of the writing life more than worth it.

Inspiration, however, is a slippery thing. Ultimately, it is intensely personal, unrepeatable, and often unresponsive to conscious prodding. You can’t force inspiration. It either happens or it doesn’t. You can’t sit yourself down at your desk, squeeze your eyes shut, and demand inspiration appear in front of you complete with a drumroll and a puff of smoke. Inspiration is a gift, and like all gifts it must be treated with gratitude and responsibility.

But none of this is to say you can’t position yourself in the path of inspiration. Instead of just waiting around for the muse to hit you in the head with a lightning bolt, you can learn to create inspiration. Following are five ways you can learn to be receptive to inspiration and to capture brilliant ideas for your novel. Inspiration, after all, is all around you; you just have to become a conduit for it.

1. Look at the World Through the Lens of Your Story

When I’m in the midst of brainstorming a story, I wear it like a cloak. I look at life through the lenses (rose-colored or otherwise) of my story and its characters. I’m washing dishes, walking the dog, running late? Maybe my characters are too. I hear a song on the radio, and it becomes an anthem for the scene I’m working on. I pass an interesting old codger in the mall, and suddenly he’s running amuck among the characters in my head.

2. Listen to Your Subconscious

Never underestimate your subconscious. When you’ve come to a snarl in your plot, don’t think too hard. You can only push your conscious brain so far. On more than one occasion, after I’ve backed myself and my characters into a seemingly insurmountable corner, I’ve sat at the keyboard for hours, racking my brain for an answer that just wouldn’t come. But when I returned to the problem the next day, after my subconscious had a chance to mull over the matter for the night, the solution was practically staring me in the face.

When you come across an interesting snippet of an idea that you aren’t quite certain how to develop, toss it into your subconscious for a while. Sometimes ideas stew in the back of my mind for years before reappearing on center stage as something worth pursuing.

3. Lollygag Creatively

Novelist Michael J. Vaughn, who coined the term “creative lollygagging,” purposely looks for mindless tasks (gardening, walking, pulling weeds) to occupy his hands, while his brain stews on his story. In “Creative Lollygagging” (Writer’s Digest, December 2006), he wrote:

We are not talking about sitting around on a couch. Just as a satellite dish needs electricity, you need some blood pumping into that brain. Next, consider low focus. The activity shouldn’t be so intense that you don’t have time to think (Grand Prix and ice hockey are out). Look for a mellow pursuit, surrounded by low-level distractions.

4. Combine Stories

Like most every other writer on the planet, I have at least half a dozen stories romping around in my brain at any given moment. Most of them are in need of that spark of “something” that transforms a gem of inspiration into a full-fledged concept worthy of my time and attention. Stories require many layers, and usually they acquire their layers organically. But some of the best complexities are the result of combining two (or more) entirely different stories. Juxtaposition creates instant conflict, originality, and depth. Take a look at some of your embryonic stories and see if you can create something special by combining one more of them.

5. Feed the Muse

Your creative mind is a living organism that requires just as much attention and nurturing as any visible part of your body. Lavish it with care, and it will flourish. Feed it just as carefully as you would your stomach. Nourish it with quality literature, movies, music, and art. Let it lap up the offerings of other artistic minds­—and just see if the muse doesn’t take off running all on its own!

Finally, and most importantly, don’t wait for inspiration. We’d all like to take up permanent residence in that rarefied atmosphere where the “inspiration high” is a constant state of being. But as all writers discover sooner or later, that high will inevitably run dry. If we allow our writing to dry up with it, we’ll never so much as finish a story, much less be read by anyone. Inspiration is much more likely to strike when your mind is active. So even on the days when the mental well seems to have evaporated and blown away in clouds of steam, sit yourself down at your desk and keep writing.

Inspiration, after all, is really a very small part of the big picture.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Where do you find your most brilliant ideas for your novel? Tell me in the comments!

5 Ways to Capture Brilliant Ideas for Your Novel

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. It was a great article, Katie. So glad you were creative enough to create it!

    Just a comment on your poll: Most of my research comes from the internet if you’re just talking “bulk”, but the most valuable comes from hands-on activities, like going to the auction and the bull riding ranch for Ride. It truly helps getting the senses involved when you actually go.

  2. I checked out your guest post and was inspired. I’m looking forward to rereading it. I don’t want to take a chance of not absorbing every little bit of your advice.

  3. Thanks, both of you! Ironically enough, I was feeling pretty uninspired when I started writing this article. Guess I needed to take my own advice! I’m pleased you got something out of it.

  4. It is a great post K.M. Thanks for sharing this with us.

  5. My pleasure. Thanks for having me!

  6. I have notebooks and notebooks full of story ideas based on people-watching, architecture-observing, conversation-snatching, travel-observing…but a lot of my ideas come from information uncovered in the course of genealogical research. Those skeletons in the closet rattle nicely on paper.

    Great post! Saved to read again.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      History – in its many forms – is a constant source of inspiration for me, even when I’m working on fantasy stories.

  7. thomas h cullen says

    Being somewhere, out of usual time; or inversely being somewhere in usual time, but without the normal conditions of being there. Being around someone, out of usual context. Having to unexpectedly repeat some process (having to perhaps go to the local shop for a second time):

    As part of reality’s repetition, our minds’ capacity to function gets routinely inhibited. Always, the chances for inspiration best come when for whatever reason we’ve found ourselves out of the usual context.

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