Sunday, August 29, 2010

Instant Inspiration: Observation

If you are a writer searching for material, you are a sponge to everything going on around you. You become the ultimate observer, using the world around you as inspiration for your next written creation. You start to look at nature, news, and relationships through a writer's lens.

Last summer, my husband and I took up trip to the top of Pike's Peak in Colorado. The views were breathtaking, as was the summit at 14,000 feet. Our tour guide told us the story of Katharine Lee Bates, a Massachusetts English professor who traveled up Pikes peak by wagon in 1893. She was so inspired by nature's beauty she wrote "America, the Beautiful".

Nature's beauty and its wrath have been the inspiration for countless poems, songs, and stories. A multi-colored sunset may inspire a metaphor of "a delicious sherbet sky" you may use in a poem about summertime. A threat of a tornado may call you to write a short story about survival in the days before emergency sirens-- all while you get up to date weather information on your laptop.

Some of the news stories that make it to press stick to the journalistic credo: "just the facts", leaving the imaginative writer with the opportunity to ask: why?. A while ago, I read a short blurb about a man who got away with robbing a bank, even after crashing his getaway car and hopping on a public bus, only to call 911 when he got home because his roommate had committed suicide. The responding officers noticed the bank bag. I didn't research anything else about this story, instead, I used it as inspiration for a fictional account of a man who found himself in the same situation. I brainstormed these characters: what lead him to such drastic measures, and why did his roommate hang himself while the other was committing robbery? The story took on a life of its own, and soon the characters barely resembled the real life people.

For a non-fiction writer, news stories such as this could trigger ideas from many angles. You could decide to look into how the rate of bank robberies compares to the rate of economic slowdown. You could research other robberies where the criminal lead law enforcement to his front door. You could write a personal essay about what you would have done if you had seen someone on a bus with a bag full of money. Keeping your mind open may create a spark that sets off an idea for a whole book.

"I could write a book about all the crazy things he put me through," your friend may say. Hopefully, she will write something down. Your own real life is a perfect place to find inspiration, especially for journal or diary writing. This doesn't necessarily have to be writing that you will share with others. Journal writing can be therapeutic and a way to work on your problems.

Later, your journal writing can transform into a how-to article for the steps that people take to get over a break-up, or a memoir piece about a challenging time in your life. You can separate yourself out of a painful situation by giving the problem to a fictional character and have her handle it in a different way. What would happen to the character if she took an unconventional path to deal with her misery?

What unexpected observation inspired some of your own writing? Do you find it difficult to find inspiration, or more challenging to pick and choose which inspiration to build on?


  1. I find inspiration and ideas everywhere. Everything I see and hear and wonder about sparks the "What if?" questions and I take it from there. I think it is a challenge trying to choose which idea to build on. But I don't spend too much time on it, I just pick one and see where it goes.

  2. Last Fall I was invited to a dinner party at the house next door. It belongs to a drama professor at the university here, so the guests were particularly colorful. There was one young woman, however, whom I observed, recognizing that her rude behavior could be used in a scene in the book I'm currently writing. I've never encountered anyone so spoiled and self-centered. It was fantastic! When I came home, I spent all night writing about her.

    Inspiration is never hard for me to find. As a musician as well as a writer, the hard part is sifting through all of my encounters for the very best stuff!


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