Where to Look
Some authors will tell you: “Write about what you know.” Others say: “Write about what you don't know” because sticking to what you know can be limiting and keeps you from learning. Whether you choose to search for your work's foundation in familiar terrain or decide to walk on unknown ground, there are plenty of sources that can stimulate your imagination and start you on the road to that great idea.
Notebook or Image Journal
Chapter 1 talked about the need to keep a notebook or journal within reach at all times to record thoughts, ideas, words or phrases, bits of conversation, impressions, illustrations, feelings, dreams, colors, inspirations — anything that strikes you as interesting or important as you go about your day. So, of course, you've been jotting things down for a while now, and have pages of ideas and starting points to work from, right? I'm pretty sure you just answered yes, but if you didn't, never fear. You can start keeping a journal or notebook now. As you read, work, converse, relax, study, eat, and write, stay open to possible story starters. Fill your notebook with anything that seems noteworthy. As you add to your stash, you may want to say exactly what about the entry seems important to you and where you were and what you were doing when you noticed or thought about it.
Magazines, newspapers, radio, TV, letters to the editor, and movies — these sources are gifts. Other writers are out there providing you with all sorts of material that you can use to inspire ideas.
As you already know, reading extensively can teach you a great deal about writing as you get an increased feel for structure, dialogue, character, and plot. It can also give you the seeds for stories, which you then develop according to your own imagination. So read widely. Don't just look at the front page of the paper for dramatic ideas. Look at the business section — the stock market could be an exciting focus to wrap a story around. Look at what the different columnists have to say — a humorous piece could remind you of a crazy situation you experienced, which could be the starting point for a collection of anecdotes. Read the editorial page, the travel section, and even the comics. The sports page, the pets page, every page is a possible treasure trove of great ideas. Ditto for magazines, TV and radio shows, plays, improvisational games, and movies. A photograph, a quote, a piece of dialogue, a funny phrase, a character's mannerism or an emotion he's experiencing, an announcer's accent, a sound, or a color could click with your imagination and turn magically into a story idea.
Artistic sources include photographs, family albums, home movies, book and magazine illustrations, sculpture, and paintings. Pictures can inspire well more than a thousand words. Often looking at something beautiful or unusual or colorful or even frightening or ugly can result in another picture or idea appearing in your mind. Again, as with media sources, be open to everything: colors, textures, moods, emotions, memories, associations, settings, and sensations.
Be careful not to let your creative resources get pushed to the way-side due to work, chores, errands, parenting, etc. In her book, The Artist's Way, Julia Cameron encourages writers to take themselves on “Artist Dates” where you can spend a couple hours a week dedicated to nurturing creativity. As she explains, a trip to a museum, an old movie, an aquarium, or an old junk store can be just the thing you need to “replenish the well.”
You may think that going to the grocery story or working in a bank doesn't lend itself to exciting ideas, but that needn't be the case. If you set your creative switch to “on,” you'll be surprised at the possibilities. Working in a bank could be the source of a great nonfiction book for children: what happens to your money when you put it in the bank? Or a trip to the supermarket with kids in tow could lead to a magazine article entitled “Ten Secrets to Shopping with Children: Or How Not to Commit Murder in Front of the Mushrooms.” Overhearing a conversation between an elderly man and a post office clerk (yes, you are encouraged to eavesdrop shamelessly) might offer up the name of a small town that makes you suddenly think of a story you want to set there. Think about the places and the people you interact with on a regular basis. If you take a look at ordinary events with an eye out for stories, you'll see everyday life in a whole new light.
Song lyrics, from Gershwin to McCartney to Tom Waits, can be the inspiration for novel ideas. Not only can the words stir associations, memories, and emotions, but the music itself can put you in a receptive, creative mood. If you usually listen to country, try opera or rock. Listen to your kids' music or your parents'. Expand your world and your imagination at the same time. Even listening to songs sung in a foreign language can help you conjure up scenarios to go along with them.
Keep an ear out for the way people speak. If you catch the sound of a southern accent, it may put you in mind of a story that could only take place in the South. Think about some of the more interesting conversations you have each day. That discussion about revising a software manual? Perhaps you can develop an idea about a programmer who comes up with a computer language through which he can control the work of the Pentagon. Strike up conversations with fellow sufferers waiting in line at the bank. Eavesdrop. Make a point of saying “hello” and “how's it going?” to your children's friends. By speaking to — and, yes, listening in on — as many different people as you can, you may be rewarded with a word or a thought that will set your story in motion.
No one seems to know exactly what dreams are, but one thing we do know is that they're fertile fields for ideas. What was that bit about flying from your house to your ex-boyfriend's old school? It could be the makings of an idea for a story about old loves. Or it might be the impetus for a children's book about birds.
Write down your dreams as soon as you wake up (your journal and a pen are, of course, right by your bed). When you think about your dreams later, you may find an interesting idea beckoning.
Diaries, family histories, birth announcements. Dusty old files are definitely worth cleaning off. Inside could be some amazing information, from pictures of never-before-seen relations to correspondence that details how things were done decades ago to a pressed flower from a long-ago dance. All can carry your thoughts to new places where exciting ideas may develop. Or, take a trip to your local library to browse through old newspapers and magazines. Who knows, you might breathe life into a long-forgotten story or event.
Your imagination can be set on fire when your eyes take in a variety of sights. Sit beside a fountain. Look at a burned-out building or forested area. Go to the park or a lake, watch an old house being bulldozed, look at photos of favorite vacations or landscape paintings, or take a trip to a botanical garden. Try to observe as many and as varied outdoor settings as you can. Look not only at colors and textures but think about how the setting makes you feel. Peaceful? Dreamy? Aristocratic? Horrified? Sink into the feelings, and see if one of them helps you formulate an idea.
Here are twelve easy-to-get-to spots for idea gathering:
The coffee shop
A quiet garden
The car pool
Your family room
A hotel lobby
Spend some time with some of your favorite things. Sitting in your beautifully crafted Shaker rocking chair may cause you to think about how furniture is made, which may make you think about what sort of person made your chair, which may make you think of a story about a troubled teenager who turns his life around by meeting an older woman who handcrafts beautiful chairs. Let your imagination loose as you observe or touch treasured objects.
Go back and reread some of your all-time favorites — not to steal the plot or make off with a character, but to reconnect with the story's essence and remember what made it so appealing to you. Was it the setting? The time period? Because it reflected a personal experience? Get caught up again in what made those books so special, and think about related stories that might make you feel the same way. You can also make note of special passages or inspiring thoughts in a book you're currently reading.