Classic Women Authors on “How Do Writers Get Ideas?”

Willa Cather

How do writers get ideas? — that’s a question often asked of published authors, but which defies easy answer, if it can be answered at all.

Most often, ideas seem to find you, not the other way around. Of course, something you see, hear, or read can ignite sparks of inspiration, but the day-to-day work habits you develop can fuel the inception and development of ideas.

Here, Louisa May Alcott, Willa Cather, and Madeleine L’Engle share a common technique: they consciously allowed seedlings of ideas to blossom in their heads before setting them to paper. 

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“Brooding up” a story

L.M. Montgomery in her 30s

For many women authors, working in this manner was a way to juggle duty with their writing; the practical necessity of thinking out their plots and characters completely in their heads became a favored technique.

L.M. Montgomery, in fact, called this method “brooding up” a story, and used it to great advantage for much of her writing life, both as a working girl, and later as a working mother. In a 1909 letter, she wrote:

“I write fast, having ‘thought out’ plot and dialogue while I go about my household work. I only do three hours literary work a day—two hours writing and one typewriting.”

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“My head is my study”

Louisa May Alcott quotes

To continue on this “thinking out” theme, allowing the ideas you dream up to mature may help them emerge more fully formed when it comes time to set them to paper.

Anyone who doesn’t have the luxury of  long hours to spend at the writing desk will be comforted to learn that “your head is your study” — you can carry this portable work space wherever you go. Louisa May Alcott describes it as follows: 

“My methods of work are very simple & soon told. My head is my study, & there I keep the various plans of stories for years some times, letting them grow as they will till I am ready to put them on paper.

Then it is quick work, as chapters go down word for word as they stand in my mind & need to alteration. I never copy, since I find by experience that the work I spend the least time upon is best liked by critics & readers . . .

While a story is under way I lie in it, see the people, more plainly than the real ones, round me, hear them talk, & am much interested, surprised, or provoked at their actions, for I seem to have no power to rule them, & can simply record their experiences & performances.” (— Louisa May Alcott, from a letter, 1887)

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The story is in the ink bottle

Willa Cather

“What I write results from a personal explosional experience. All of a sudden, the idea for a story is in my head. It is in the ink bottle when I start to write. But I don’t start until the idea has found its own pattern and fixed its proper tone.

And it does that; some of the things that I first consider important fade into insignificance, while others that I first glimpse as minor things, grow until they show that they are the important things. It seems a natural process…a novel should be like a symphony, developed from one theme, one dominating tone.” (— Willa Cather, from an interview, San Francisco Chronicle, 1931)

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Letting ideas simmer slowly

Madeleine L'Engle

“When I start working on a book, which is usually several years and several books before I start to write it, I am somewhat like a French peasant cook. There are several pots on the back of the stove, and as I go by during the day’s work, I drop a carrot in one, an onion in another …

When it comes time to prepare the meal, I take the pot which is nearly full and bring it to the front of the stove.

So it is with writing. There are several pots on those back burners. An idea for a scene goes into one, a character into another, a description of a tree in the fog into another. When it comes time to write, I bring forward the pot which has the most in it.

The dropping of ideas is sometimes quite conscious; sometimes it happens without my realizing it. I look and something has been added which is just what I need, but I don’t remember when it was added. When it is time to start work, I look at everything in the pot, sort, arrange, think about character and story line.

Most of this part of the work is done consciously, but then there comes a moment of unselfconsciousness, of letting go and serving the work.” (— Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water, 1995)

Adapted from The Literary Ladies Guide to the Writing Life by Nava Atlas.

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