Generating Ideas for Writing - Starting with Setting

You can get an idea for writing from anywhere. You can base a fictional story on a real story you heard, a myth or legend, an incident in history, those ideas that just pop into your head, or anywhere else that you happen to encounter one. Building a story from scratch can seem a little more daunting, but the ideas are fairly easy to come up with once you start.

I like starting with either character or plot, but today I am trying setting. I can think of two basic ways to do this; 1) realistic 2) not realistic. That is actually a false dichotomy, real and not real would occur across a spectrum. Boolean logic is nice because it is simple, and it works well with electrical circuits, and therefore computers, but it seems that writing works more with spectrums of options.

A lot of thrillers, mysteries, crime, and romance novels keep things completely realistic (mostly). Science fiction is many times just ahead of our current technology in some way, so it is an attempt to predict the future of technology. Fantasy just completely ignores reality, fantasy writers make their own reality.

In a realistic story you are mostly just picking a setting. That can be as specific or as general as you want. You could choose the wild west, or Texas during their revolution, or a bar in Omaha, Nebraska in December 1865. Once you choose your place it seems to me that you have to either get very specific with the context and setting, or jump right into working on a character or a plot.

In science fiction and fantasy I think there are two basic ways to go. You can either pick a science fiction or fantasy setting that already exists and work with it, or you can make one yourself. In truth, you can combine those things in any way you want as well.

A lot of sci-fi and fantasy worlds have been created, at least hundreds of well-known ones, so there is no shortage, but there can be some legality issues with some of them. Creating your own can be a daunting task, but it has been done before. Maybe you just change a law of physics, something moves faster or slower than it really does. Maybe a planet has fewer or more moons. Maybe heat, friction, gravity, or state change works differently. Maybe there are beings that have a nature different than human nature. Obviously you could take a technology that almost exists and make it exist. This could be in the near future or in the far future. Cyborgs, cloning, intelligent computers, space travel, genetic modification, nuclear fusion, nuclear apocalypse, aliens, ghosts, demons. My list got a little carried away, but all of these things can be re-imagined. What if? is a good place to start.

Let's try a little something with both. First, realistic. What is a time and place that I find interesting? I think the California gold rush seems interesting. At this point we either have to start on character or plot, or add more detail to the setting. What setting do I find interesting in the California gold rush. The miners and brothels and gunfighters are popular. Maybe the store that sells equipment would be interesting, or how private currency started at, wherever it started. Let's play with a science fiction world.

What technology do we want to play with? Genetic modification has an interesting potential. Maybe there is a society where genetics are tested at birth. The natural tendencies of the child are enhanced and the others are left as they are. So the strong become amazingly strong, but normal in all other aspects. The intelligent are all geniuses, but mediocre in other tendencies. Maybe we get into eugenics and end up with a dystopia. That could be an interesting setting. It was pretty easy to come up with too, I think fantasy may be harder.

Let's try to come up with something new. Nothing springs to my mind immediately. What about human-like creatures that make connections with animals. The thing I just thought of is almost exactly like the connection used in Avatar by James Cameron, so maybe it's not so original. What if there was a race of human-like creatures that could only be cannibals. I guess that idea is basically vampires. Coming up with a completely new idea in fantasy is a difficult task. Any of these could easily be adapted a lot of different ways. Maybe the key to fantasy is that the combination that makes the world is selected piece by piece. The species, the physics, the technology are all selected and melded together.

Starting with setting as opposed to character or plot is an interesting thought experiment. I do like the realistic and sci-fi ideas that I came up with. As for fantasy, maybe I need to consume more fantasy material to get better at that, I did like some Dragonlance when I was younger. I will be exploring these ideas more. You are welcome to join me at


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