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In Which We Find Inspiration...

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In a recent letter from one of my readers, I was asked about how to deal with a specific form of writer's block. Not the inability to write anything, in this case, but being stymied partway into a project because you suddenly realize that the story feels familiar. In an instant, you've gone from energized about your latest work to double-checking every aspect of it against any book, movie or song you've ever heard.

The letter from "Stuck in a Rut" (amd my response) will be coming out in an upcoming episode of One Geek to Another, but answering their question put me to thinking about inspiration - where we find it, how we handle it, and what to do when it temporarily runs dry.

"Where do you get your inspiration?" is a common question for folks to ask writers. An easier one to answer would be "Where /don't/ you get your inspiration?" For people who are bit by the writing bug, inspiration can be found anywhere. In news reports, in overheard cell phone conversations, movies, books, songs, people we've met, things we've done, things we've heard of other folks doing... Anything is fair story-fodder for a writer.

"Stuck in a Rut" was worried about their work being too derivative of other pieces, which brings us to the "how we handle it" part of inspiration.

Recently, I was at a writer's meeting with 50+ other creative folk. The afternoon speaker was talking about music as inspiration, and she played several pieces for us, leading us through a free-flow exercise on writing what the music inspired. It was really interesting, as we discussed our results, to see how different our inspirations from the same piece of music were.

In a piece that spoke clearly to me of a shoemaker tapping away on a project, others heard elephants walking or soldiers marching or dozens of other themes. Perhaps even more interesting was that when the music did inspire similar stories (a certain piece with a Carribean sound spoke to a lot of us of a tropical setting, for example) our stories were still very different. I heard a child swimming through sparkling waters, chasing bold tropical fish. Another person at my table heard a sub-surface wedding between merfolk, with all the entailing festivities, and a third heard a wedding on a beach, with the bride and groom entering at sunset between blazing torches.

The point this exercise really made to me was that each person's interpretation of a theme was so different as to make it an entirely different story. Boy meets girl may be one of the oldest themes in the world, but that doesn't mean that there aren't still an endless number of potential explorations of that theme still to be told. It's how you tell the story, what elements you include, where your emphasis is, and your own personal style and narrative that make a story unique.

However, even for those of us who feel like we're constantly inundated with ideas for new projects, occasionally you'll run into a time when the proverbial font doth run dry. So, what can you do to prime the pump again? Immerse yourself in inspiration. Read, watch movies, listen to music. Go for a walk, either out among people or in natural settings. Or, if you're a boggan like me, do something productive but mindless - washing dishes, painting a wall, washing your car, cleaning and organizing a closet. You may find yourself struck with inspiration mid-project - but even if you don't, you've still accomplished something useful.

Or, if you're looking for something fun (and funny) check out a "Plot Generator", like the Horror Plot Generator that just went live on Flames Rising. While you're unlikely to find the complete plot of your latest best seller there, it's a fun way to get the creative juices flowing and who knows, maybe you will find elements of your next great story there. I mean, the world needs more tales of immortal man-eating bats who work for the government and live in garbage dumps but have a weakness for friendly puppies, right? (Sorry, folks, that one's mine...)

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  1. Farcaster's Avatar
    Sad to say, but I have come up with some of my best gaming ideas while taking a shower. The only problem is, of course, I never have anything with me to write the ideas down
  2. tesral's Avatar
    I often repeat the old saw that there are five stories in the world. Which you tell is less important how you tell it. How you make the basic and timeless theme your own with setting and character.

    I did an experiment a few years back. I took a David Arkenstone album, Music inspired by Middle Earth. I rearranged the songs, I tagged each with an aspect of my Star Trek writing from theme onward. Retitled, burned the disk. I created a booklet of liner notes, composer and writer bios. Went whole hog, and set it to my friend without introduction or comment.

    Result, he bought the Album as Star Trek music. Even knowing where it comes from he cannot shake the brand I stamped on the album.

    Moral? I suppose that how you say it matters. Something might inspire you, but what you take from that will be yours.