Inspiration can strike in the strangest ways. This is probably why most authors hate the inevitable “Where do you get your ideas from?” question.
This is my attempt to answer that question: I get my ideas from the world around me. I think everyone does to a certain extent, which is why one of the most common mantras is “write what you know,” though I do think that advice is a little misleading. After all, if I’m writing a period piece or so me far-flung space opera epic, then what I know as an English computer dude living in Delaware really isn’t applicable.
So what can inspire you? One source is dreams, which is why it’s a good idea to keep a pen and notepad on your bedside table to jot down the ideas as soon as you wake, because you WILL forget if you decide to wait until later, as I’ve learned to my cost. An infamous example of the dream as inspiration is the “Terminator” franchise. It began when James Cameron had a dream that consisted of a metal exoskeleton walking out of flames (Harlan Ellison might disagree on that form of inspiration and there’s legal reasons for Ellison’s credit on the first film, but Harlan is infamously cranky and litigious so who knows?). That dream became the finale of The Terminator and is, in my opinion, one of the best “holy crap” film moments of the 1980s.
Another obvious source of inspiration, and one partially alluded to in my Ellison aside above is whatever you might be reading. I know one of my earliest short stories was inspired by me reading Stephen King’s The Eyes of the Dragon and thinking “I could do better than this!”
Thankfully, there are no extant copies of that story online as it was typical of a new, young writer in that it was terrible. That’s beside the point though. I read a lot of non-fiction, and listen to a couple of different history podcasts. And one of my most frequent thoughts are generally “what if this happened instead?” which leads to alternate history ideas or cross-pollination between disparate historical events and genres. What would the Roman Year of the Four Emperors look like through the lens of a fantasy world? I don’t know, but I might well find out by the end of National Novel Writing Month as that seems like fertile ground for at least fifty thousand words.
My current plan for the 2016 edition of that exercise revolves around an eighteenth century naval battle with a commander who was very much conflicted about whether he was even on the right side, which means I’m going to be hip-deep in geographical and historical research for the next couple of weeks. And that inspiration came from a single line in one of the “…for Dummies” series of books.
I also have dumber ideas inspired by mass media such as movies or television. Like most of the residents of the United States right now, I’m drowning in Presidential election coverage. Watching bits and pieces of the debates not long after finally succumbing and watching The Silence of the Lambs has lead me to a short story parody idea which so far involves Donald Trump looking in a mirror and asking “Would you vote me? I’d vote me so hard.” It’s very stupid, and I’m not sure I need the mental image of Donald Trump as Buffalo Bill, but since I inflicted it on myself, I figured I’d inflict it on my loyal readers, as few as you might be.
The last source of inspiration I’m going to consider is people watching. As I type this, I’m sat in a coffee shop facing a large window that opens to the street. This is both because I’m clearly a terrible cliché and because it’s a fantastic spot to observe the small section of the world that is my street. For example, about five minutes ago there was an African-American woman in a purple halter top engaged in an animated discussion with an older gentleman in a wheelchair. I don’t know what they were talking about, but judging by the wild gesticulations, it was clearly something both parties felt passionate about. I created a backstory in my head that it was the first meeting in around fifteen years between a school custodian and an infamous vandal who made his work a living hell. They’ve both long put such things behind them, but were reminiscing about old times in the way that people who aren’t quite friend sometimes do.
So, how do you get inspiration for your stories? I submit that the easiest way to do that is simply to keep your eyes and ears open.
Lightbulb stock photo by Kyryl Lakishyk