Looking Outside to See Inside: A Search for Inspiration
The archetypal image of a writer these days is of a wretchedly tormented soul hunched over a keyboard and squinting at a blank screen, willing that white nothingness to yield secrets of bestselling characters and innovative plots. The blank screen can be a daunting, terrifying place for all writers, regardless of age or experience, appearing as it does to be a solid wall, offering not so much as a crack (unless you’ve been punching that screen in frustration…) to offer you inspiration. In fact, if you’re struggling to find a story idea, in front of the screen is the last place you should be.
Take a Walk
In On Writing, Stephen King talks about how long walks helped him break down the plot knots of The Stand, simply by giving his mind time to breathe and work through the problem. A decent walk can serve as more than just a chance to clear your mind, though; it offers a chance to fill it. Look around you, really look. What do you see? How can you use what you see to find inspiration?
Hunt the Insane in the Mundane
The future is not always about the grandiose. The future, when it comes, will be equally about the small. Look at the things you do every day, the things you saw on your walk. Insert something alien into that, or take something essential away. What happens? What do you have left?
In my most recently sold story I took an innocent village green cricket match and made one of the players a robot. In another WIP I have a country where rain has been made illegal. Mess with the mundane, and see what you get.
Vary your Settings
When writing speculative fiction, you don’t necessarily need to dream up fantastical futuristic/utopian/dystopian worlds filled with strange and wonderful people. The world is already full of them. So many stories I read seem to be set in the same non-descript midwestern American town and feature the same generic characters. There’s a whole world out there. Use it. Go on a day trip, take a vacation and make notes on what you see (and if you really can’t go anywhere, just look on Youtube…)
I’m very lucky in some ways (less so in others) to live and work in Japan. While not so much a land of Geishas and Tea Ceremonies these days as a land of McDonalds and Starbucks, there are still mysteries to be mined for story ideas. A twenty minute drive from my house is a town famous for ninjas. Half an hour in the other direction is a hot spring where wild monkeys bathe. These might not be regular examples but look outside your window and think about where you live. What is there in, say, a ten mile radius that you could use as part of a story? If you can, go there, take a look.
If, like me, you struggle to create interesting characters and find it difficult to see their faces in your mind, then you need to go on a character hunt. Not every writer is a creative genius, but that’s okay – you don’t have to be. There are characters everywhere – seven billion of them to be precise. Use them.
Find a coffee shop somewhere on a busy street and people-watch for a while. See which faces stay longest in your memory. Make a note of them. What did you see in their faces? What lives might they have led? Choose two and draw a line between them. What might connect them?
Writing is not all about the screen. In fact, if you step away from the computer for a while and look out at the world, you’ll find it a lot easier to step back.