My youngest is showing signs of being a writer – his English teacher even called me up to comment about how wonderfully literate and imaginative he is. She’s left comments on his reports very enthusiastically praising his writing ability. And then, much to his dismay, rewritten his work. (Welcome to the writers’ life, kid)

A couple days ago, he asked me about the story I’m writing for NaNo. He seemed impressed – thought it was original (I can only hope.) And then he asked – where did you get the idea? Where do you get all your ideas.

I told him … everywhere.

For the larger story ideas, I often play a game I call ‘What if‘. While watching news stories and documentaries, it can get quite morbid. For instance, Gizmo Guy was trying to come up with a new idea for a storyline the week the bridge collapsed in Minneapolis, and I said “Play ‘what if‘ . What if your hero or heroine needs to disappear but doesn’t want their loan shark or abusive husband to know they’re alive. What if they’re on the bridge but escaped. What if they decide to take advantage of the confusion and walk away, letting everyone think they’ve been killed.” Yeah, I know that’s pretty sick, but if it works …

I take small ideas and twist them too. My neighbours installed a hot tub yesterday. So let’s play the game. What if you move into a new house with an outside hot tub. You take off the cover, wanting to dive in and discover … Take it from there …

For the smaller details, I told him to use his senses. His fingers to touch different textures – like the rough skin of a shark in the touch tank in the New Orleans aquarium. Or the various creatures — bristly starfish and squishy sea cucumbers — in the touch tank in St. Andrew by the Sea in New Brunswick. Or the soft fur on the coat my father brought for my mother and she used to let me wear on occasion when I was little. I told him to use memories. For me? What it felt like when I fell off my bike when I was 10 and skinned all my knees and arms or when my karate partner landed a perfect spinning back kick right on my solar plexus and drove all the air from my lungs. What it felt like to watch my youngest faint last week in the doctor’s office and know that deep-seated fear of watching someone you love hurt. How I felt when they handed him to me in the delivery room–that huge rush of love to this beautiful little creature.

I told him to use his ears to listen to people talking in elevators or lobbies or malls. Okay, probably that’s not great advice to give a sixteen year old, it might lead to problems. When I was little, my mother used to scold me, telling me it was impolite. She said that I was just like ‘Kilroy’ and drew a little cartoon of a character they used to have in WW2 to remind people that you never knew who was listening. But even back then I was wondering, dreaming, writing.

Did I stop? Um, sorry Mom, but not really. I never remember what the conversation was about. I find myself fascinated by how people talk. I’m listening for accents – twangs and drawls and patrician speech. I’m listening for unusual sayings and similes. I watch for mannerisms and tics. Even how people dress.

Last night, for instance, I was watching “Are You Smarter than a Canadian Fifth Grader.” One of the contestants, Andrew to the left here, wore a shirt with a blue sweater vest, and red, black, and white tie. Except his tie – covered in cows of all things – was OUTSIDE the vest. Immediately I thought, “What type of geek does that?” Immediately followed by “How can I use that?” Okay, in his defense, he turned out to be a vet which explains the cows, and it was his lucky tie. No, I’m sorry, that still made him look like a geek. But my mind took the image and twisted it, played with it, wondered how I could use it. I showed it to my critique partner, Marley who asked if she could use him in her story. Sure!

And this morning I was watching one of the American morning shows. One of the correspondents was interviewing someone who was using his fist to punch the air to accentuate the points he was trying to make. It bugged me and I thought, “I should have some guy doing that as a way to bug my heroine.

Inspiration can come from other sources too. I had to take my car in for its bi-annual clean-air check so we can renew the plates. I notice a Canadian Geographic from November 2006 sitting on the table. I flip through it and lo and behold there’s an article about a dig at a North American native village – probably Blackfoot – that dates back 8,000 years. Which is exactly what my heroine is doing at the start of my NaNo story. Now I’m not one who tears out coupons or stories from magazines in the doctor or dentists office. Or the mechanics’ either. So I read through it and made notes of the pertinent details a dig uncovers, what they look for, and what the site looks like while I had access to the article. I also got a couple more ideas from it that I hadn’t considered. So the 20 minutes I thought I’d lose in a mechanics’ waiting room turned out to be profitable writing-wise.

So if you’re wondering where to get quirky habits or details, just follow JK Rowling’s Professor Moody and use “Constant vigilance” In other words, look around you. Listen to what’s being said in conversations around you, announced on news reports on the radio or television. Read what’s being written – on the web, in newspapers. Play ‘What if‘ and ‘how can I use that interesting bit of info?

NaNo update:

2176 words today so far, and I’m figuring I’ll get some more writing done – over 15K words in total, although with all the notes and backstory and outlining I’ve done it’s probably closer to 25K – pity we can’t include those too. Even better, I had one of those wonderful ‘AHA‘ moments when I discovered the identity of the spy who is going to be the threat to my heroine. Hehehe, I love when I’m writing and things just appear on the page like that.

Inspiration is as close as your fingertips…
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3 thoughts on “Inspiration is as close as your fingertips…

  • November 9, 2007 at 2:43 pm

    What a great post, Leah! Unfortunately for all the regular people out there, writers will always listen in on conversations. If we don’t, our dialogue is going to sound horrible and if those same people are reading our books, they’d pitch them across the room. So we’re doing them a service, really.

    Great to hear about your son and his writing chops.

  • November 10, 2007 at 8:03 am

    Awesome post!! That’s awesome about your youngest. Hopefully the rewriting the teacher does won’t discourage him.

    He should do NaNo next year maybe. They have a young writers program.

  • November 12, 2007 at 1:16 pm

    That’s wonderful about your young writer.

    I like to play that whatif game myself especially at the airport, writing short stories about where everyone is going and why.

    And isn’t serendipity a wonderful thing, you go to the mechanic and think you’ll waste the morning only to find background for your NaNo story. Fascinating!jgbc

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