What’s the Big Idea? by Yvonne Lehman


            Where do you get your ideas?

That question is often asked of me at writers conferences and by my readers. I can honestly say that my (and many writers) problem is getting too many ideas and not sure in what form to use them. Should I write a devotional, article, short story, novella, or novel?

Come to think of it, a writer may do all or any of the above.

Whether it’s a 250 word vignette or 100,000 word novel, there is one central idea to each piece of writing. The idea is like the Interstate of your writing. If you use that idea in a devotional you stay on the Interstate and you may have only one character, usually the first-person “I.” For example you may be writing about finding a job. A short piece can succinctly tell about fear, doubt, waiting, wondering, praying, questioning, and when all seemed in vain, the exact right job came. And you can use a scripture about God’s faithfulness. Just stay on the Interstate.

Or for novel material, you can get off the Interstate, take those side trips, have a friend with you, do some sight-seeing, find an antique, get back on the Interstate, have a wreck, get a flat tire, be stopped for speeding, miss the job interview, apologize profusely, get involved with the good-looking interviewer even if you don’t get the job, or get involved with the police officer, or be committed to a hospital and get involved with the doctor. But…the main idea still revolves around getting the job.

This may be called the theme, or purpose, or take-away value, but there is one theme that dominates just as the Interstate dominates the trip you’re taking. You may take side road that offer romance, danger, conflicts, flashbacks, trials, unexpected happiness, but the Interstate is still there, the main road.

To get back to where I get my ideas, they come from life around me. My novel, Catch of a Lifetime, came from one sentence. A friend of my daughter said, “I married him for his money, why can’t I love him for it?” I knew I had to write about a character marrying for money.

That was set in Charleston SC where my husband and I vacationed a lot, so my ideas were to have that setting as the background for a few novels (could deduct that from my taxes!)

I had missionary journeymen friends in Africa. She was a nurse, he a teacher. They loaned me their pictures and hard copy of their experiences they used in talks to churches. That was the idea for Drums of Shelomoh.

My granddaughter is on a swim team winning awards. After getting information from her I made swimming an important part of Never Say Never in which the heroine teaches the hero to swim.

Idea for Call of the Mountain came from a discussion with my daughter about abortion and our debating the pros and cons of why one would chose abortion. We expressed our beliefs about the subject.

Whiter than Snow was inspired by my having been in our blizzard of the century in 1993. My heroine was trapped. My hero was a fireman who tried to rescue the heroine. I used personal experience and interviewing my son-in-law who is a fireman.

The idea for More than a Summer’s Love came from personal experience of our family sponsoring a young girl in the Philippines through Christian Children’s Fund. The girl and my youngest daughter were named Cindy. Difference in their lifestyles was obvious and stirred my imagination and I had the American girl go to thePhilippines to meet the sponsored girl when they were in their twenties.

Something Old, Something New came from my action of visiting Ella in a retirement center, with no thought of writing about it. However, her background of having been a missionary to Korea and my observing others in the center and their many activities became the inspiration for a nursing home romance between older people.

Another idea came from my tutoring a second-grader once a week and the idea grew to a story of a teacher who tutors and a widower who is having difficulty accepting the death of his wife and dealing with an equally sad little boy.

My idea for Hearts that Survive – A Novel of the Titanic came from fascination with anything about Titanic and the 100th anniversary of its sinking beingApril 15, 2012.

After getting the idea, a next step toward coming up with a good story is to express that idea in one sentence or two, the way a TV program, book, or movie is advertised to get your attention. You can read a sentence or two and know whether or not you want to read further or see the movie.

That expressing the idea that becomes the theme is not as easy as I make it sound!


About yvon63

Author of 59 novels and 10 nonfiction books. Director of Blue Ridge Christian "Autumn in the Mountains" Novelist Retreat held annually in October, in the panoramic mountains of western North Carolina.
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3 Responses to What’s the Big Idea? by Yvonne Lehman

  1. What’s frightening, Yvonne, is when you can’t even think of something to write and actually have to back out into the world and find something. 😉


    • yvon63y says:

      I did have that disclaimer at the end about things not being as easy as I make it sound. When I enjoyed Placido Domingo’s singing opera, my idea was to write about an opera star. But I knew nothing about the subject, so I took a course at a local university in opera that was taught by a former opera star. That way, I gathered material beyond my concept of the good-looking singer on stage in costume. I learned the pitfalls of a singer, going in the back doors of cold dingy theaters to practice. Singing while sets are being set up and measurements are being taken for your costumes. That gave me a lot of material for my opera-singer-hero. Some writers look to newspaper articles for ideas, some find them in the obituaries. I took a one-day class in egg decorating to see if I could get any ideas from that. The decorations were symbols of faith. That led to my heroine being uncomfortable talking to others about faith, but could do it through teaching egg-decorating. Sometimes we do have to “go back out into the world” and experience new things and see what stories might develop. Then, after the idea, comes the task of getting a plot from those ideas. Writing is a never-ending journey. I’m glad to be on it.


  2. Yvonne says:

    You are right on target. When something happens to me or someone I know, I often say, “There’s an article or a devotion there.” My experience with divorce and single-parenting led to several articles. Our experiences can also lead to speaking engagements.


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