Part Four: Inspiration—Find It, Catch It, File It!
Whenever I get to the end of a talk and ask if anybody has any questions, I can guarantee that where do you get your ideas from? will crop up. That’s easy to answer—anywhere, and everywhere. As journalist and author Nora (‘When Harry Met Sally’) Ephron’s mother told her, everything is copy.
When I worked as an office junior, my bus ride to and from central Bristol each day was a Pandora’s box of half-heard conversations, and scenes glimpsed in passing. The tricky part is turning all that raw information into something useful. To do that, you need to capture and store it in a way that can be easily traced. That last step can be the most difficult one of all.
A lot of us have to make do with daily walks instead of road and rail journeys at the moment, but everything we see and hear while we’re outside provides some great starting points. If you can’t get out, books, magazines, TV and radio can all provide inspiration. Imagine what the characters in your favourite novel were doing immediately before they appeared in the published story, or after they left it. George MacDonald Fraser did this memorably with the Flashman Series. These books gave the bully from Tom Brown’s School Days another lease of life as an anti-hero.
Don’t trap yourself within the cage of fan fiction—let your mind wander to new settings, and invent new names for your characters. All you are looking for is a launch pad for your thoughts—you don’t want to be accused of plagiarism.
Browse Quora to see what ordinary people are asking the hive mind. Give one of those popular questions to your characters, and see if they can solve it. If lots of people are interested in the question, they’ll be interested in your fictional solution to it, too.
Writing competitions often give prompts, which can get your creative thoughts moving. Writing magazines are a good source of these competitions. Once you’ve been inspired by the topic and completed your entry, check the rules to see if you can submit it to other competitions while you’re waiting for the result. If there are no restrictions, you’ll have a piece of work all ready for submission to competitions such as The Bridport Prize and The Bath Short Story Award, which don’t specify a theme.
I always keep a notebook and pencil to hand. They are stashed all around the house, and even in the glove compartment of the car! That way, if inspiration strikes when I’m in bed, watching TV, or stuck in a car park waiting for somebody, I can start writing on the spot.
I can’t walk into a stationery store without buying a new notebook. I have them in all shapes, sizes and colours but this red Moleskine is my current favourite as it was a Christmas present from my daughter. She knows I love to keep one of these in my bag to channel my inner Hemingway while I’m on the move, and all my other general Moleskine notebooks have been black. They aren’t too easy to find in my huge, black-lined mathom-hole of a bag, but this one is very easy to spot!
The open notebook in the photo is the one I use for non-fiction projects. It’s divided up in a similar way to the Cornell note-taking system, and turned out to be perfect for my university work. There’s space at the top for an overview of the subject, margins for headings and then space for notes. Unlike my many Pukka Pads, the pages of this particular Moleskine are numbered, so I can fill in the index at the front easily (if I remember!).
You can use your phone to make recordings of your ideas as they happen, or use a dictaphone. I’ve tried both, as well as Dragon Dictate for transposing my thoughts directly onto the computer, but I gave up on all those methods quite quickly. I much prefer the process of writing on paper, with a pencil.
The advantage when you make notes on your phone is that you can snap a quick photo at the same time. That will act as a visual reminder of the geography of a setting, the texture of fabrics, or a particular colour scheme.
If you take photos of people, get their permission first. According to Avon and Somerset Police there’s no law in the UK against taking photos in a public place—even photos of other people’s children, strange though it may seem—but many people don’t like it. Respect their feelings.
Get the landowner’s permission before taking photos. Photographing people anywhere they might reasonably expect to be private, such as inside their house or garden, is very likely to breach privacy laws.
Make sure you give each of your pictures a unique, meaningful title when you upload them. That will make it easy to find them again. I have a main folder on my computer for Photos. This is subdivided according to general subject such as food, plants, animals, birds. Each subject is then further divided into cake, flowers, poultry, Alex, for example.
Each photo then gets a unique identifier, so the latest one I took for Instant Lift has been given the name Catkins_Home_12012021. This means I can search for it according to subject, location, or date. If I’m short on inspiration or I’ve been commissioned to write something on a particular subject, I can then go to the top level folders and browse all the content for ideas.
I use a similar system for each writing project I begin. Everything from initial ideas to character descriptions and timelines are stored in a single folder with an obvious title, such as Thriller. I then add the date I started it, so it becomes Thriller_Jan 2021. Within that main folder, the individual documents are called Characters_Thriller_Jan 2021, and so on. That way I can find things easily, and I know how long a project takes from beginning to end.
Next time I’ll be exploring some of the ways writing can help your family, your mind, and even your bank balance. Sign up below to follow my blog, so you can read it the minute it’s published!