© Alexey Fursov | Dreamstime.com – Man in dark tunnel
By Chris Hutton
So, I’ve been away all week at a work conference – super busy but good stuff. I managed to prep my short story for this week and next week in advance, and had the best intentions of drafting out my blog post for today while flying from LA to Madison. Instead I fell asleep within moments of boarding the plane. Suffice to say, not much writing happened. That left me in the decidedly awkward position of trying to brainstorm a blog topic while on a work trip, and there really isn’t much time for that. So, during brief moments of calm between meetings and/or assignments, I would ponder to myself what it was that I should discuss today, but I was coming up blank. Then, last night, at one of the keynotes, I bothered to open my eyes for a moment and take in my surroundings. The theme of the entire conference was Inspiration to Impact. My topic was right there staring me in the face the entire time.
Inspiration to Impact, you ask? Well, not really. That’s a great topic perhaps for another day, but inspiration itself, that was the exact thing that I had been searching for all week. So today I want to explore the topic of inspiration as it pertains to writing (and quite likely can be applied to other arts as well).
The source of a writer’s stories can seem sort of mystical, this otherworldly thing conjured into existence from a mad mind that obviously just doesn’t work like everyone else’s mind. I imagine that many have pondered this sort of sentiment when thinking of the greats of any genre. For me that would be the likes of Stephen King, John Ajvide Lindqvist, Joe Hill, and Nick Cutter among many of the modern horror writers, not even touching upon science fiction or the writers of the classics.
Obviously I cannot speak for those above, but I can attest to the origin of my own stories, and I can guarantee you that my stories don’t just leap from some sort of madness. While I may be a little crazy, inspiration is not plucked from the ether, nor is it created from nothing. For me it is sought and it is found. That doesn’t mean I have to meander around aimlessly (much like my current rambling) shining a light into the dark, but rather that there are methods that can be employed to help simplify that search for inspiration and keep a writer writing.
Indulge me a moment or two more and I will provide another recent example. Before leaving for this work conference I spent my free time after office hours trying to develop ideas for two new horror stories that I could draft in advance of my trip to Madison. I tried pulling them from thin air… I really, really did. I would sit and stare at the monitor and I seemed to be pleading for a story to arrive. Bad method.
Sure, after a few hours of this, some threads of a story formed, but were they any good? That’s another question, but my gut is going with not very likely.
Well, after jotting down my rough notes for my potential story, I left the house to attend a concert. My friend, Michael Meinhart, and his band, Socionic, were playing at the Whiskey a Go Go. It’s not often that I’m free on a night that he has a show, so with the stars aligned and my wife watching our daughter, I left.
One amazing performance, way too many beers, and a shot later, I caught a Lyft home and crashed for the night/morning. When I woke up, I had the worst hangover I have had in many years – mainly because I’m a prematurely old man.
Point being, that hangover became my inspiration. It hurt. It hurt like hell. My head was pounding and some of my decisions (like to have that extra beer or two) needed to be questioned. Pondering those life choices and the dizzying, pounding world around me, I caught the scent of a story. There’s something scary about a hangover. About the lack of control. About the drumming pain. About the obliviousness of the night before (if you happened to black out – which was not the case here). Still, there was something to work with. I kneaded at that kernel and molded it until the “idea” of the night before had been completely abandoned, a new outline drafted, and a new story born – not from nothing, but from observation of the world around me. Thus arose my idea for Last Call (the first part of which posted on Monday).
That’s not to say that if you want inspiration you should go out and get drunk and hope you wake up with a story. That’s terrible advice and you should definitely not do that.
However, you should look at yourself, look at the life you’re living, and take inspiration from that real life experience to find a truth upon which your fiction can be built. Finding that truth that you want to tell and establishing that foundation provides an amazing place from which to draw your fiction – or not… maybe you hate The Last Call. If so we can talk about that later. For now, let me have this one. Please.
So what the hell am I getting at? Again, it boils down to methods of finding inspiration that can lead to your next story. Above I described one method:
Pay attention to your surroundings. Notice the large banners, signs, and programs, with the words Inspiration to Impact plastered all over them. There might be an idea for a blog there. Wake up with a terrible hangover? What does that feel like? What are you struggling with physically and emotionally? Is there something there that could help form an original horror story?
Just open your eyes. Watch people. Open your ears and listen to people. Pay attention to your surroundings and be cognizant of your own emotions and personal experience. Everything you observe is potential fodder for a story – just find that main thread that sparks your interest. As an amazing writing professor of mine once told me, you have to live your life in order to have stories to tell. Now that’s terribly paraphrased, but the point he made was that you had get out into the world, you had to live new experiences, and from those experiences you could find inspiration and material for your writing.
But obviously there is more that you can do to find inspiration than just open your eyes. So what follows is a brief list of some of the other methods I employ when searching for inspiration.
Rifle Through Your Personal Experience
Explore your past. Maybe you had a unique childhood experience, or probably many. What are those moments that you remember most vividly and why? Is there a story there? What jobs have you worked? What experiences have you lived? Which ones rocked you to your core, bowled you over, knocked you off your feet and other cliches? Myself, I have to look at those experiences that inspired me, hurt me, and shaped me. The happiest and worst moments of my life, of any writer’s life, those are the depths to be plumbed to tell a story with true emotional resonance.
Keep a Dream Journal
If you’re a vivid dreamer like me, there is plenty of material. Half of my stories come from my nightmares. While my deranged mind decides to torture me in my sleep, I try desperately to remember that horror upon waking, write it down, and file it away. With a little twisting to reinsert the logic of the waking world, one’s nightmares make a great starting point for unique tales. At least two of my pilots and a quarter of my prose has been drawn from dreams.
Maybe you’ve tried being observant to no avail, and your dreams just aren’t providing. You can still generate inspiration. Take a moment and brainstorm. One of the methods that I enjoy is to start a document with ‘What if…’ at the top. Then I create a bulleted list and type out as many possible ways to finish that statement as I can at that time. Many of these ideas are going to be terrible, but one or two of them might just spark something worth writing.
Let’s say you’ve gone through all of that, and it is still not cutting it. Well, though I love looking to the real world, to my dreams, and to my imagination as a starting point, there is nothing wrong about considering your favorite stories. If I know I want to write horror, I might stop and think what are some of my favorite horror stories and what type of story is each? A zombie story? A vampire story? A ghost story? The destruction of the fabric of the universe by some Eldritch God? It could be anything, but I try to boil it down to its simplest. Now I have a list of story types that I enjoy reading. That’s great, because you know what, we write best what we know and what we love. If you don’t want to read it, why write it?
Anyway, with a list now generated, I examine the common story types and I think to myself, what can I do different here? For instance, I like stories about Mars, so maybe I want to set a story there. Okay, but what is my angle? Well, what if I examine a problem like drought, which I see often in my home state of California? Is there a story that I could uniquely tell about the value of water on Mars? Maybe. Currently its called Inflow, and this is how I came up with it.
Stream of Consciousness
Another method I like to employ is stream of consciousness writing. I just sit down at the keyboard and I write. Usually this doesn’t start off pretty. Half of the time it starts off with, ‘I really want to write, but I don’t have an idea right now. What can I write about?’ Even then, at least it started. From there, I just let my mind go. Though it may not result in something every time, plenty of my story ideas have birthed from this random vomiting of my stream of consciousness onto the page. In fact, my last pilot, The Cage, began in just this same way. After five minutes or so of random nonsense I stumbled upon my own unique perspective on a werewolf story. Then I tucked it away and let it simmer for five years… which brings me to my final method:
Sometimes I can try all of the options detailed above and still come up with nothing. My observations from that day aren’t popping out at me. My recollection of my past just isn’t hitting me upside the head with anything useful. I didn’t have any good dreams the night before and my what ifs are coming up blank. In addition, I might try to twist some common story ideas, but I’m not finding an angle that is uniquely mine, and none of my free-writing is producing anything worthwhile. Those days are going to happen. That’s why you create lists, at least that’s why I do.
When all else fails I go to a saved folder on my hard drive or open up my Moleskine, and I look through lists upon lists of story ideas that I’ve previously jotted down, but didn’t explore. And where did these ideas come from? From every other method listed above, because I guarantee if you’re employing methodology to find your inspiration, there are going to be times when you come up with multiple excellent ideas, some of which just have to be saved for another day if for no other reason than the constraints of time.
So… yeah. That’s how I do it. That’s how I concoct the madness that is my fiction. You might have other methods. Feel free to let me know in the comments. I am always curious about new ways to find that next great story idea. Right now, I’ve got my ears open, and I’m observing. I’m listening to a strange, howling wind blowing through my hotel room despite the lack of an open window, and I know that an idea is forming, and it’s being written down in my Moleskine as soon as I press publish on this post.
That said, go find your own inspiration. Get cracking. And as always,