There are many questions which frequently come up in conversation when you mention you’re a writer: Are you published? (*twitch*) Isn’t that hard? How do you find the time? Where do you get your ideas from? I try not to get too bogged down in some of them, because depending on the day, I may not be able to come up with a polite answer! But the question which most intrigues me out of the collection is the last one – where DO our ideas come from? I can only relay my own experiences, but those have been varied enough that I suspect they can provide some insight.
One of the most basic sources for ideas is our own physiology. We have five main senses and they’re continually receiving and processing all sorts of stimuli! For example, the story for WEAVER was already well under development, bubbling away in my mind, but I needed to figure out what the experience would be like for my main character (MC) when she traveled in between realities. As I sat there thinking about it, I put gentle pressure on my closed eyelids and saw a bloom of white spots which coalesced into each other. My optic nerve gave me the answer I was searching for!
There was another time early on in crafting my first draft when one of my senses triggered a story idea. I’m very easily distracted when I write at home, so I often go out to coffee shops or parks if the weather’s nice, to minimise the chance of me finding something else to do. On one such occasion, I set up my blanket under a leaf-laden tree for a bit of shade on the warm Adelaide spring day, and found myself stuck with how to describe the scenery in the chapter at hand. At that point in the tale, my MC recollects her experience of feeling lost and adrift at a funeral as a child, and I wanted to make sure the reader felt the unsettled nature of that event. As I paused and pondered how to paint the picture, a breeze blew past and the branches clacked above my head as the wind whipped them together. “Lightbulb!” as Gru from Despicable Me says. While it was relaxing in my setting, when you transpose that sound to a cold fall day with bare branches as the culprit, it became exactly what I needed.
Not only are sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste important to include in your writing to give the reader a real sense of the environment, but your own experiences of those senses can be useful in other ways, too.
Authors are frequently told to write what they know. In fact, it’s such an oft-repeated adage that if you have an inkling to venture into unknown territory, it almost feels sinful! Now by no means is it a hard and fast rule, but there’s good reason the phrase keeps making the rounds – it’s valid advice. If you’re a research scientist, then it’s going to be a hell of a lot easier for you to write a scene set in a laboratory and make it realistic than it would be for someone who’s never set foot inside one. This brings me to my next source of inspiration: personal experiences.
Events and happenings in your own life are perfect fodder for your writing! You have first-hand experience of how it felt and can translate that to the page with ease. Well, more ease than devising it all from scratch, anyway. Another example from WEAVER comes to mind. My heroine needed somewhere isolated to process a traumatic event, but I didn’t want her to sit on some banal park bench somewhere – the setting needed to be just right to reflect the stark reality she had to deal with. As I considered places I had been myself, one clear candidate stood out: the foredeck of a ferry out on the Puget Sound in the middle of autumn. It was dark, cold, windy, bare, and lonely. I didn’t use it for the same purpose as my MC when I was there, but that didn’t matter; the location was perfect. Yet another example of translating craft advice into a method of finding inspiration for your work.
Writers and readers alike will tell you how important it is to make your characters believable. They can’t be cookie cutter versions of whichever archetype you’re aiming for – no one will accept them, relate to them, or be invested in them. You need to give your characters enough depth and detail to draw people in. This always makes me laugh, as it reminds me of a threat which is often bandied around the writing community: don’t piss us off or you’ll find yourself depicted in our next book! It’s hilarious because it’s true. Real living, breathing people are the best sources of ideas for characters. Need a credulous mean girl? Just spend thirty minutes observing passers-by at the shopping centre and you’ll have more than enough to develop your very own Regina George. Take note of their speech, mannerisms, posture, dress sense… you get the idea. Every time I see a perfect demonstration of any type of personality in someone I encounter, I write it down. You never know when you might need a character like them!
The last example of inspiration I’ve encountered is the most incredible and yet most frustrating kind for both newbie and experienced writers. When it happens for you, it’s an amazing gift, when it doesn’t occur, its absence is the source of endless frustration. I call it Thunderclap Inspiration, for reasons which will be obvious. These are the ideas which wake you from near-slumber, blindside you mid-sentence, or stop you in your tracks. As soon as they hit, you have to scramble to your nearest note-taking tool and scribble them down before the details disappear, because they often disintetrate as fast as they appear.
I’m lucky enough to have experienced a significant Thunderclap, and really, it was the source of my entire premise for WEAVER. Maybe I would have connected the disparate parts which make up the story’s scaffolding over time, but my gut tells me it wouldn’t have played out that way. Whose brain actively says, “Hey! Why don’t we write about a young woman with a foul mouth who loves genetics, travels to alternate realities, and has to learn how to survive in a foreign universe amongst her enemies, all while fighting alongside them against a common foe who is trying to destroy the multiverse?” Yeah, no one’s brain says that without subconsciously-percolated help.
The forms of inspiration I’ve described here are just some of the many ways authors fuel their creativity, and they don’t necessarily happen in isolation from each other. I’ve often constructed an idea through one method and developed it through another, as the situation dictates. However you spark your own brain-children, I wish you a multitude of them.
What are some other examples you can think of which I haven’t covered? I’d love to hear your thoughts!