May 7, 2020

Where Does An Author Get Ideas? (Part 1)

Richard L. Mabry M.D.    @RichardMabry

Medical Suspense with Heart

Any writer will tell you that the question most frequently posed to them is “Where do you get your ideas?” When I first started, I sort of wondered if I could come up with a single idea, much less enough to write thirteen novels and six novellas. But I soon found that getting an idea wasn’t the problem. Once you look around, you find that ideas are everywhere. You just have to ask yourself the right question when you see them.

In one of my earliest writing classes, Alton Gansky taught me the value of asking, “What if…?” Using this, he’d written several successful books, and had ideas for a number more. Matter of fact, he seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of ideas. When we see a beautiful ship, while most of us see the exterior and wonder about sailing on it, he wondered what would happen if one that was lost turns up 50 years later without a crew. He turned that into A Ship Possessed, which was and is a fascinating read.

The idea of asking “What if…?” isn’t unique to Alton, but he was the first one to introduce me to it. Later, at another writing class (I took a lot of those early on), I tried out the skeleton of an idea on a writing professional, who responded with “So what?” Every time I mentioned another aspect of the novel I’d imagined, he had the same answer. “So what?” Finally, it got through to me, and I discovered what he meant by that phrase. What was at stake? What was the protagonist’s goal? What would he or she lose if they didn’t attain it? So what? Or, to put it another way, why should the reader care?

Another mentor, James Scott Bell, says that a protagonist can suffer several types of losses. They may be injured or killed—physical loss. They can lose love or their loved one—emotional loss. They can have their reputation ruined—professional loss. If the reader identifies with the protagonist, if they have a clear picture of “so what,” then the author has the start of a plot. Of course, there’s a lot more to it than that, but without that starting point there’s nothing to hold the attention of the reader.

Using that knowledge, the author can look around him or her and begin to say, “What if…” Conversations between two strangers that we see in passing can represent anything from a discussion of a plot to blow up a building to plans for a clandestine meeting between two lovers. A person running a red light in their car might be someone whose mind is fixed on a problem to the exclusion of everything around them or an individual following the car ahead, desperate not to let them get away. A man viewing a painting can represent anything from an art thief planning how to snatch it to someone reminded about a significant event in which the painting played an important part. Ideas are all around us.

Dr. Richard L. Mabry is a retired physician, now writing novels of “medical suspense with heart.” (He calls them “sleep with the lights off” books.) To learn more about him, go to his web page and follow him on Twitter and Facebook. His latest novel, Critical Decision, released this spring.


  1. Great article, Doc! You've listed the center, the crux of all story - motivation! You can plot through it. And I love JSB's 4 types of death. Well said!

  2. Great advice Richard. Thanks for sharing with us today.

  3. Thanks for your nice words, and to Suite T for this opportunity.