Finding Inspiration in Non-Traditional Places
Ideas are at the heart of storytelling. Some writers never have any trouble finding ideas; others need to work at it. I’m one of the second. For a few years, I worried that I couldn’t think of any good story ideas –I had plenty of ideas for the works I was working on, but nothing new. I worried that I’d used up all my creativity.
Now, I knew the concern was ludicrous even as I confessed it to myself. You can’t lose being creative. But I have come to realize that it is possible to get out of practice and need to get back into idea-finding shape. I began to ask myself, “What kind of story could I write about ___?” and filled that blank with nearly everything you can think of.
This is what I want to discuss today. Where can writers find inspiration? Is there a “normal” way of finding them that we should ascribe to?
Inspiration doesn’t mean that you’ve found the entire plot of your story. It can be a thought that sparks a need to write. It can be an emotion you want to capture, or a particular tone that you want to permeate some new piece. Inspiration also doesn’t mean that you’re starting a new story every time you get an idea. Ideas need other ideas to grow and become something even more beautiful. You can collect ideas until you have a story you really want to tell.
I don’t think there needs to be a “normal” from where we can find our ideas. Is it normal to be inspired by a political science class on democratic theory? Or to find an idea for a fantasy novel in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract? After all, we are writers – we’re notorious for being quirky.
You can look anywhere for ideas. If you don’t like the first ones you find, too, don’t give up! Every single writer, whether you’re just starting out or have already published several New York Times bestsellers, will come up with a bad idea now and then. We can simply toss it back and keep looking. It’s the act of looking for ideas that will help you find them, not always finding a good one. It may also help to start looking in more unconventional corners.
So, where do I look? I believe in writing about the things humanity encounters in the world around us. And the world is a marvelously fantastic and diverse place. There are people who are passionate about things I’ve never heard of. I tend to be inspired by my classes and the things I’m reading, especially during the quarter. Here are some other places where you might find interesting ideas!
- Take old stories and tweak them in interesting and unusual ways.
“There is nothing new under the sun,” Solomon says. Many of today’s writers agree: your basic plot has probably been told before. Harry Potter, Eragon, and Star Wars all star an orphaned boy who doesn’t know much about his (parents) and has been raised by his aunt and uncle, only to find he’s something very special. The approach is what makes a thing new.
How can you spin a once-old idea? How can we retell a story that’s been told before and still make it interesting when people are already familiar with the standard ending? Maybe you can assign new, unusual motivations or change character details. There is plenty of room to explore.
- Pull from your personal encounters – especially the odd or apparently boring ones.
One of my favorite writing resources, the podcast Writing Excuses, recently discussed idea finding. They posed a challenge to their listeners and asked us to think up ideas from a variety of sources; one of these was from a personal encounter. The people and things you encounter on a day to day basis – even very mundane things – can be a fascinating source of inspiration. I ran into a girl who dropped a dollar on the sidewalk and, from it, I thought up a story about a girl apprenticed to a magical detective agency.
Another example comes from one of my favorite authors, Brandon Sanderson. He tells a fun anecdote about where he came up with the idea for his YA novel, Steelheart. One day, while on his way to a book signing, he was cut off in traffic. For a split second, he wondered what it would be like to have super powers and be able to use them on a whim – only to realize how horrific that sounded. But it gave him an idea: what if having super powers made you evil? And that sparked Steelheart.
- Mine your class notes or study materials for ideas.
School can be the source of a variety of different benefits. Friends, exposure to new books and a wider vocabulary, and an ability to calculate the area under a curve are a few examples. You can also find within your pages of notes ideas just waiting to either be transplanted into a blooming story garden or develop into a story of their own.
Look back through some old class notes, if you have any, or think about something you learned. What can you take from it? What stories can you find in that single fact? What does that fact remind you of, and can you make something of that connection? Don’t be afraid to follow tangents.
There are many other places you can look for inspiration, and I know I haven’t shared or even thought of all of them. Everything could hold an idea. Don’t be afraid to look. I don’t believe there is any limit to what can inspire you. And if you get stuck, you don’t need to be frustrated. The point is not to find the perfect idea, but to learn how to keep your eyes open for the ones you will encounter.
Author Bio: Holli Herdeg
Holli’s passions have always been storytelling and learning, and writing is the perfect intersection of the two. As a former student of Bryan Davis, she actively pursued writing throughout her secondary school years and has made her passion the cornerstone of her plans for post-graduate employment and graduate studies. She has studied and written epic fantasy for ten years and edited for eight; at current, she is an editor with the PSSO Journal at the University of California, Los Angeles.
As an editor and pre-reader, she has worked with several authors, both those published and those preparing for publication. Most notably, she pre-read and offered edits for several of Bryan Davis’ books, including titles in the Oracles of Fire and Children of the Bard series.
At her website and blog, Omnia Scripta, Holli explores what we can learn about writing from fascinating and unconventional places (for example, political science theory). She can also be found on Twitter and LinkedIn.
Categories: Guest Post