Where do story ideas come from? How can you find inspiration for fiction?
You are an author. You are about to sit down and begin to write a story.
How do you get started? What will it be about? Where to generate story ideas?
As the author of eight novels and nine short stories*, I work hard to find ideas. Here are my four sources of inspiration, and one non-source:
(i) how to get story ideas: my best source is random ideas which pop into my head – when I am reading, walking down the street, in the shower, whatever. These ideas have one thing in common. I write them down. Everyone has great ideas, all the time. What makes a difference is keeping a note of them. Maybe you are a genius and can remember good ideas indefinitely. I can’t. As soon as my mind wanders off – as it will – I forget my good idea. Action point for writers: make a note when an idea strikes you and ensure you can find that note later. Keep a notebook or web page where you store your blog ideas or novel ideas;
Some things are obviously inspirational. This deserted children’s bumper car ride near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant is crying out for a story (Photo RP). For more pictures, see my post “Lunch in the Chernobyl canteen“
(ii) my second big source of story ideas is external inputs. If you read the piece about my hotel stories at the link above, you will see a reference to some top hotel professionals talking about their experiences. This actually happened, at the 50th birthday party of a top hotel professional in Istanbul (yes, you, Mr T). One of them re-told a story about how he had once met a familiar-looking person, but been unable to place her. Cunningly, he had asked her an open question to try and elicit information while hiding his ignorance: “so, what is it that you’re doing these days?” She had replied. “Same as before. My husband is still the King of [large European country X].” Another hotelier then told the story of how a guest at his hotel had walked into a hotel and pulled from a jacket pocket a recently-shot animal which they had asked the hotel to prepare for them for dinner. Sound familiar? That is because these two stories helped inspire The Swedish Woman, one of the Seven Hotel Stories (actually, many of the Hotel Stories are inspired by real events from hotels). Action point for writers: make a note when you hear, read or see something interesting or inspiring or intriguing;
(iii) occasionally, I have storyline ideas when I write. When I am able to spend more than an hour or two at a stretch writing, longhand as always, on my A4 ring-bound pad, I may find that the story starts to grow legs and run off by itself. At that point, characters may begin to take control of the story and behave independently; and events – some inspirational – take over the narrative. For example, in the novel I am now writing, code-named The Boy Friend, a dysfunctional family visits Richmond Park in dismal winter weather. Did I expect the rain to turn to snow? No. Did I think that they would stumble upon a herd of deer, sheltering behind a copse? No. Did I envisage the people and the deer staring at one another as the snow settled on the deer and the humans, enraptured, had an instant of family bliss? Action point for writers: immerse yourself in your own story and see what happens. You don’t always have to follow a plan**;
(iv) it may sound obvious, but I’ll say it: experience generates story ideas. Sitting in a garret writing is all very well. But many of the best ideas come from your experiences. Get out into the world, as well as writing about it. For examples of this see my blogs on The Americans and The Russians: Vladivostok. Both are works in progress. Do let me know if you like them and I will write more. What experiences have you had that other people might want to read about? Action point for writers: be alive, in every sense;
(v) what usually doesn’t work for me is actively trying to think of story ideas. I once went on a rather fine Skyros writing course, on the eponymous Greek Island. I enormously enjoyed it – our tutor was lovely and brilliant (Ms K, take a bow!) – it led to me acquiring an agent, and to deciding to go on another writing course this year, run by Arvon. More on that in another blog, if the Arvon course is as good as I hope. One morning on Skyros, our tutor suggested that we lie on our backs in the autumn sunshine and think of ideas for a short story we would then write. Did I have any ideas, on my back? Nope. My mind oscillated between primeval blankness and daydreaming about the people around me on the terrace. Only when we sat down at our tables to write did an idea pop into my head (note to self: must find that story). Action point for writers: trying to have ideas may not be the best way to be inspired.
I like the idea of inspiration. If you do a search on this blog (go to the top and type “inspiration” into the “search” box) you will find quite a few pieces on the subject. I also regularly do tweets and instagram posts with the hashtag #ViennaWritingInspiration. Take a browse – and follow me if you like what you see.
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*The story at the link says “7 Hotel Stories”. I have since written several more.
**The act of writing this blog sparked in me inspiration for four new blogs: one on the pros and cons of writing in longhand as opposed to on the computer; one on the merits of planning novels and stories vs simply starting and seeing what happens; one on whether writing courses are worthwhile; one (inspired by ring bound or ring-bound pad) about punctuation. I have made a note of these ideas on my “list of future blog ideas”. Watch this space.