How to Find Writing Inspiration and Ideas

Writers talk a lot about inspiration: where it comes from, how to find it when it gets lost, and how it’s absolutely no use at all without a subsequent application of “perspiration.” When asked where I get my ideas, I usually delve into the rewards of playing hooky or the perils of eavesdropping. If asked, I’ll follow up with something quite specific: the leaf blowing down the street that inspired Oliver’s Surprise, or the beach walk where I first spotted Courtney’s oyster shell.

Over the winter, a very different beach walk sighting provided another random flash of inspiration—which has, in turn, inspired this latest attempt to explain how suddenly my best ideas appear. Once I’m already knee-deep in a WIP, any sort of “field trip” can provide unexpected insights into a particular character. So here’s another example… and don’t worry, there are no spoilers here. 

The roses on the beach are very red

On a cold but sunny late-winter Sunday, Paul and I went for a walk on a gorgeously unspoiled stretch of south-facing beach. Sun rays were sparkling off even the smallest of breaking waves, and small birds darted out onto the damp sand as soon as each breaker retreated again. We were relishing the unexpected warmth (in the sun, out of the wind) when we both spotted something odd; a bunch of too-red roses that had been either dropped in anger, or scattered with regret. And even though I hadn’t been consciously thinking about my WIP, I immediately realized that my main character would’ve hated the sight—because they were red. That sparked a new scene idea, which—combined with some medical research, back at my desk—has now explained her erytophobia (fear of red). 

One spark like this is not enough to propel an entire novel forward, but the right inspiration—combined, of course, with lots and lots of perspiration—can definitely be fanned into a flame. Now that I am confident such sparks lead somewhere, it’s easier to stop worrying about how my brain works and just follow its crazy path to the “logical” conclusion.

In 2016, after a similar experience of stumbling onto something equally small that sparked another big idea, I put it this way: “I may not have yet figured out everything about this character, but I’ve definitely learned to spot brainstorms when they appear—even if the spark shows up in a completely unexpected way.” (from Listening In, Outside)

More ideas (about ideas)

I’ve written many times before about where I find inspiration, and below are two of my favorite previous attempts to explain this crazy idea-getting process. Meanwhile, thanks for reading and let me know by email or in the comments below where you find your own sparks—don’t be shy. 

“The best [ideas] are the mad stepchildren of experience gathered haphazardly together on a page—sparked into distinction by something as ordinary as an October leaf blowing down the street.”

Stirring Stories from the Mental Melting Pot

“This process would never get started if I didn’t put myself in situations that enable a skin-tingling sense of discovery. And while that is its own reward, I’ve also learned to trust that I might eventually build something completely unexpected from what I find in the real world.”

Filling the Ideas Tank