Tuesday, April 5, 2011

On Inspiration

So what question gets asked most of writers do you think?  Personally, I'm pretty sure its this one:

Where do you get your story ideas from?

The answer being of course:  'Uh.....everywhere?'

As I'm sure all of you can attest, to a writer, that's kind of a silly question.  But let's examine it a little more closely for a moment and give it some serious thought.  Where DO you get your ideas from?  Do you have a brainstorming process?  A go to place to start formulating a new book and see what goes from there?  Or do you just wait patiently for inspiration to strike out of the blue, and jump on those lightning surge epiphanies when and where they happen?

I think its worth examining, because most of us - even when dabbling in different genres - find we have a certain brand.  Specific themes and tropes tend to crop up more often than not in our various stories, whether they're set on Mars or in Tahiti.  We have certain default settings - likes and interests so ingrained into our creative process that we don't go looking for them, but there they are when we look back over our most recently completed manuscript.  Oh hey, look.  Kalen dabbled in excessive family squabbling again.  Oh how interesting, MORE Greek mythology.  And so on and so on.

So I thought today I'd look at a couple possibilities for breaking free of our own personal paradigms and stretching our literary wings a bit.  Stepping out of our comfort zone and challenging ourselves as writers.   Where do we find our inspiration, and where else could we go looking for inspiration instead?  And what kind of stories might result from that?

So here's just a couple possibilities I've had some fun experimenting with in the past.  Chime in with any others you can think of.

Research - It's one thing to do research on a story idea or plot point, to flesh out a novel or premise you've already embarked on.  But what about just reading up on random topics that look slightly interesting, and seeing if it sparks anything?  One thing I've had a lot of fun with in the past is going into Barnes and Noble and just heading for the Paranormal/Folklore/New Age nonfiction section and just browsing.  There are books on alien conspiracy theories, compilations of various legends about Atlantis, histories of lost civilizations, etc, etc.  There were so many books on topics I thought I was already familiar with, but with just a quick perusal of them I discovered I was just scratching the tip of the iceberg.  I knew the story of the lost colony of Roanoke, who doesn't, right?  But just browsing a couple of books dedicated to the subject, I discovered ten other similarly vanished cities, towns and cultures I'd never heard of before, and all kinds of fascinating theories, legends and bits of trivia connecting them, differentiating between them, and just like that, I had a novel unlike anything else I'd written before. 

Similarly, I'd always thought myself well versed in mythology, folklore, legends about magical creatures and monsters...but only the gateway ones, the ones everyone can identify on sight.  I might know more about Greek mythology than your average bear, but it still isn't groundbreaking stuff in today's market.  But step outside the usual fare and there's a wealth of underrepresented mythologies and cultures to mine for material.  I've always been fascinated by the Fae and their whimsical capacity for cruelty, and I've always been equally fascinated by the ocean and its creatures, and by extension mythical sea creatures like mermaids and sirens.  So when trying to come up with story ideas that delved into those interests while still standing out from all the other Fae or mermaid stories in today's market, imagine my glee when I discovered Brazilian legends about creatures called the encantado - dolphin shapeshifters who lure mortals to their Faerie-like Otherworld beneath the sea and summon storms with their songs.  Nothing like that out there!  And then of course, the possibility of setting the story as a vacation to somewhere exotic like Brazil - browse the travel section for books about another country like Brazil, or even just another city in your country.  'They' say write what you know - but you don't have to be from a specific city or country to know enough about it to craft a fully realized, believable story in it.  You just have to do your research.

Melting Pot - Certain themes and interests just seem to go together naturally.  Stories about vampires are never all that far away from stories about werewolves.  Dystopian books go hand in hand with certain obvious tropes - time travel, zombies, totalitarian governments.  Ghost stories seem naturally set in dark and gloomy settings, and high fantasy is closely linked to the classic hero's journey, the quest and the battle between good and evil.  So next time you set out to write a book about one of your favorite interests or personal tropes, try mashing it up with something completely random and see what unexpected results you come up with.  If you want to write a high/epic fantasy story that doesn't cater to the standard fantasy tropes, what if you tried combining fantasy settings with science fiction tropes?  What would a dystopian future and a totalitarian government look like in an epic fantasy world?  Or time travel or human experimentation, but with fantastic, magical explanations and backstory rather than scientific?  And so on and so on.

Mix Up Your Daily Routine - We are a product of our surroundings and our experiences, and our stories are a product of us - so by extension, they too are a product of our surroundings and experiences.  So it stands to reason then, if you put yourself in a new surrounding, or you experience new things, you're going to find yourself with new stories to tell.  And sometimes the differences are subtle, a different feel or tone rather than wholly new subject matter.  The first novel I wrote, while living in Savannah, Georgia, was very different in feel from the first novel I wrote after moving to LA.  After I started acting for a living, my day to day routine and my everyday thoughts, concerns and priorities were very different from when working an office job or waiting tables, and that reflected in what my characters thought about and worried about and how they prioritized and reacted to things.  Now obviously you can't go moving cities or starting a new job just to shake up your creative juices a little, but what little things about your daily routine can you try to do differently, just for a little while?  As an experiment?  Maybe drive to work a different route, with different scenery.  Or take your morning jog in the evening, at twilight instead of dawn.  Or if you're inspired by music, and have a soundtrack to every manuscript you write....seek out some new tunes.  Try listening to stuff you wouldn't normally seek out, and see if it triggers anything new in your writing.


  1. I really liked this post, Kalen. I tend to do the research thing a lot already, and apparently I've delved in the melting pot at least once because I've written a Vampire fantasy with sci-fi elements, but the last one I don't do very often. You could even take it so far as to go somewhere new w/your laptop, sit down and free write. Then see what comes of it. Yeah. I need to try that...

    Thanks for the great ideas!

  2. What a great post! I often wonder, when reading a really great book, where the writer got his/her ideas from.

    The past few months I've tried to do a mixture of some of the things you mentioned, especially seeking out new music and having a soundtrack to whatever I write (be it a poem, short story, grocery list, etc.) I've discovered a lot of new artists from bloggers who post what they are listening to and in turn, I get inspired.

    My favorite thing to do, though, is going somewhere public and just observing people: facial features, body type, clothing, right down to the way he/she walks or gestures. I also do this with the surroundings: buildings, trees, flowers, colors, smells . . . anything that really appeals to the senses. Some of these things may put me high up on the "Creeper Status/Stalker" list, but sometimes we have to make these types of sacrifices. :)

  3. Great idea Anita! Might try that myself!

    And yeah Maria, the sacrifices we make for our craft, lol. Wonder if we can use that for a defense in a court of law?