Famous Authors on How They Discovered Their Best-Selling Story Idea

Let’s get one thing clear right now, shall we? There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.

– Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

I love hearing about how authors came across their book ideas. I especially love the ones like J.K. Rowling’s where it’s a flash of creativity and suddenly you know what you need to write:

It was 1990. My then boyfriend and I had decided to move up to Manchester together. After a weekend’s flat-hunting, I was travelling back to London on my own on a crowded train, and the idea for Harry Potter simply fell into my head.

I had been writing almost continuously since the age of six but I had never been so excited about an idea before. To my immense frustration, I didn’t have a pen that worked, and I was too shy to ask anybody if I could borrow one…

I did not have a functioning pen with me, but I do think that this was probably a good thing. I simply sat and thought, for four (delayed train) hours, while all the details bubbled up in my brain, and this scrawny, black-haired, bespectacled boy who didn’t know he was a wizard became more and more real to me.

Perhaps, if I had slowed down the ideas to capture them on paper, I might have stifled some of them (although sometimes I do wonder, idly, how much of what I imagined on that journey I had forgotten by the time I actually got my hands on a pen). I began to write “Philosopher’s Stone” that very evening, although those first few pages bear no resemblance to anything in the finished book.

J.K. Rowling

In fact, the authors of quite a few books I love have similar stories:

J.R.R. TOLKIEN and The Hobbit

Tolkien was grading college exam papers, and midway through the stack he came across a gloriously blank sheet. Tolkien wrote down the first thing that randomly popped into his mind: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” He had no idea what a hobbit was or why it lived underground, and so he set out to solve the mystery.

C.S. LEWIS and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

On an otherwise ordinary day, 16-year-old Lewis was seized by a peculiar daydream. A frazzled creature, half-man and half-goat, hurried through snowy woods carrying an umbrella and a bundle of parcels. Lewis had no idea where the faun was heading, but the image was still with him when, at age 40, he finally put pen to paper to find out.

LEO TOLSTOY and Anna Karenina

As he lay on a sofa after dinner, Tolstoy had a vision of an elbow. The image expanded into a melancholy woman in a ball gown. The mysterious lady haunted Tolstoy and he eventually decided to write her story.

– Writer’s Digest Jul/Aug 2012

Stories like these give me hope that maybe some day I’ll be hit by a bolt of creativity . . . or maybe I won’t. Then what? I can’t just sit around waiting, hoping, to get my big break. What was it that Dumbledore said? “It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.”

Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.

– Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

2 thoughts on “Famous Authors on How They Discovered Their Best-Selling Story Idea

  1. He also said something like it´s your choices and not your abilities that make you who you are. The great thing about these authors is that they chose to write their story down. They chose to be faithful to that little idea.

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