“Where do you get your ideas?”
If there’s a frequently asked question for writers, it’s that one.
(I’m rather partial to the author that joked about getting them on mail order from a little old lady in Schenectady.)
I could simply say, “Anywhere and everywhere.” Look around you, see things differently or picture them placed in an unfamiliar situation. The dumbest most ordinary things can prompt a writing idea. You just have to use your imagination and wonder what if and how about and maybe.
I’ll give you my clearest example. In August 2002, I was on a trip in British Columbia with my parents after a family wedding. On the long ferry ride to Vancouver Island, I could just barely see this odd little island from my vantage point. Then driving towards Sidney and its bookstores, I realized the island was home to a lighthouse. Consulting a map, I discovered it had the intriguing name of “Trial Island”. What was it like to live out there? I half wondered on the drive. And of course being a sf/fantasy writer, I immediately pictured a sorceress protecting the harbor from evil-doers. That initial inspiration provided the start of my first Nanowrimo novel, Trial by Light.
And that’s all I had. I used Vancouver Island map as the basic geography, but I developed the world building from scratch. To date, it’s the first and only Nano with a beginning, middle, and end. I someday want to rewrite Trial and release it into the greater world.
But the road to story ideas is not always that simple.
Take that 1920s story I mentioned in my goals. The initial inspiration was not reading Great Gatsby or listening to jazz or even staring at old photos. Those came later in research. Jewel Tones was inspired by this random photo used in a writing prompt.
I was intrigued by the riot of colors on display and the skill needed to create them accurately. I also happen to be in the middle of reading several YA series with secret worlds hidden in our every day existence. I love those crypto worlds. I know vampires and werewolves have become popular, but I’m partial to magic. Mine were crafters, all specializing in particular old arts, like spinning and weaving and dyeing. The 1920s storyline came much later as I was trying to map out a particular family and their bloodline.
Some Nanowrimo novels develop muses by accident as I’m collecting material. Last year was the first time I heavily used tumblr to record my inspiration, whereas this year was more Pinterest based. What I like about platforms is they’re so visually based. They’re like music playlists for me in a way, where I can get into a certain mood by looking at the right photos or images.
This novel Two Princesses was originally inspired by Grace Kelly and her death, so I was looking at old photos. Then I fell in love with 1950s/1960s era fashion photography and how it conveyed a certain style. As I was writing, I wound up two very different young women — one was pretty and blonde (and a pastry chef! Don’t ask.) and the other princess designed sports cars for a living. I was having a harder time getting her, but I noticed as I reblogged fashion photography I loved of the 1950s/1960s, I was drawn to a particular model — a statuesque red-haired bombshell named Suzy Parker. Parker was one of the earliest super models. Oddly her sister Dorian Leigh is closer to the original model to my Evelyn — shorter and dark haired. But Parker conveys a lot of the style I wanted for the book.
The last Nanowrimo novel has a rather longer history. I started The original story after seeing this photoshoot of Cate Blanchett in Harpers when she first appeared as Elizabeth. Thinking I was oh-so-clever, I loosely modeled my fantasy universe off the conflict surrounding Wars of the Roses (“but with magic!”). Yes, ahem, I’ve written a chunk of that story and then like many of my writing ideas it lapsed for awhile.
When Nanowrimo rolled around again last year, I started fumbling for ideas, when I remembered an old idea I’d written down that might work. Initially I liked the idea of perhaps an Elizabethan inspired world, since that was a period I was familiar with, particularly the politics and espionage involved, but as world building developed with new religion and backstory, it was hard to use. I hadn’t intended the two stories to be linked,until I needed a kingdom and ruler to use. I imagined extending the timeline down the line and seeing what happened after my intial story. Suddenly I had expanded out my obscure little kingdom to see all its neighbors and their problems and struggles. How will all these world-building changes impact what I’d already developed? Will it all fit? (Magic eight ball says “Future is uncertain. Check back later.”
I found this final inspiration photo was when I was searching bracelets and arm bracers, part of world building ideas I had in mind. (They’re actually from the Roccobarocco Spring 2012 collection in Milan.)
What I’ve discovered over the years is there is no magic answer with inspiration. I can be inspired by a photo or a piece of music or an interesting turn of phrase. The trick isn’t finding what you’re inspired by, but finding ways to expand it further. Many writers will tell you you don’t need just one idea, you need many. But you also need to see when they fit together properly and when you need to adjust your story.