Finding Inspiration in Non-Traditional Places – Guest Post by Holli Herdeg

Finding Inspiration in Non-Traditional Places

Holli HerdegIdeas 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!

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.


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18 replies

  1. Great post, Holli!

    You mentioned the Harry Potter, Eragon, and Star Wars example of an orphaned boy who finds he’s special. It’s been a common trope to have a main character who’s like that, almost to the point that almost every protagonist is either a “chosen one” of sorts or will inevitably find some special abilities passed through his bloodline. For one sci-fi/fantasy story I’m working on, I decided, come what may, I would absolutely not have the main character be in that mold. That person would get into the fantastical universe on their own terms, and I instead threw all those clichés onto a supporting character instead. So sometimes all you have to do is tweak one convention in another direction to get a more interesting result.

  2. I have definitely gotten ideas from my class. For me most of my ideas come in the form small scenes. I write these ideas out and then they just kind of take me away.

  3. Thank you, Jason! I love how you’re playing with that idea; you’re right, it is a ridiculously common trope. It doesn’t make it bad, but it is edging towards overused. Thankfully, a lot of authors have started edging away from it. I’ve become very interested in that sort of role reversal. It reminds me of a writing discussion I listened to yesterday. The speakers were talking about stories where the “every-man” is the protagonist, instead of the heroic character blessed by the circumstances of the plot. They ended up offering a prompt where the normal protagonist has to be the hero of his own story, up to when he encounters the heroic character and has to decide whether to let him take over or continue on his own.

    Anna, I love those times! =) That was how the majority of my ideas formed themselves for a very long time, as small snippets of interaction. They still do, now and then, but it’s fairly recently that I’ve run across ideas that offer either tiny story details or a huge plot arc.

    • Thanks, Holli.

      I started playing around with that idea when I was pondering that so many protags end up pursued by evil orgs/empires/cults/younameit because they’re an inherent threat to their plans, leaving the protags with the only choice to get educated and trained in their particular field, or end up dead. I felt like if they didn’t have a choice to get involved in this strange and fantastic world they ended up in, it wasn’t a good enough test of their heroism. (I should add that the best stories of this type do have more nuance than what I just described)

      I find I mostly like using stuff from personal encounters or just observing things in coming up with funny moments. I suppose I’m just wired to find comedy when I can, especially if the story gets heavy at times. I was once told by a co-worker, “You write pretty good for a guy.” (As in my penmanship) So I filed that little exchange away and used it in a story.

      • One of the aspects of that standard story structure that I’ve been exploring is the motivation of the villain. There are, of course, dastardly evil characters who really do want to see the world burn. But more and more, I’m trying to edge away from that and see what is actually inspiring the antagonist’s actions. It ends having fascinating repercussions for the protagonist.

        I love exchanges like that. I tend to pick up on intrigue more than humor — and whatever humor I do notice tends to be very intellectual or dry. I think that’s why political science inspires me as much as it does.

  4. One thing that I’ve learned is how music can inspire “video clips” in my mind – besides the fact that it’s become a habit. 🙂 The basis for the novel I’m working on right now was inspired by an instrumental Celtic CD. The clip was brief but it sparked the idea of the setting that that character lived in.

    • Music is a fantastic source! In fact, it was a source of inspiration suggested by the Writing Excuses podcast I mentioned.

      I love movie soundtracks, but I’ve noticed that I’m very wired for lyrical music, or music with a clear story (certain musicologists would hate me for it). Beethoven, for example, can be very dramatic. Music tends to give me ideas for the moods and tones of a particular scene.

  5. Levia that sounds really cool. I know music helps lots of people write but I mostly just use it to shut out other distractions. I often listen to music that I know fairly well or doesn’t have lyrics.
    What kind of music do you wall listen to when you write?

    • Actually, I don’t listen to anything while I write, but simply listening to an instrumental song in my spare time inspired my whole story. 🙂

      • I enjoy listening to movie soundtracks when I write. They’re so versatile and can fit all kinds of scenes. Sometimes I make playlists for certain types of scenes: intense/battle, suspenseful, happy, emotional, etc. It often helps me get into the right mood. 🙂

  6. I tend to get inspiration from everything. One fun thing to do is to find inspiration in children’s movies. Since they’re basically simplified versions of real stories, see if you can pick out what makes them unique. Another way is to take things out of context. I’ll give you an example:

    There’s a show called Peep and the Big Wide World. It’s a PBS kids series about three birds (a duck, a chick and a red baby bird). They like exploring the big, wide world and figuring things out like how caterpillars turn into butterflies and they meet other animals like beavers, turtles, mice, etc.
    So, there’s this episode where Beaver Boy is about to chew down his first tree and he accidentally almost smashes his parents and his friends. So, the next time he’s going to try, his parents are telling him that maybe he shouldn’t do it, more begging him, though they don’t want him to see that. So, (hang in with me here) I thought, what if there was a person had always failed at this one thing, and so when lives hung at stake, he had the chance to try again, but everyone was begging him not to do it, because he had always failed before, but he had to try again anyway. And this time he succeeds.

    See how that works?

    I’ll have to try some of these methods. Thank you, Ms. Holli!

    • Hannah, that’s a great idea and method! I think I’ll play around with it, myself. Pulling the idea of a story arc out of a show like that could also be a really good way to practice working with short story arcs — if you happen to write short stories. =)

      You are very welcome! I hope they either inspire you or lead to other sources for ideas!

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