Inspiration: “Where do you get your ideas?

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.

Personal experience

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.

A Castle in the Ozarks

Re my last post:  you’ll be getting a lot more pictures from now on!  All the shots in today’s post were taken by me.

Here I am complaining there is nothing to do in Springfield, and lucky me, I received an invitation to the grand re-opening of a local historical landmark, Pythian Castle, now a performing arts and events venue.

Pythian Castle exterior: Late Gothic Revival, modeled after a real Scottish castle (I don’t know which one)

The Knights of Pythias, a fraternal society similar to the Freemasons, built the Pythian Home of Missouri in 1913 for the purpose of housing orphans and widows of the members and as a meeting place.  One of those orphans, Mildred Hall Cherry, turned ninety years old today.  Happy birthday, Mildred!  She was on hand for the Grand Re-Opening ceremony to celebrate her birthday and share her reminiscences with the audience.


Mildred Hall Cherry on her 90th birthday, August 7, 2010. Check out her awesome t-shirt!


Mildred was eight when she and five of her six siblings came to Pythian Castle in 1928 after their father died.  The loss of the breadwinner was very hard on the children’s mother, and she wanted to keep them together.  Putting the kids in an orphanage was not an unusual practice at the time.  Mildred and her siblings went home eventually, after their mother remarried.   She stayed in the castle for eight years.

The boys and girls in the orphanage were segregated.  Two staircases lead to the second floor; one for the girls, one for the boys.  No one was allowed to use the opposite one and the boys and girls could not even speak to each other.   Mildred barely got to know her own brothers, including the smallest who was only 23 months old.  She said she could often hear him crying but there was no way to go to him.

Girls' staircase, west side.

Boys' staircase, east side.

In 1942 the United States Army took ownership of the castle and used it as an adjunct to nearby O’Reilly General Hospital, which treated injured troops.  It became a service club for recovering veterans.  Such notables as Bob Hope appeared in the second floor auditorium, which also housed Springfield’s very first movie theater.

Mildred told us it was a great treat to watch silent films in the auditorium.  It cost a nickel for the public to attend.  She said, “A nickel was hard to come by in those days.”  If only things cost so little now!

German and Italian WWII POWs were interned at O’Reilly and spent time maintaining the grounds and buildings there along with those of the castle itself.  There are several cells in the basement, but whether or not any prisoners were actually confined there is unproven.  A Japanese POW is rumored to have painted the walls in one of the basement rooms.  Here are pictures of his work:

Sun picture. This room has no windows.

Funny little face. Was this a caricature of someone in charge, perhaps?

I think he might have been homesick; reminiscent of Japan.

The Army owned the building until 1993, when it was sold as surplus.  It is now privately owned and run by Tamara Finocchiaro and her mother.  They have extensively renovated the property.  It serves as a performing arts venue, as well as an events center.  You can get married at Pythian Castle, go to ghost hunting workshops, rent it for private parties, and take dance lessons.  I’m going back for the last one.

The building has beautiful woodwork and Tamara and her mom have redecorated while staying true to the feel of the original property.

All the radiators are the old, scrolly kind. I had one of these in an apartment once; steam heat is fantastic.

Upstairs, the two staircases open out onto a spacious landing.  It was right in the middle of the landing where I had an unusual experience during one of the ghost workshops.  I was walking down toward the doors at the end, when there was a stir of air next to my hand and a very strong presence.  It was a small person, like a child, and I had the feeling that a little hand was about to slip into mine.   You know how when someone is about to touch you but they don’t quite do so, how that feels?  It only lasted about ten seconds.  I stood very still and waited.  I should have had someone take a picture of me at that moment.

Here is the landing.

Look in the center of the picture, and in front of the auditorium doors to the right, on the jamb.

Look right over the door toward the left of the picture.

You notice anything in those pictures?  Some people think orbs are signs of supernatural energy.  In the first picture, they could be just dust reflecting the light of the flash.  There is an anomaly in the dark part of the picture, some distance away.  It’s very interesting that they only show up in those pictures taken in that spot, and in no others that I took today.  And I was thinking (and talking) about the that experience at the time.  Just file it under “things that make you go hmmm.”

The castle is a happy place.  It has very good vibes.  It’s not the least bit scary, and Mildred said except for a little redecorating it looked very much the same as it had when she lived there.  To have weddings and dancing and food and friends there only reinforces its original purpose, to care for the people the Pythians loved.

If you get a chance to come to Springfield, there are regular tours of the castle.  It’s now on the National Register of Historic Places, and has been certified haunted by the Ozarks Paranormal Society.  More information can be found on its website.



Three Good Reasons to Always Carry a Camera

I need to start taking my camera with me wherever I go.  I missed a ton of photo ops recently, several in one day.

This past Saturday morning, I took Psycho Kitty to the vet to get her yearly shots.  She must be tricked into the carrier, which involves setting it outside near her food dish for a few days so she forgets about it.  Then comes the luring with treats, a kiss and pat, and poking her inside before she realizes what happened.

Is oblivious...or perhaps just doesn't give a crap.

I got to hear about it the entire way there, too.  Once in the exam room, she clammed up.  The doctor was very nice (why do I get a different one every time?) and the actual shots went smoothly.  As he was preparing the flea treatment, she did something so cute I nearly died.

This unsocialized, play-impaired, half-feral kitty scooted over on the table, tucked her head into my hip like a frightened two-year-old, and stayed there.  I patted her gently, spoke soothingly to her and WISHED LIKE HELL I’D BROUGHT MY DIGITAL CAMERA WITH VIDEO FUNCTION.

  • Reason Number One:  Moments.  When cuteness / astonishing feats / a horrible accident strikes, it pays to be prepared.

After returning Psycho Kitty to the house where she promptly disappeared under a bush, I drove to Branson, MO to find the small airport recently constructed there, from which I will soon be flying to see Certain Someone.  The town is located in the picturesque hills near where I live.  It’s easy to find, but the airport was another story.

The views were spectacular.  I don’t know if you’ve ever been to the Ozarks, but they are very pretty.  Not on the scale of Yosemite’s craggy peaks, they are more like the gently verdant mountains of eastern Tennessee and Pennsylvania.

Kinda like this.

Image:  Ron Bird/

I drove and drove and drove, past town and all the way to Hollister until I missed the turnoff—damn tiny signs!  Since the airport is privately owned, I guess they don’t have that much traffic, and figured they didn’t need anything bigger.  The road winds in serpentine curves in and out and back on itself, and seems to never end.

I finally found it in deep within an exclusive area of golfing communities, after following an annoyingly slow pickup truck for several miles. The road is blasted through the mountains in spots, and you drive through walls of glowing, otherworldly yellow rock, half expecting to see Kirk and a redshirt appear.  I promise, I’ll take my camera when I return.

  • Reason Number Two:  Scenery.  You never know when you will happen upon something naturally spectacular.

While I was there, I thought I might as well go to downtown Branson and hit the flea markets.  There were a ton of people there, as usual for a tourist destination in the summer.  Cars parked everywhere, oblivious pedestrians strolling across streets and into the many little shops in the historic buildings.

In Branson, you have a mix of tourist crap and historic stuff.  Everything is geared toward visitors.  The people are very nice.

I found a flea market I’d visited during the 2007 ice storm, and a couple of others.  I think one of them, in an old building that used to be a feed store in 1918 when it was built, might be haunted.

The entire building is decorated—floors, walls, etc—in conflicting designs.  Anyone who has seen flea market booths with painted floors knows what I mean.  Somehow it doesn’t make your eyes bleed.

At the back is a set of creaky stairs and at the top, a large room.  I went into the room and immediately stopped.  It felt funny.  I wasn’t sure why, so I ignored it and looked around.  In the back left corner, I saw an item that interested me.  Standing in the corner gave me a very strange feeling, not sinister, but sort of a breathless, choky feeling, as though I needed to move.  I could not concentrate on the item.

I left the room and went to another upstairs, but it was uninteresting.  To test my experience, I went back and stood in the corner again.  Same feeling, same need to move.  Okay, time to go.

  • Reason Number Three:  Paranormal.  What might my camera have captured had I taken a picture in there?

The proprietor said I wasn’t the first person to describe that sensation in that room.  Ha! Vindication is mine.  I knew something was wonky up there.  He didn’t know why it was so, but he said “I believe in such things.”  I do too.

Writers should keep a camera handy.  Pictures can jumpstart your imaginative process.  If you have a personal anecdote that goes with the picture, that’s even better.  Digital cameras are cheap now; you can buy a decent one for under $100, with a video setting and autofocus.  They’re tiny and go in a purse, backpack or even your glove box.  No tricky film, no difficult settings; the instruction books help a lot.

If you have any suggestions for taking great pictures, please share in the comments.