Finding the inspiration

I want to write about finding the inspiration to write. Where, in simple terms, do the stories come from. They say, of the novice writer, write from your own experience but that’s not always possible. Too close, too personal, too inhibited by what other’s might think. So where else should you go to mine the ideas from which you can craft a story?

My first writing experience was at a summer school in July 2006. For three hours every afternoon a somewhat eccentric woman whose name has now faded from memory told us about character and dialogue, the three act story arc and metaphor, the importance of the opening paragraph and show, don’t tell. I’m sure these were excellent lessons, even if she had a tiny little egocentric way of giving us examples of excellence by using her own work. I don’t remember them either.

What does stick, vividly is the class we had on ‘where to get your ideas’. Having met a lot of writers now, both in person and via the blogging world, I have heard a lot despair about finding that source of inspiration. And not just the big picture, the central tenet around which the story builds but also: those off shoots, side lines and sub-plots that enrich a novel; the people who appear within it; the settings. Pretty much everything you have to make up, really.

My tutor – let’s call her Alice because there was a sense she inhabited her own la-la land at times – told us to write down well know phrases. We had to chose 5. I can recall three of mine

  • Another brick in the wall
  • The light at the end of the tunnel
  • A right to roam

Alice asked us to pick one, there and then and imagine two people who might appear in a story with that as the title. We had a few minutes to create a simple pen portrait of each character. We took turns to read out what we had written and then Alice opened up to the whole class to throw out ideas about a story involving this title and these characters. It was extraordinary how, in five minutes the flights of fancy that took hold.

As the class ended Alice gave us homework. We had to take each of the five titles and do five lines explaining the story behind each one. With so much material generated soย quickly already we all had no difficulty in doing just that and the next day we read out our five synopses. The class then picked their favourite and our next homework was to write a ten minute play using that outline. Mine was ‘The Light at the End of the Tunnel – a ghost story’. We performed each play on the Friday.

The next week I was still buzzing. I didn’t really think the play I wrote had much more to it, but one synopsis, the one for A Right to Roam, had something. I sat down and started a short story, that grew into my first attempt at a novel.

I tell this story, at some length to show that ideas can come in blinding flashes, epiphanies if you like but also by forcing yourself, by starting with something very general and building. It’s a game of finding the what ifs that are tucked away behind the obvious.

In November I wrote 30 short stories – one a day – and I needed ideas. In many cases I used pictures as prompts. This was the first picture I used.

For each picture prompt I did two things. First I decided on genre. Was this to be a love story or a comedy, a thriller or fantasy, sci-fi or historical? I didn’t stick rigidly to the genre – at least three times I changed it – but it often helped with stage two. With this one, I wanted a contemporary drama, set in a easy to identify setting, some what humdrum.

2015-10-24 10.59.58

Second I began to ask myself questions:

  • the centre piece is the bike: whose is it and why is it there?
  • is it chained to the tree or might it be stolen?
  • has it been abandoned – maybe the owner has been taken ill or has run out of the picture to help someone?
  • there’s an orange ball there; is someone playing a game, football perhaps?
  • there are buildings; is someone from the building involved with the bike

I liked the idea of someone coming upon it – walking their dog maybe – and realising they knew the owner; they were surprised to see it, it jogged a memory.

I thought it might be a child’s bike, so what if the person finding it was the mother of a dead child who used to own it? What would she do? What memories might it trigger? What if she wanted to find out who owned it now? What if she did find tat person, what would happen? How would she approach such a meeting? What might she hope to get out of it?

I briefly ran with the idea of writing from the viewpoint of a thief who took it. Maybe they were chased, a fight ensued and someone was hurt, maybe killed. Maybe something was strapped under the seat – money, a message, drugs – so the thief was unexpectedly in more trouble that just the theft.

Or the owner had left it there to go and help someone, he/she ends up going to hospital with them and has to come back for it when the park is shut. He/she climbs in to collect it and meets… vampires, ghosts, aliens… The house in the background looks old – might something live there and come out at night; maybe the owner of the bike, just as he/she is collecting it realises someone is breaking into the house, or someone – a child perhaps – is being dragged from it, a kidnap victim. Or he/she comes across someone burying something. Or his/her boyfriend/girlfriend is kissing his/her best friend in the dark shadows.

I went with the bereaved mother in the end. The fantasy, aliens were too far removed from my initial genre choice but I could have moved. I needed a surname. I have lots. I visit cemeteries when I walk the dog – only occasionally, but London has lots and if there’s one thing about cemeteries it is names. Mrs Pickwick emerged as the favourite.

Once I had the outline, I imagined Mrs Pickwick with her dog – Pollen, the dog’s name came later – entering the park and seeing her dead son’s bike. The story of how she needed to know who had it, what they were like and what happened next came fairly easily.

There is, of course, one feature that none of this gives you.

The ending.

That’s for another post.


About TanGental

My name is Geoff Le Pard. Once I was a lawyer; now I am a writer. I've published several books: a four book series following Harry Spittle as he grows from hapless student to hapless partner in a London law firm; four others in different genres; a book of poetry; four anthologies of short fiction; and a memoir of my mother. I have several more in the pipeline. I have been blogging regularly since 2014, on topic as diverse as: poetry based on famous poems; memories from my life; my garden; my dog; a whole variety of short fiction; my attempts at baking and food; travel and the consequent disasters; theatre, film and book reviews; and the occasional thought piece. Mostly it is whatever takes my fancy. I avoid politics, mostly, and religion, always. I don't mean to upset anyone but if I do, well, sorry and I suggest you go elsewhere. These are my thoughts and no one else is to blame. If you want to nab anything I post, please acknowledge where it came from.
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39 Responses to Finding the inspiration

  1. That’s a bit of a tease there. โ˜บ I like how an interesting picture can send the imagination soaring. Worried about the Pickwicks.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Laura Bloomsbury says:

    helpful and very informative as well as intriguing

    Liked by 1 person

  3. jan says:

    An excellent example of how your imagination can take you many places if you question the world around you!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m sure all your readers will find this fascinating Geoff – I’m not a writer and I did!

    You chose our favourite story to illustrate your points and suddenly I am side-swiped by the fact that you might have gone with a theft and drugs or ghosts and ghouls – not the wonderfully touching story that emerged from a photo of a lone bike leaning against a fragile young tree in a park.

    I think you have just informed my reading, it will be done with a deeper appreciation for that moment when I reach the end of a book with a feeling of satisfaction that it could not have been told more effectively or ended on a better note………… [It doesn’t always happen but I finished one last night that did.]

    Liked by 2 people

    • TanGental says:

      It’s great when you reach the last few pages and hit that dilemma – desperate to know the ending yet not wanting it to end. Book gold that, when you experience it. Thank you fir such a thoughtful and fascinating appraisal.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. susieshy45 says:

    Great article here and wonderful tips. I do suffer from a lack of inspiration on many occasions and when I am inspired, I produce something that is truly not worth a read. I am willing to try new ideas all the time- so thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. KL Caley says:

    Amazing Post Geoff! Agree with the comment above though – you are a big tease!!! ๐Ÿ™‚ I love how you described the process and all the different directions that could go. One thing I struggle with is after this point, when you decide something, run with it, get so far down and it isn’t quite working. Do you start over, leave it a few days, scrap it completely or adjust it to another avenue? It always feels like sacrilege throwing away work written ๐Ÿ˜ฆ but in a lot of cases it must be done! Does that ever get easier?
    Anyway I’ve rambled I just wanted to say this was such an inspiring and informative post. Great Job. KL โค

    Liked by 2 people

    • TanGental says:

      Hi KL. during this month of writing I started 2 stories and ground to a halt, in one case almost immediately and in the second after about 1000 words. I scrapped both. Deleted entirely. They weren’t bad bits of writing but they weren’t going to have anything I felt was unique – that’s a touch arrogant but I wanted each to be as different from the rest as I could make them. Even in novels I know scrap anything that instinct tells me is wrong. Often the story is right but I’m telling it wrong – wrong tense, wrong point of view, wrong sex for the narrator, wrong topi me period. Try changing that. I had a tutor who wrote a book about a large black cat on Dartmoor. He finished it but it felt wrong. A friend suggested changing the chief protagonist and poof he had an award winning novel. Same story, same outcome just seen differently. He said it was emotionally draining to rewrite every scene this way hug worth it. I’ve held that notion close and applied it within a novel/short story several times, even just for a scene or chapter. It can have dramatic effects. Best of luck and believe me please that you write very well so keep hunting out the inspiration.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. I didn’t know (or had forgotten) that you started writing that long ago. Thank you for this post. It’s interesting, as always, but also helpful and timely for some of us, um, writers in despair. I’ve never used a photo as a prompt this way. And I was always a pantser so I didn’t plan the story or pick a genre first… Which could be a great deal of my problem right now. Anyway. ๐Ÿ˜€ Great post.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Norah says:

    Yes, great post, Geoff. I think it’s all in the questions you ask. You can take anything and ask questions about it. I have written a story writing unit based upon a familiar rhyme for my readilearn website. Children write their own story in response to questions asked about the rhyme. I have written my own version which shouldn’t be shared until after they have written theirs. No doubt they will come up with more imaginative ideas. You are right, though. The ideas and inspiration are everywhere. We just have to ask the questions and let our imaginations provide the answers.

    Liked by 1 person

    • TanGental says:

      In a way writing fiction is a childlike experience which many find inhibiting because of that regressive sense. We’re grown now and writing stories is for children. Yet freeing ourselves from that inhibition can be so life enhancing.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Helen Jones says:

    I find ideas often come to me from all sorts of random places – a light outside someone’s house, a glimpse of something in the river, a memory. Then imagination takes over and there’s a story. But as to why some things stir me and not others, I have no idea – that’s the magic of creativity, I guess. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Judy Martin says:

    That was a very helpful post Geoff. Inspiration does come from so many unusual sources. I still don’t know how you managed to write 30 short stories throughout November, prompt or no prompt! ๐Ÿ™‚

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Annecdotist says:

    Interesting post, Geoff, from a writer who never seems short of inspiration. I’m a lot less prolific than you, but I’m still somewhat confused by writers having to look for inspiration. Seems to me there are just too many ideas than time to write about them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • TanGental says:

      You have such a portfolio of work, Anne, you make me look devoid of ideas! But thank you. And yes it does surprise me when people can’t see the rich possibilities in anywhere. I think they can if they are brave enough to drop their inhibitions about writing.


  12. A very interesting read, Geoff. You’ve certainly revealed a lot about yourself in this post.

    I also use photos and pictures as prompts for writing stories. I also get inspiration from challenges people set (like the recent one from Sacha, which was the word ‘Lipstick’). If a story immediately comes to me then I go with it (like in the case of my last short story).

    I’ve also found characters from stories, I’ve yet to write, come to me when I’ve been doing odd jobs like ironing, hoovering or just hearing something on the radio. They appear before me, tell me their story, and then fade away. I write the story down quickly and then play with it for a while. It’s resulted in many of the short stories on my blog.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Sacha Black says:

    You know how much I love writing processes and hearing about others. So I thoroughly enjoyed this

    Liked by 1 person

    • TanGental says:

      Thanks Sacha. You too know how much I love your encouragement (even if I tease you sometimes). Your prompting for my Nanthology brought out some of my best work, as do your writespirations


  14. Elissaveta says:

    I’ve always been afraid of starting off a story with a picture prompt and yet, you’ve just motivated me to do this (and more often). The realm of options is just endless, isn’t it?

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Charli Mills says:

    I think the true hallmark of a writer is the sense of finding inspiration all around. You are certainly a master in that regard, open to so many what ifs, leading your readers down twisting paths.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. lorigreer says:

    Fascinating process!


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