It happens to the best of us. One day, we sit down at our desks and have no idea what to write about. We can wait for inspiration to hit us, or we can go looking for it. I prefer going out to look for it. Lately, I’ve been overrun with ideas (I’m not trying to rub anything in here, but it’s like someone gave my muse a kick up the ass or something), but it wasn’t always the case. I would go from site to site, blog to blog, forum to forum, trolling for ideas. Sometimes, something would hit me, more often than not I’d just get lost in a maze of true crime sites.
Writing prompt sites are rarely inspirational – often, it borders on those essay topics your high school English teacher assigned. While they feel familiar, those prompts will rarely lead to anything more than a writing exercise, which isn’t necessarily bad, writing well takes practice, and you have to do it every day if you want to be good at it. Athletes run every day, we write. That’s the nature of our beast.
So what to do when you find yourself sitting at your desk, drumming your fingers, wracking your brain and thinking that maybe it’s time to give it all up? You go looking for ideas, that’s what you do.
Stephen King wrote Misery based on a dream he had. I have written short stories based on dreams I’ve had. I have woken up from dreams so vivid and fresh, but incomplete, that I wanted to know, what happens next? Keep a dream diary. When you wake in the morning, write your dream down. Remember to include how the dream made you feel. Emotion is an important part of fiction writing, and you want to hang on to the feelings you experienced in your dream. Don’t just write down “scared” or “happy” – go all out, and describe your emotion in detail. Often that little exercise is enough to kick start you creativity.
Real life is an endless source of inspiration. You may think it’s not, because we write and read to escape reality, but reality also anchors us to stories, that’s why there are things like plumbers, bitchy neighbours, rotten produce, and irritating teenagers in fiction. A while ago, my oldest son had an adverse reaction to medication, and started talking to “people” in his room. He was so convincing, that I actually thought there were ghosts in his room. I turned it into a story you can read here. That was a scary night, not just because my kid was sick, but because I absolutely believe in ghosties, ghoulies and things that go bump in the night. I sat at my desk, whimpering and clutching my bible. When the hoopla died down, my helpful husband told me, “You know, that would make an excellent ghost story. You should write it.”
Keep a notebook with you. When you see something interesting, write it down. When you see a strange character on the train, write about him or her, see where real life takes you, because you just never know what might trigger your muse.
Even old news can spark an idea. Stephen King wrote Mercedes after reading a news article (yes, I know I reference him a lot – the man’s my hero, what can I say?). If you find a newspaper article you think might trigger something, print it out (or cut it out), and keep it. I don’t do this myself, but others have found it helpful.
Your family history
Even if you’re not a historical fiction writer, I bet there’s something in your own family history that’s interesting, unique or simply bizarre. For instance, my great-great-grandfather went to an orphanage to find himself a wife (different times). He picked out a 14-year old, married her the same day, and brought her home. I hear tell she used to sit under the kitchen table after she did her chores, and played with her dolls. It’s terribly sad by today’s standards, I know – but that could easily be turned into a really good story. I have, in fact, used this idea to write a novel, which will be out next year. All it took was hearing that one little story about my great-great-grandparents, and it was literally all I had when I started, but I like where the idea took me.
Granted, this one doesn’t work for everyone, but it does for me. When I listen to music, I’ll start playing what I can only call my own made up ‘music video’ in my head. I have turned more than one of those little videos into stories. Most writers I know gravitate towards music. I don’t know why, but for us the two tend to go hand-in-hand (I know a handful who don’t like listening to music when they’re writing, but they really are the minority).
Yes, the internet can be a terrific time suck, especially social media sites, but it’s also the best tool we have. As I’ve said before, I really enjoy Reddit. It’s a treasure trove of interesting stories, true life dramas, crimes, ghost stories, and all sorts of comedies and horrors. I’ve found more than one spark from that site, and reading some of that stuff is highly entertaining (the other day, I spent hours reading about “groupie experiences” on Reddit. It was a complete waste of time, but I was entertained). Another site you might find interesting and useful is Crime Library, which doesn’t just write about horrific crimes and serial killers. They have a whole section dedicated to idiotic criminals.
Other writers and writing buddies
Sometimes, while reading fiction, I’ll read a sentence or paragraph that sets off a series of ideas. I’m not talking about stealing or even borrowing from other writers. I’m talking about one or two lines only that somehow takes flight and takes on a life of its own. Don’t be afraid to build on that when it happens. You are not taking anything away from another writer, you are simply inspired by them.
Every so often, my writing buddy and I will give each other challenges. It’s just little games we play to break the boredom sometimes, jar us out of our comfort zones, or for fun. We’ll send each other a photograph with instructions, or simply say, “Write a story about …” Sometimes, it leads to something much bigger than just a short story. In fact, thanks to my writing buddy sending me a “fun little challenge”, I am now working on one of my favourite novels to date. Granted, she didn’t see it coming, neither did I for that matter, but hey, I am not complaining.
What do you do when inspiration runs dry? Where do you turn to for ideas? Tell me in the comments section below.