How to Find Inspiration for Your Writing
All authors, at some point in their writing journey, have found themselves staring at a blank page and wondering where writers find their inspiration. There’s nothing more intimidating than finishing a great book and thinking to yourself ‘I will never come up with an idea that original.’
If your creative well has run dry and you’re panicking you will never be inspired again, read on for some top author inspiration. YA and children’s writer, Patrice Lawrence MBE, shares with us all the fun ways she has ignited her imagination when penning her award-winning books.
Potential Sources of Inspiration
I must admit I don’t really struggle for lack of inspiration to start stories. I have so many ideas wrestling with each other in my brain that one day I’ll cough, and a mouthguard will fly out of my ear. But whether you are struggling with the concept of your next book, or your mind and notebooks are bursting with ideas, the following tips and games are fun for every writer to do as they will push your imagination even further!
In this article I will be talking about what inspired me to write my books, how I keep my ideas fresh and original, and how to find inspiration for writing from everyday life and by looking at other inspirational authors.
One of my favourite sources of inspiration is writing prompts. My first published novel, Orangeboy, surfaced from a writing prompt on a residential creative writing course. The slip of paper I pulled out of a hat read – He woke up dreaming of yellow.
It was an exercise about hiding clues in crime fiction. We were supposed to write a paragraph or two and other writers would guess the prompt. I thought about a recent trip to Hyde Park Winter Wonderland in London, mustard on hotdogs and yellow fairground tokens. I imagined a geeky boy on a first date with a girl way above his league. She’s buying hot dogs for them. The vendor squirts on the mustard. The boy hates mustard, but he sure as hell isn’t going to tell her. What else would he do to impress her? And what could possibly go wrong? That book went on to win the Bookseller YA Prize and Waterstone’s Prize for Older Children’s Fiction. Not bad for a bit of paper pulled out of a hat!
Let’s play a writer’s block inspiration game of our own. Pick up your pen or pencil, or poise your fingers over your keyboard, and set your timer for seven minutes. Ready?
Christopher Columbus meets the Wicked Witch of the West in a blender.
I’ll come back to this later…
Asking Others to Inspire You
For some reason, prompts feel more powerful if they come to me from other people. When I was struggling to find a direction for Rose, Interrupted, I asked my daughter to send me prompts on Whatsapp. I’d write the sentence at the top of a blank page then carrying on writing below it. Her prompts took me in new and satisfying directions and unexpectedly helped me with a plot point.
Until recently, I was part of a writing critique group. Once a year or so we’d devote a session to rekindling our creativity. We’d all bring different types of prompts. One writer might favour images. (Old postcards are a fantastic source of inspiration. Somewhere in the past I asked children to write a story inspired by a postcard of a camel being hoisted on to a boat.) Other writers might suggest rewriting fairy-tales or set up a potential scenario for us to populate with characters and dialogue.
Poetry as Inspiration
One writer in my critique group enjoyed extracting prompts from poetry books. Try it – select a page number and find a line or even a poem that inspires you. As a child, I loved Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’. I had no idea what it was about, but the imagery sparked such vivid images in my head. I wanted to see that wild land and find out why a lady was playing a dulcimer there. Whatever a dulcimer was.
Ideas Are All Around You
Some prompts are vignettes of life I’ve passed on a bus. Some are snippets of conversation. Others are just weird speculations or take idioms literally. By the time I get to look at them again, they are new and totally out of context which is perfect for free writing.
I now have a small hardback day-a-page diary where I record random prompts:
What happens if you have to carry your air in a rucksack on your back? What if a train stops just outside your station and everyone else has disappeared? What if you really did have all your butterflies tied up?
That first prompt about carrying air in a rucksack came in very useful when I was commissioned to write a short story for environmental scientists.
Free-Writing From Prompts
Now let’s talk free writing. I love free writing. Just pouring my ideas onto a page without censoring or editing myself is incredibly liberating. Reading through afterwards, I always find something that excites me. But if the words don’t flow and the prompt just prompts panic, what next?
I always start with questions. I am insatiably curious. I want to know what makes people tick, so for me, my first thought about a prompt is ‘why’? Why is that happening? Why is that person doing that? Why now?
Then I open the imagination tap and let the subconscious flow out – usually pretty messily. So, for instance, let’s head back to the famous Italian seafarer and the fictional monkey-wrangling witch from the prompt at the start of this article. (There’s nothing like putting too widely dissimilar characters in a peculiar situation to help me the ease the words out.)
My first question would be – why is Christopher Columbus in a blender? Perhaps an idea would dominate my thoughts. Possibly, the indigenous folk of Jamaica saw him coming and built a giant, manually operated blender with sharpened bamboo blades to greet him. Then the Wicked Witch of the West flew back in time to rescue him so that together they can plan a super-heist that involves a hurricane that blasts away all the islands in the Caribbean Sea. Or perhaps he’s been shrunk. (Who shrunk him and why?) Or perhaps it’s a metaphor for western colonialism, or he’s starring in a Covid fever-dream. Or alternatively, you could start with the Wicked Witch. Or a description of the blender that contains these two unlikely personages.
Once I’ve teased out all the possibilities and settled on an idea, my second question is – who is telling the story?
Inspiration can be found by prodding around the margins for the untold stories. The musical Wicked, of course, tells the story of Elphaba, the so-called Wicked Witch of the West. Jesus Christ Superstar explores the rise of Jesus from Judas’s point of view. Sections of Elif Shafak’s The Island of Missing Trees are told by a fig tree and the world of Elif’s earlier book, 10 Minutes, 38 Seconds in This Strange World is realised through the consciousness of a murdered woman. I remember reading James Herbert’s, Fluke, as a teenager, narrated by a man who is transformed into a dog.
Challenge yourself to free-write a paragraph or two from different points of view, not all necessarily human. Set a timer for a short writing sprint. Did you produce more material? Did anything unexpected emerge? (If you’re writing from the point of view of the blender, it’s bound to, isn’t it?)
Let’s take a look at two other rich sources of inspiration that are a lot of fun to indulge in…
Books Inspired By Other Books: Revisiting and Retelling
The first is myth and legend.
My first published book, Granny Ting Ting, was part of a guided reading scheme for primary schools. I’d recently visited my family in Trinidad and I wanted to set the story there. It includes a chapter about duennes, sort of ghost babies, that confuse late night travellers and lure them into the forest. In my follow-up guided reading book, Wild Papa Woods, the wild papa is based on the mythical Papa Bois who turns into a stag to protect his forest. I’ve recently written a short story for an anthology, ‘Happy Here’, for upper-primary school readers. It’s about three generations of soucouyant – Caribbean shapeshifting witches – who live in a tower block in south London and run a bureau that organises real world experiences for jaded fairy-tale, mythical and legendary folk. (Sisyphus, who was sentenced by Hades in Greek myth to push a boulder up a steep hill for eternity spends his down time bowling in a subterranean alley near London Bridge.)
Alexandra Sheppard (Oh My Gods) and Maz Evans (Who Let the Gods Out?) have great fun bringing Greek gods to the contemporary world in books for children and young people. Pat Barker and Madeline Millar are among writers who have retold myths from alternative points of view for adults. Or you could go full Tolkien and create a whole new mythology.
Different Types of Storytelling
Another way to find inspiration for writing is popular culture. I’ve never been a cool kid, so I have no problem finding joy in pop music and superhero films.
Have you seen the music video of My Universe by Coldplay X BTS? It’s neither BTS nor Coldplay, or indeed the song, that keeps bringing me back to it. It’s that video. I want to write a story about the Silencers or, more importantly, DJ Lafrique on her alien radio ship. She needs a comic book series and a film franchise.
Korean dramas have also been an unexpected source of inspiration for me, particularly for the mechanics of storytelling. They are sponsored by brands like Body Shop and Subway sandwiches, so are obliged to bring as many viewers to the screen as possible, week after week (you’re so hooked you happily overlook the blatant and sometimes bizarre product placement). Characters must be compelling and relatable but surprising. Plots must twist and turn making the improbable acceptable. And each episode must end dangling on frayed string from the highest cliff.
Look at storytelling outside of your own culture and see how they tell tales. There are so many ways to find inspiration in everyday life, and the lives of others.
Inspiration is Infinite
I like to think that inspiration is infinite. It’s in the everyday and the bizarre, possibly juxtaposed in the same sentence. It’s unpicking moments that seem well-known then creating alternative narratives, perhaps told by unlikely storytellers. It’s keeping a notebook of random prompts that you can draw on when your creativity is running dry.
I hope I’ve given you some ideas, as well as permission to sink yourself into K-drama, pop videos and Marvel films. From now on, your excuse for playing games, watching TV, eavesdropping, and discovering new and wonderful examples of storytelling, is that an unexpected prompt might lead to an unexpected – and successful – book…
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