If you’re a writer or artist who works strictly from your imagination, someone’s probably asked you the title question already, or they will. When you’re rich and famous (ha!), some version of it will be standard.
The answers are as different as the writers asked. Each person finds inspiration in varying places, at different times, in wide-ranging ways. Nearly anything can spark an idea—an overheard conversation, a lovely (or ugly) view, something your kid just did that made you laugh.
What will you say when they ask you? It might be one of these:
Beethoven often took insanely long walks around Vienna. He loved being outside. He would use the time to think and plan his music. His walks inspired at least one symphony devoted to rural life, No. 6, the Pastoral. You may remember it from Disney’s Fantasia as the music from the centaur cartoon.
Take a walk outside. What do you see? Are there smells? Of course there are. What is that scent? How about that sound? Can you identify it without looking? Exercise your body and your senses as well. An element you perceive may not be a story element in itself. It could be a catalyst for something percolating in your mind.
Chuck Palahniuk likes to write in public, to remind himself how people look, act and speak. He’s doing field research. You can too.
A coffee shop. A mall. The park on a nice day. Go someplace where people tend to congregate. You’ll see all kinds of interesting interactions, and overhear stuff you can use. Remember, realistic dialogue does not mean reproducing a conversation exactly as you heard it. People talk with lots of “um’s” and repetition that doesn’t play well with narrative.
Some people have trouble concentrating in such a setting, or are too self-conscious. If that’s you, just spend some time there so you can gather observations. Take notes. You don’t have to talk to anybody. Just listen and watch.
You figured I’d mention this because of Beethoven, didn’t you? Music invokes emotion. What does your favorite music say to you? How does it make you feel? When you’re writing an emotional scene, try putting on some music specifically geared toward your character’s feelings. Experience those emotions along with the character and see if that doesn’t punch up your scene a bit.
Or try changing the emotional timbre of the music in contrast to the scene. A mashup may be just what it needs. Instead of a happy wedding, try one where someone significant (bride, groom, minister) is seriously pissed off.
Try something new that you’ve never heard before. Lately I’m listening to Arvo Pärt, the Estonian composer who wrote “Spiegel im Spiegel,” one of the most beautiful pieces of music in the world. Classical music, whether modern or antiquated, accompanies the creative process very well. Check Pärt out; he’s worth a listen. Click the link on his name and you can hear some audio samples.
Although it’s a private document, Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl is one of the most powerful stories to emerge from World War II. Anne wanted to be a writer. She plainly had talent. She wanted to pen a book about the family’s experience hiding in Secret Annex after the war but sadly never saw her dream come to fruition.
Thanks to Miep Gies and Anne’s father Otto Frank, we have her diary. It’s been in print since it was published, in more than sixty languages. Her story of life in hiding under the oppressive Nazi occupation put a face on the war.
With the proliferation of memoirs in today’s market, this one is an easy answer. Not everyone’s life is bestseller fodder, but nearly every writer has incidents in his/her past that can be mined for emotional resonance, dialogue, even folded whole into a narrative.
Be careful, however, that your experience enhances the work. If it doesn’t, it shouldn’t be there. You can get revenge on your snarky ex-boss some other way. No need to make your action hero stuff a hand grenade down his thinly-disguised throat if he doesn’t need to.
War, particularly World War II, has inspired countless writers. Children’s books like Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars and Judith Kerr’s When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, both fictionalized versions of real events, help educate people about the life and times of those who lived through the Holocaust.
Historical characters appear in other books as well, like Faye Kellerman’s The Quality of Mercy, a rousing murder mystery with William Shakespeare as one of the protagonists. There is no limit to unusual and interesting people one can draw from.
Browse the library or online for historical biographies or information about time periods. Wikipedia is a good place to start but not to finish. It’s not a reliable source because it’s user-manipulated, but entries often have links at the end to better sites with peer-reviewed information. Links in the articles might lead you to something obscure that would make a great backdrop for a story or a research paper, if you’re a student.
Television and movies
I’m not saying you should copy everything you see. I already ranted about lousy movies here. Please don’t subject us to that. There’s enough out there as it is.
A good film or TV show makes you think. It asks questions, puts well-rounded characters through their paces, sometimes in a way that makes you ponder the asides. What if this happened instead? If the story left a loose end, how would you resolve it?
Some awesome fanfiction has come from asking these questions, and no doubt some of it is adaptable to original characters and settings. Even crappy stuff is useful. Twist the concept; bend it to your will and come up with something better.
Try some of these if you’re stuck, or even if you’re not. Got other places to get ideas? Share in the comments.