Top ingredient for successful writing: Imagination

You just KNOW there’s a body in there, don’t you?

One thing that always gets a laugh when I give an author talk is when I tell the audience that I always expect to find a body when I open the door of an outhouse at a state park or somewhere else remote.

Doesn’t everybody? I ask.

Cue hilarity.

The thing is, I’m not joking. Seriously.

One thing we’re always asked as authors is where we get our ideas. Not only by curious readers, but I’ve also been asked that by aspiring writers, too, including a high school student who recently had to interview me for a school project.

There are so many answers to that. I could probably talk about nothing but that for hours. But the bottom line is imagination.

I’m not sure where imagination comes from, but I know what it leads to: wondering “what if?”

What if I open that door and there’s a body?

It’s taking what’s expected and turning it on its head, or at least sideways, and then imagining where it goes from there.

Imagination isn’t only essential for good fiction writing, it’s also the key to good non-fiction writing, even news reporting. And no, I’m not saying reporters make things up. I won’t get into that today, but you can read my post from last February “You know what folks? We’re not making this up” for my take on that.

The worst journalism is writing that suffers from lack of imagination – someone tells a reporter something, and he or she parrots it to readers instead of saying, “What if there’s more to the story?” The best news stories are the ones that come out of someone saying, “How can we look at this in a new way?”

The best fiction, too, is a product of imagination – when writers veer away from the same old stuff.

As a judge for many years in a self-published book contest, one of the biggest issues I saw with those books was a lack of imagination. Dialogue that sounded just like all the dialogue in a million buddy movies (I call it “Die Hard” syndrome). Characters that we’ve seen a million times before. Plots that a reader can predict from the first page. Lack of voice.

I think sometimes writers are afraid to follow their imaginations because where it goes is somewhere they haven’t been before, and they don’t have the confidence to think that’s okay.

Albert Einstein said something like imagination is more important than knowledge. The point being, you can have all the facts in the world, but where are they going to take you?

If I have one piece of advice for aspiring writers, it’s to let your imagination run free and find out.

About Maureen Milliken

Maureen Milliken is the author of the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. Follow her on Twitter at @mmilliken47 and like her Facebook page at Maureen Milliken mysteries. Sign up for email updates at She hosts the podcast Crime&Stuff with her sister Rebecca Milliken.
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4 Responses to Top ingredient for successful writing: Imagination

  1. Good advice, Maureen. I agree with you on stick-to-the-script, cautious writing. It is b-o-r-I-n-g, and unfortunately, all too common. I’m not sure I’ve ever worried about what is behind the door in a trailside outhouse, but going forward I suspect I will . . .

  2. Gram says:

    Imagination or a Mother who saw danger everywhere…..

  3. There’s some trope in writing about, when you’re stuck, have a man come in with a gun. Great…but then we have to do something with that. I took a class once where the teacher advised that one way to get unstuck–which I read also as one way to expand your imagination–is to pull out a section and just free write, letting everything in. It helps to discover more about the character and the situation. I’ve been seeing places to put a body for years, and also have readers send me suggestions. It can be a fun exercise to encourage our readers to tell us where THEY would put the body. Nice post!


  4. Barbara Ross says:

    Making long lists helps me free my imagination. Why is this character afraid? The first 5 or so reasons will be mundane, boring, trite. But by the time I get past 10, they get more and more far out. The answer is usually in some combination of the first part of the list and the second.

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