Top Five Places to Find Writing Inspiration
One of my favorite parts of writing is the noodling. I love the mulling that comes before I’ve committed to what a story will be. I love choosing the tiniest grain of an idea and then going off to look for the things that will transform it into an entire story. To me, the experience feels like a childhood summer afternoon devoted to unabashed daydreaming.
There’s no set way I prefer to do that sort of mental wandering. I’m happy to poke through cyberspace as well as my own neighborhood looking for those clues that will show me where I really wish to go. That being said, I do have a few favorite places to visit when I am at this stage in the process. Here’s a list of my top five places to find inspiration:
Somehow, humans seem all the more human when they are spending a day at the seaside. Maybe it’s the negative ions, or perhaps it’s the sun and the caress of the breeze, but somehow some of the most interesting sides of humanity come out to play at the beach. It’s not just the wide variety of bathing suits and extravagant hats. It’s the body language, the confidence or lack thereof I see as people stroll past. It’s the way some folks carefully weave between strangers’ beach blankets, and how others run past scattering sand without a thought.
You can learn a lot about people by watching them try to set a kite soaring. Do they cheerfully persist in the face of adversity or do they give up in a huff almost at once? Observing whole families scurrying to build a barricade against the incoming tide in order to save a carefully constructed sandcastle makes me wonder what their lives are like back home. Do they work as a team when it comes to tending the garden or setting the table? An afternoon spent at the beach can easily provide a novel with an entire cast of characters.
There’s just something about the jumble created by the detritus of other people’s lives and those things that were commonplace in the years before I was born that starts my mental wheels turning. What would it have been like for medicine to come in blue glass bottles? Would I be a different person if I had to churn my own butter? Is it wrong to lust after a fox fur stole? Why would anyone buy a pair of wooden dentures?
Who would know how to fix a cane-bottomed chair? Will my life ever involve the need for a satin pillbox hat? Who owned those books and did they love them? What sort of person buys photographs of other people’s long-dead relatives? What are the names of these old tools and could any of them make a convincing and unusual murder weapon?
By the time I’ve spent a couple of hours in any antique shop, my head is filled with possibilities. I can see houses and times gone by taking shape in my mind. Perhaps a quilt or a pair of baby booties or a lamp with a torn shade will find its way into one of the rooms I am imagining. It’s as if all the things that I didn’t register consciously having seen come flooding onto the page unbidden to build a world for my characters to inhabit.
The Social Security Administration Baby Name Database
When I’m thinking about character names, I love to search through the database for the year the people I have in mind would have been born. I like to look at the top 1000 names across the United States. If the character is someone with a family that would choose a name that would be unlikely to elicit ridicule, I search near the top of the chart. For those unfortunates whose parents are tone-deaf to popular culture, I look instead near the bottom. I feel inspired by the names that seem unusual when compared with Jane or Mary or William. Names like Doshie or Buell.
I like to look at the male and female names that share the same position on the chart and consider if they would make sense as siblings or perhaps as a couple. Generally, a character grows in my mind as soon as I’ve named it. Just the act of roaming my gaze over the list provides me with more people than any one book can hold.
The Grocery Store
The grocery store is much like the beach. Where I live, the shoppers are almost always as casually dressed to navigate the frozen foods department as they are to lay sprawled upon a beach blanket in the sun. It’s always instructive to watch how parents will navigate the cereal aisle with their children. Even more interesting is how heady with power some people will become when making impossible demands of the staff at the deli counter.
The real fun begins at the checkout line. Nothing starts the wheels turning like watching an entire cart of groceries being spread out upon the conveyor belt. I ask myself what it would be like to be the sort of person who popped into the store for a microwave diet meal and a large chocolate cake. Or another with all organic produce, three containers of soy yogurt, and a carton of cigarettes. What about those people who buy nothing but meat?
Sometimes it appears that the person in front of me is throwing a party. The belt is heaped high with bottles of champagne, wheels of fancy cheese, packets of smoked salmon, and boxes of imported crackers. Other times I am in line behind someone purchasing six-packs of beer, bags of chips, and boxes and boxes of ready-to–heat-and-serve chicken wings. That looks like a party, too, albeit one that belongs in an entirely different story. I find myself imagining a scene in which the man sent to buy the smoked salmon abandons his list and returns home with the chicken wings instead. Can his marriage be saved? I never leave the grocer without at least two bags of groceries and four new story ideas.
This is a little more difficult to make part of the ordinary noodling experience, but it’s definitely worth it every time I can make it work. Between the mediums in charge of the gathering to the skeptics to the true believers, the mix of attitudes and expectations of the individuals attending a séance creates a perfect opportunity for drama and intrigue.
The questions from the medium can often be used as writing prompts. “Do you know someone with a name that starts with the letter M? Has your grandmother passed on? Are you studying to be a pharmacist?” It’s almost as though the medium is having the same sort of noodling process that I experience as a writer. They make up or psychically pick up on the faintest of an idea.
They gently feel their way forward by following their curiosity and trusting their instincts. By using the little bits that they are able to divine, through means either magical or mundane, they bring together the elements of a convincing story and present it to their audience. The best ones put together specific details that make it all seem real. They pluck at the heartstrings and tap emotions. They leave their audiences spellbound and holding their collective breath. What could be more inspiring for a writer than that?
Jessica Estevao writes the Change of Fortune Mysteries. She loves the beach, mysterious happenings and all things good-naturedly paranormal. While she lives for most of the year in New Hampshire with her dark and mysterious husband and exuberant children, she spends summers on the coast of Maine where she keeps an eye out for sea monsters and mermaids.