One of the most common questions that authors get asked is: “Where do you get your ideas from?”
It’s a question that has simultaneously lots of answers, and no answer at all. Every writer – every person – is different, and as such will source inspiration and ideas from a variety of different places. From things you might have read, to things you might see, or overhear, you can find inspiration almost everywhere.
‘I’ is for ‘Inspiration’
My favourite place to get inspiration from is a little public footpath near my home. It’s set away from the roads, and cuts alongside private farm fields. The path itself is just a dirt track, surrounded on each side by corn fields, trees, or fruit bushes, a little stream, or – further down – a small lake (pictured above). At the top of the track, near the actual farmhouse, there is also a large open enclosure populated by two or three sheep, a family of chickens, and some turkeys. It’s so nice to go past and see them when I go for a walk. This is the route I walk my dogs along, and the place I go to when I am ‘stuck’ on my writing – either a plot issue, or a general writing block. I find walking, and the fresh air, really helps to clear my mind, and I am always ready to write again when I return home.
1 Go for a walk. Find somewhere you love to be, somewhere that is similar (in some way) to the setting of your current writing project, somewhere new to you, or somewhere you know very well. Do laps around your house. Walk your route to work. Find a public footpath, or walk along a beach. Make an effort to notice the little things – notice the people around you: Who are they? What are they doing? What are they wearing? What do they look like? What are their differences? What are their similarities? Notice the buildings around you, the pavements, the potholes, the litter, the flowers, the little gaps between cobbles, the weeds, the colour of the sky. In short: look, notice, record. What if? Get the sunlight, breathe the fresh air, and walk. (Consider building this into your general routine to break up your writing stints – it’s good to stretch your legs regularly if you’re spending long periods sitting at a desk!)
2 Read. Read everything. Read everything again, but this time look at the writing. Read the book you are currently reading. Does it inspire you? Read the book spines at the library, your favourite blogs, internet forums, the headlines on the newspaper a person across from you is reading on a train, the billboard posters, the junk mail that comes through your door. What is your immediate reaction to something you read? Why? What action do you want to take next? Throw the letter away, put the book back on the shelf, write to the company, laugh at the joke, etc. What if? What if you followed through on that action? What if you didn’t? What if you threw away a letter that wasn’t for you? What if you opened and read a letter that wasn’t for you? Who wrote that letter? What did it say? Who was it really intended for? Your best tool for instant inspiration is to question everything. Who? Why? What if?
3 Brainstorm. Decide on a ‘start’ word, and spiral out of it. Write down every single thing that you can think of that is connected to that thought. What do you end up with? Be creative with the information, or ideas, that you write down. Inter-link your ideas. List synonyms. Review. What if? Highlight the most interesting ideas, and put them together like puzzle pieces. Fill in the gaps.
4 Listen and/or Observe. Listen to music – modern songs, classic tunes, and instrumental symphonies. Listen to different styles and formats, different artists and bands, different instruments, different sounds, different volumes. Listen to silence. Listen to lyrics, dialogue, monologue, translations. Look at art – how does a specific piece of art make you feel? What does it make you think? What if? Look at paintings, photographs, sculptures, installations. Contrast portrait with landscape, impressionist with futurist, cubism and abstract. Question.
5 People Watch. How many people are around you right now? Who are they? What are they like? What do they look like? Do you know them? If so, how? Do you like them? What are they doing? What are they wearing? What are they saying? Notice as much as you can about them – the knot in their shoelaces, the scuff on their jeans, the dog-tooth patterned belt buckle. What sort of shoes are they wearing? If you didn’t/don’t know their name, what might they be called? Listen to what they are saying – what does their dialogue tell you about who they are, what they do, etc? Does anything they are saying inspire you? Does it conjure a scene, or an image in your mind? Write out your favourite ‘quotes’ – why do you connect with them? What do you like about them? Who said them? Make notes in your notebook to refer to later.
6 Use Prompts. There are many lists of prompts, or ‘story starters’, available for those who are looking for a helping hand with beginning a new writing project. From books (such as ‘Story Starters’, by Lou Willett Stanek) to free website-based lists, there are many prompts available to published and/or aspiring authors. You will also find prompts via other writing activities – for example, I am a member of the small @NaNoWordSprints team, hosting Twitter based writing sprints and providing a wide variety of prompt suggestions.
7 Freewriting. One of the things that one of my creative writing tutors taught me to do when I was studying at university, was to complete a writing exercise at the start of every writing session. Depending on your schedule, or preference, you can adjust it to better suit your habits or routine – but, simply, write. Set a time, or number of pages, etc, and then just write whatever is in your head at that moment. You can write about anything – your day, your worries, your stresses, your writing habits, funny things your friends/family/children/neighbours have said, what you have for breakfast, why you don’t like the new character in your favourite TV series, anything. It doesn’t matter – all that matters is that you write. Set yourself a challenge – how many words can you manage in that exercise? This is also a really good way to train yourself into writing-without-simultaneously-editing. It does take a day or two to establish the pattern, but it’s easier and more useful/helpful from there. I keep a kitchen timer on my desk for this purpose – I write for five minutes, twenty minutes, two pages, five pages, at the start of every session (depending on the length of my writing session!). This not only clears all of the clutter and fluff out of your head ahead of you working on your project, it also allows you to randomly jot ideas onto paper. Sometimes inspiration will strike even as you are writing, sometimes you might be flicking back through past pages. A little like embarking on a journey with no predetermined destination, you never know where will you end up. What if?
8 Keep a Writing Notebook. Sometimes called a writing journal, or a writing diary, this is simply a book/notepad/jotter/folder in which you can jot down ideas. (It is not – as some writing journals seem to be – a daily record of your writing, but this is also useful!) This is a place where you can write down that idea you had at 4am, or at a dinner engagement with your many colleagues, or at your mother & father-in-law’s home. It’s a place to jot down rogue snippets of dialogue you overheard, or brief descriptions of things you notice when you are out and observing. I have lots of these sorts of notebooks, from a number of years, all in a big box near my desk. They are really useful for providing inspiration for tiny details to incorporate into a writing project, or just by flicking through at different times. I have a list of projects-in-waiting that were originally inspired from little notes in some of my notebooks. On a related note: don’t ever throw any of your writing away. By all means edit, but don’t delete large sections. Instead, move those sections to a different document, or print them off and put them into your notebook. Just because that clip isn’t right at that point in your story, doesn’t mean you can’t use it/part of it somewhere else. Or in a different project. Or to inspire a brand new project. Or maybe not at all – but it can’t if you don’t keep it.
9 Change. You know that saying, ‘a change is as good as a rest’? It’s not true. But a change does provide … a change. It gives you new stimulus – new views, outlooks, settings to look at, to study, explore, smell, hear. Sometimes refreshing your surroundings can be the spark that you need to get going with your latest project. A change can invigorate and motivate, it can help, hinder, and inspire. Like rearranging your living room after Christmas, or another celebration or festival, you’re given a space that feels new and fresh. Change is good for your mind, and good for your routine. Embrace new ideas, and let yourself wonder.
10 Use a Generator. If you’re after an instant list of story ideas, set characters, settings, or other writing-related specifics, you can always search for a free online generator. It’s worth spending a little bit of time looking around – some generators are definitely better than others. But, generators can be useful as a simple stepping stone to get you started. An idea is just an idea, after all – it’s what you do with that idea that counts.