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How to Get Really Good Writing Ideas: The Power of Research and Reading

Struggling to develop ideas for your writing? There are two things writers need! Firstly, understanding what makes a good story. Secondly, the ability to think creatively to develop original ideas.

When you’re struggling to develop a good idea for your novel, it’s easy to think that you just aren’t creative enough. But there are two things that every writer needs: research and reading. An excellent way to get good writing ideas is by doing both of those things.

Photograph of Belinda D'Alessandro. Belinda is wearing a red jacket over a red dress and a string of pearls. She is standing in front of windows with shutters
Belinda D’Alessandro

One of the most important things to remember when writing is that a good writer is always a good reader. It’s in our nature to emulate those who have gone before us, in everything from speech patterns to fashion sense.

Think about it – when you see someone with an outfit or hairstyle you like, you ask them where they got it.

Of course, you don’t go out and buy exactly the same thing, but you might get something similar for yourself.

Where do you start?

In the world of writing, sometimes it can be challenging to find a great topic. If you’re struggling for inspiration, you may feel like giving up on your writing career altogether. Have you ever seen yourself staring at a blank word processor screen, trying to figure out what to write about or how to finish writing that essay for your class?

If so, then you know the importance of having an excellent source of ideas. But, on the other hand, if you know how to research and read, that is never going to happen!

Research and reading – the secret to getting great writing ideas

When writing, you often need great writing ideas. One of the best ways to get these is by doing research and reading.

It’s essential to have a wide range of interests and know about a wide range of topics. This will ensure that when you decide to write, you’ll be able to find an interesting angle on almost any subject.

Most writers have several ideas that they’re constantly researching. They’ll mind map, go to seminars, read books on the subject, and never write about it. So why doesn’t a writer follow through?

“Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.” Zora Neale Hurston, anthropologist and writer

It’s because most writers think about writing as a chore. But research is fun! It opens up a world of possibilities and new ways to look at things. So if you want to generate fantastic ideas, you have to start viewing research as a way to have fun with writing rather than as a necessary evil on the route to writing your masterpiece.

The three types of research you should be doing

Writing a novel is hard work. You need to be in it for the long haul. It can be challenging if you don’t know where to start. One of the first things you need to do is research. You should do research on your characters, your plot, and your story structure.

There are three types of research to do before getting started on your book.

The first is the most obvious one: reading. You’ll need to read many novels within your genre to familiarise yourself with what’s already out there (so you don’t end up writing the same story).

The second type of research is less obvious: immersing yourself in the culture around the novel you’re writing. This means visiting settings in person, or at least by extensively studying photos and videos online to form a vivid picture in your own mind of the environment.

Good research also helps to get the “facts” straight. How does the saying go? Fact is stranger than fiction, but for your novel to be believable, get the facts straight. For example, if you’re writing a science-fiction epic where your protagonist travelled from the 24th century to New York in 2010. In that case, native New Yorkers are less likely to be enthralled with your story if your protagonist buys a ticket for an Amtrak service from Grand Central Terminal to Montreal when Amtrak services to and from Grand Central in the mid-1990s.

Saint Catherine Chapel, Peter and Paul Fortress, Saint Petersburg, Russia
Saint Catherine Chapel, Peter and Paul Fortress, Saint Petersburg, Russia

Likewise, natives of Saint Petersburg, Russia, will easily disbelieve you if you write about the last Tzar, Nicholas II (and his wife Alexandra Feodorovna, and three of their five children) being currently interred at Kazan Cathedral on Kazanskaya Square.

In fact, their bodies were reinterred with state honours in the Saint Catherine Chapel of the Peter and Paul Cathedral (inside the Peter and Paul Fortress, on Zayachy Island, on the Neva River) in 1991, where most other Russian monarchs since Peter the Great lie. Incidentally, I’ve visited Saint Petersburg several times, and both Cathedrals are beautiful! If you’d like to see some photographs of my holidays in Saint Petersburg, please check out my Instagram feed.

The third type, character research, is essential because it serves as the foundation for your story. Your novels will be more believable if you know your characters well. Also, people who read many books know what a real character looks like from reading so many books with weak or inconsistent characters. So, create a list of traits that define your character and use them consistently – that way, your readers won’t catch you out in chapter 22, where the protagonist’s hair colour is naturally strawberry blonde but was naturally black in chapter 8.

Researching the topic you are writing about is something that most writers tend to ignore, but it is crucial to getting good content. There’s not much point in writing something if you don’t even know the basics of what you are writing about. You need to research your subject well enough so that your ideas for content are not limited due to a lack of knowledge. But, on the other hand, if you try to research everything, you will not get your novel done.

So how do you find that balance?

I start to find information on a particular topic or city by opening up my favourite search engine and entering a few keywords on the town or the subject. I then make notes, copious notes and sometimes maps of the city. I also check out online travel guides to get the highlights if I’ve not been to the town.

Sometimes it feels like I got enough notes to fill a complete 32 volume printed set of Encyclopaedia Brittanica (the last print run was in 2010!). Other times, I feel like I got barely enough to fill a small Post-It-Note. The balance is when you find you have enough information, so your readers believe the fiction and know the facts aren’t so outlandish to make your work unbelievable.

How to find new ideas for your novel?

A lot of writers struggle to find new ideas for their novels. As a result, they often find themselves in a rut, with the same old storylines overused and tired. The key is to expand your existing ideas into something new that will also be interesting to readers.

This can be done by taking an old idea and adding a new twist or changing it up completely. For example, you may want to add some romance or comedy elements to the science-fiction novel about time travel you’re writing to give it more appeal. You might also consider writing about a different topic altogether.

“It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data.” Arthur Conan Doyle (writing as Sherlock Holmes)

And you know that 32 volume Encyclopaedia of research notes you have? That can also be an excellent source of ideas. While you may not be able to use all your initial research for your current work-in-progress, it can and will be helpful for a later work-in-progress. The possibilities are endless.

Taking inane details from your own life can also be an inspiration. A few years ago, I’d been speaking to an author acquaintance over lunch about where we got ideas from and discovered that the inane details can make the funniest of stories. So after I got from lunch, I started some chores and other household tasks, and took one of my cats to explore the stairwell of my apartment building… without my keys, and ended up locking us both out! And then had difficulty in finding someone with a spare set of keys to let us back in!

Save it to say that anecdote is written down to be worked into a book somewhere. Authors might write fictional stuff, but sometimes they work in stuff that happens in real life too!

The importance of writing down your ideas immediately!

Some writers think that they can hold onto their ideas and write them at a later time. However, the brain is designed to forget.

I’m a fan of the American novelist Tom Clancy, notably his series with Jack Ryan as the protagonist. In the 1994 instalment, Debt of Honor, Jack became the U. S. National Security Adviser when the U. S. was dealing with several military and economic crises, including the collapse of the stock market and deletion of trading records.

Woman's hand writing in a notebook on a desk. Her arm is covered by a grey jumper sleeve. A drink and a plant stem in a white vase sit on the desk near the top right hand corner of the notebook.During a casual conversation with his wife Cathy, an ophthalmologist who has an overarching habit during the series of making copious notes, she casually remarks to him, “If it’s not written down, it didn’t happen.” As the story goes on, Jack Ryan uses the off-the-cuff remark as an advantage to engineer a “do-over”, to reset the records as they were at the start of the day’s trading and ignore the crash.

The plan is a success: America’s economy is restored with only minor disruption. This plot turn can be turned on its head as “proof of the point” why writers need to write it down! However, it also shows the importance of defining your character’s traits and using them consistently, whether it’s in a single book or over a series!

How to organise your notes and get them out of your head and onto paper!

Maybe you have an excellent concept for a story, but you don’t know where to start. You have never written fiction before. Well, not to worry. There are many resources out there that will help you at every stage of the process.

One of the most important things you can do to become a professional writer is organising your notes. Research and reading is all well and good, but you must figure out all the pieces of information you’ve accumulated over time and put them into an organised system that you can use to write their novel.

Writers will inevitably have a lot of ideas going on in their heads at any given time. Some of these ideas might be related to a new project; others might just be fragments of randomness that don’t seem to fit together with anything else. So no matter what type of writer you are, it’s essential to put your notes in some sort of order, in a manner that works for you. I like to have things listed: characters, locations, interactions, familial relationships. I then want to map an outline in my mind and write it down to give me direction for the plot.

At the end of the day

Research and reading can be beneficial when it comes to writing. The more you read, the better you understand how the different parts of your work come together to create a coherent piece that effectively communicates your thoughts and ideas. Keep this in mind as you continue with your future projects.

Final thoughts

I hope this post has helped you get good writing ideas from researching and reading. If you have any questions, comments, or feedback, please leave it below!

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