Where Do Story Ideas Come From? Circus Clowns–and Other Crazy Places

Where Do Story Ideas Come From? Circus Clowns--and Other Crazy Places

Where do story ideas come from? It’s one of those questions that pop up often, and it’s one of those questions that makes my eyes glaze over almost as much as an algebraic equation. Uhhh, they come from … poof! … from the air! 

Seriously, whenever I’m trying to figure out the answer to this question, what I’m visualizing is a hand plucking ideas out of the thin air, complete with a little rainbow of magic-air displacement as the air knits itself back into place.

Rainbows in the Dark

Image credit: / paul Tom

In actuality, however, I don’t pluck ideas from anywhere. It’s more like they come barreling out of the sky like a screaming ghost train, smack into me from behind, and run me over. I get up slowly, rubbing my head, and thinking, Okay, yeah, I should probably write about that.

But enough hard-core metaphysics. Let’s talk specifics. Where do my specific story ideas come from?

Behold the Dawn

Behold the Dawn by K.M. WeilandThe inspiration for my medieval love story Behold the Dawn came out of nowhere. I happened to stumble upon a children’s picture book about William Marshall, the first Earl of Pembroke. I think it was this one:

In the Time of Knights Greatest Knight Who Ever Lived William Marshall

While flipping through it and reading about Marshall’s stint as a tourneyer and his search for absolution in the Crusades, my war-weary protagonist Marcus Annan dropped out of the sky like that train, smacked me with the flat side of his battle axe, and bowled me over. His mouthy sidekick Marek (originally named Jocko) and his romance with the captured widow of a Scottish lord also arrived mostly fully formed.

The Gladiator soundtrack (my all-time favorite) was also a huge influence. I hadn’t yet seen the movie at that point, so the influence of all that pounding, haunting music was free of visual stimuli beyond that in my own head. (I talk more about the musical influences of Behold the Dawn in this installment of Roz Morris’s Undercover Soundtrack.)


Dreamlander NIEA FinalistMy portal fantasy Dreamlander was a unique experience for me in so many ways. It’s hardly surprising its origins would be any different. This is the only story idea given to me directly from someone else. People will often say, “Oh, you should write about cyborg unicorns!” But you know how it goes: if it’s not your idea, it just doesn’t sink into bones enough to work.

My brother came up with the idea of “a parallel world in which our consciousness lives while we’re dreaming in this world.” We actually talked about it and brainstormed up most of the characters on the spot–which is perhaps why it took me so long to wrangle the characters around so that I could actually fit myself into their skins.


I’ve yet to introduce all of you to my historical aviation-adventure novel Storming (coming this December! woohoo!), and I’ll be doing a post about its journey of inspiration later this year. But for now suffice it that the idea for this story about a barnstorming pilot who finds something strange in the sky was actually born of a circus.

Circus Tent


One Saturday afternoon, after watching one of my favorite classic movies The Greatest Show on Earth, I found myself thinking about what would happen if one of the circus people befriended a child at one of their stops. The circus person became a young woman–who became a mysterious stranger, totally unconnected with a circus.

I watched the (stinky) Flyboys not long afterwards and immediately knew I wanted planes in my story. Originally, the other main characters were going to be a widowed farmer and a roguish barnstorming pilot, but the farmer was just so dadblamed boring compared to the pilot that he had to go.


And that brings us to my work-in-progress, my historical superhero story Wayfarer. Think “Charles Dickens meets Spider-Man” and you’ve got the general idea. This one was also a bolt from the blue. While watching the final scenes of one of my favorite superhero flicks Spider-Man 2 (this is the one that started all the superhero-y goodness for me!) for about the gazillioneth time, I wondered, How come nobody ever does a historical superhero?

Spider-Man 2 FInal Swing

Immediately, I had this image of my funny sidekick character from Behold the Dawn wearing one of those awesome traveling coats from the Regency period and running and jumping the rooftops. Bang. Insta-idea.

I actually can’t remember where his nine-year-old female pickpocket sidekick originated from, but once she showed up on the scene, I had a full-fledged story idea.

My usual response when people ask me where my story ideas come from is, “They come from everywhere!” As you can see, that’s the gospel truth. Media plays a huge role, and even my own stories influence new ideas. The big story ideas usually only hit once or twice a year, but rarely a day goes by when I don’t get some kind of idea for something in one of my story worlds.

Now, pardon me, while I put on my helmet and elbow pads in preparation for another visit from that rather violent idea train.

Let’s chat! Where do your ideas come from–whatever your creative pursuit? Tell me in the comments!

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  1. I recall a story where author Neil Gaiman was asked where he got his ideas from. His reply: “I make them up.”

  2. Most of my stories are based on small, specific events I either see transpire or think about. For example – my current WIP (“Alphas”) is based on a dog I saw my kids pet. The first thing that went through my head is: “What if that dog terrorized its owners?” Simple ideas go a long way.

  3. I love this topic, it’s really fascinating how ideas often come up from unexpected sources or totally at random. I’ve even written a whole article about that and how to stimulate inspiration. As for me it’s often an intense scene at first (a person making her resolve, a fight, etc.), for which I have to build up a fitting context. Or I watch/read something and I think “hey, those ideas and concepts weren’t as developed as they deserve to, so why not try to imagine a whole story where I can draw their full potential?” It could be an interesting character with a limited screentime or a mysterious place begging for more worldbuilding.I love this topic, it’s really fascinating how ideas either come up from unexpected. I’ve even written a whole article about that.

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      Yes! My imagination is always running away with me when it comes to filling in missing blanks in other people’s stories. I’ve gotten more than one idea that way. That’s kind of how Storming got its start.

  4. Katie,
    Terrific topic. First off, I have to agree with you on Spider man 2; in my opinion the only one of the entire series (including the new one, although I didn’t finish the latest new one) that holds any merit to its name. Such a well-written story.
    Funny, when you were mentioning where you got your ideas for “Storming” I actually wondered if you got certain inspiration from Avengers or Captain America: Winter Soldier. Follow me? For one particular location that holds the story’s greatest mystery 😉
    I’m not really sure where I get my inspiration! I guess like you, it comes from a lot of places. My current work-in-progress came from hearing a story on NPR about a kid who’s inter-sex (born with both male and female anatomy). In fact, I subscribed to a few magazine subscriptions, both dealing with science and technology, to help plant seeds of inspiration as I’m currently looking for my next project to start.
    And circus clowns? Just creepy! ;-p

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      I’m sure Marvel has been an influence on everything I write in a subconscious way. I know Star Wars has. :p But, nope, nothing conscious as it pertains to Storming.

  5. Cool. My nine year old sidekick had to die of cancer to get into my work-in-progress-in-perpetuity, but I’m so delighted she did.

  6. I just put Dreamlander on my Wish List for when I finish the current book I’m reading. This blew my mind because it is something I’ve been trying to write for over a year now. I have so many vivid dreams and kept wondering how to write a story in a way where the dreams and realty clash. Don’t worry. No plans to steal your idea but I want to read this to see how to make my story, which would be on an entirely different theme and for kids and/or young adults, feasible. I have one started with three teenagers having the same dream and they have mingled into the dreamworld but I’m hung up so they are just lingering there. 🙂 A personal tragedy this year made me want to do this more so for various reasons but I can’t get back into the writing mode since that time. Hoping this rekindles my imagination.

  7. I get story ideas from a lot of random places. One came from climbing up a lighthouse; another I thought up while playing the violin at my church. Just recently I came up with a story idea while at the mall, after having this little girl stare at me through the glass walls of a store.

    The most important thing about story ideas? Always have a notebook on hand to write them down.

  8. Lewis Mattox says:

    My WIP idea came from police weapons training classes.

  9. From whence come my story ideas?

    Reciprocity: The Lledumar Saga, Book 2
    When I decided to write Reciprocity: The Lledumar Saga, Book 2, I was thinking along the lines of Frank Herbert’s epic Dune series. Yes, I wrote book 1 first, then the prequel. 😉

    I didn’t try to copy Dune in anyway, I just wanted something as mind boggling as the spice melange that prolongs life but produced disturbing apocalyptic visions in young Paul Atreides. But it never happened, haha. I found something with the potential to cause chaos when in the wrong hands.

    I got this vision of a man caught between duty and responsibility, much like Paul Atreides, but without the pubescent angst. A got a career minded chap with scruples. What I got was a more malleable character doing his 9-to-5 job like a public servant not knowing what the future really held. But he knew that he liked sailing, and got away as often as he could – on any watery planet his job took him.

    He didn’t end being the main character, though; he became the antihero. I realised I had to find a character to go with the dangerous thing I had found, so the choice was a young biomedical scientist – inspired by Contact’s Jodie Foster as Dr Eleanor Ann Arroway. The young biomedical scientist became the main character and hero, because she’s the one who makes the horrific discovery and tries to hide it from her boss but gets herself and her colleagues into truckload of trouble.

    The Directive
    My second The Directive, a paranormal/crime story, was inspired by true events. Based on some sidebar research I was doing. These events inspired a story, so I wrote it knitting together the true events in Roman a clef style.

    When I was searching for a main character, I was watching Stephen Fry in Kingdom. Suddenly, one night, I realised I was looking at my main character, thinking, yes! Stephen Fry as the eccentric and quirky British Chief Inspector investigating weird and unexplained events in a city in England.

    The Subjugation: The Lledumar Saga, Book 1
    My third book was The Subjugation: The Lledumar Saga, Book 1. It was the prequel to Reciprocity. One day I just realised the Reciprocity needed a beginning, a prequel, and set out to write where and how it all began …

    I had lots of material to work with in Reciprocity, so I created a tree of ancestry for the characters in Reciprocity. I found a time in the past to set the prequel and worked my way forward. Not that any of the characters were directly related to the royal lineage I created, but it had to have a historical feel and tone.

    The events that led to the story in Reciprocity occurred a thousand years in the past. So I had to imagine what the world, or the galaxy, in this case, was like a thousand years ago. I drew inspiration from historical fiction like Phillipa Gregory, Suzannah Dunn and Bernard Cornwell.

    As I outlined the story the characters started appearing in my mind’s eye – a bunch of loyal courtiers working for a great Duke – Dunesque. The story in Reciprocity was the direct result of the Duke’s dilemma, which could have taken him in two directions. His decision resulted in an unimaginable event. So the Duke became a central character in The Subjugation. But it was tricky to write because I had to create a situation for the Duke to be drawn into from the outside, not from inside his realm, so the story could unfold – plots within plots.

    The Duke isn’t the hero, but an antihero, of sorts. The heroine of The Subjugation is a young woman from another culture, a rising female commander among male peers. Her culture is the backdrop out of which comes the antihero in Reciprocity. The link between the two – the Jannaxians and the Lledumar – is maintained. Of course, the link for all three cultures – the Cuians, the Jannaxians, the Lledumar – had to remain for it to make sense.

    Ocean Thyme
    My fourth book, Ocean Thyme, was another paranormal/crime story based on a true story.

    It concerns a young girl caught up in one Britain’s darkest events in recent modern times … apart from Jack the Ripper, I mean.

    So I had plenty of material to work with and a real life character with interesting foibles and idiosyncrasies to draw on, which I just moldered to fit the story. I’ve written the first part of a two-book story.

    Restitution: The Lledumar Saga, Book 3
    My fifth book, Restitution: The Lledumar Saga, Book 3, is the sequel or third instalment in the Sci-fi/crime series. Not sure how many stories I can make of it.

    Restitution comes in the wake of the shocking events in Reciprocity. Once again, there was more than enough material to work with and already existing characters.

    The hero and antihero are back to fight a new foe, born from the scattering that occurred in Reciprocity. The two are drawn closer together – romance is in the air, building on the ‘faint light’ in Reciprocity – to help restore the remnants of the heroine’s people and culture. She has a new role, the old one smoulders on in the background, and drags her love interest, the antihero in Reciprocity, kicking and screaming, whimpering, into more trouble in Restitution.

    Do Robots Dream of Love?
    My sixth book, Do Robots Dream of Love?, was inspired by reports I’d been reading about robotics. And how it is developing faster than any government can legislate to control it. Sinister shades of Asimov’s I, robot? Perhaps. However …

    As I explored and outlined a plot, I didn’t want it to be a story about scary robots, or something like I, robot. That’s not I wanted, at all. I wanted something more important – like address an important issue, like I try to do in all my books.
    Then it hit me like Katie’s Marcus Annan and his worn battle axe in the side of the head. If I didn’t want to write just another ‘robot’ story, what I did want to write about was robotics but with a twist.

    At the time I had been reading up on Gaston Bachelard’s work, in reference to my research on belief systems and language. An idea popped into my head and I worked on it until I hit on the issue I wanted address with DRDL? And I was on my way.

    The Sleeper Awakens
    My new book explores something I have been researching, but on a different level again.

    I had this idea slowly revolving in my head about the nature of consciousness, another topic I had been working on in relation to language. But my brain kept linking the idea with something Paul Atreides says in Dune when he and his mother escape the nasty Harkonnens and find themselves alone in the desert.

    Paul’s mind has been altered by the constant consumption of spice melange and is now having more visions than he can handle. He now realises he can see the future, or possible futures. These futures may or may not eventuate, and depend on the decisions he makes in the present. The dilemma – at that moment – for Paul is that he can see the Past, Present and Future at the same time. Mind boggling, to say the least.

    I didn’t copy this idea, but it influenced the way I thought about the dilemma my character would face. Instead of him consuming drugs and having visions, the young boy suffers a bizarre medical condition which triggers a certain kind of vision. This concept is also based on someone’s real-life experiences, but the story more fiction than Roman a clef.

    Where do my story ideas come from?
    Like Katie, they come from everywhere. They come from my own imagination, my reading, my interest areas, my research field, my colleagues, my friends and family. They can even come from my own books. They can pop into my head when I’m on the bus, on the train, or walking down the street. Upon seeing a billboard or a piece of advertising. TV and movies. They are everywhere and if I’m alert to them and quick enough, I write them down in my Ideas notebook for later.

  10. Once, all my cousins and family were planning a trip on a hill station. Meanwhile I was sitting between them, daydreaming a battle scene going on amidst all that scenic beauty. That’s by far my favorite action scene written by me 😉

  11. Lovely insight into your inspirational world. Thx.

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