Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
Many writers have more ideas than time; they’ll never write as many stories as they’ve considered writing, as many stories as they have ideas for.
But maybe you haven’t had a good story idea in a while. Maybe everything you think of has been done before or feels as if it’s been done before.
Maybe you’re not coming up with anything fresh because you’re not doing anything fresh.
If you go to the same locales and do the same things with the same people, you’ll keep getting the same ideas.
You need to shake up your mind and your spirit. You need to see, hear, smell, taste, and touch something new. You need to create new pathways for your thoughts. You need to let your imagination roam.
Today I’m going to be your prompter. I’m going to suggest places to go, things to do, that might have you looking at your world in such a way that it inspires you to create a new world.
I’m going to suggest that just as your characters do, that you head into the unknown and explore there.
~ Look for conflict or potential conflict, sources of conflict. Look for unusual alliances. Determine how people get along in these places.
~ Look for people’s responses—the physical and the spoken. Study their words, their faces, their postures. Investigate the ways they get their message and feelings across. Then imagine unseen or unheard methods of communication. How else might humans communicate, especially to hide that communication from others?
~ Look for details of a place—is it loud, quiet, echoing, reverent, wild, free, colorful, drab, sparse, cluttered? Is it closed in or is it open? What does it smell like? Do you get used to the odors right away? What sounds can you hear? Do some sounds go easily unnoticed? Could some sounds be in code, messages being sent in public without others catching on?
Is the air clear? Heavy with moisture? Dry? Hazy? Polluted? Heavy with mist?
~ How do you feel in the space? How do others feel? Is it welcoming? Why or why not? Would strangers be welcome there?
Do people joke around?
Which is more highly valued, work or play?
Do people’s words, expressions, actions, and body language fit the emotion of the situation?
Is the feel light-hearted and fun or heavy?
~ Do the people gather in one spot? Do some individuals separate themselves from a group?
~ Do any individuals stand out? Is there obvious conformity? How is non-conformity dealt with? Is individuality rewarded?
~ Close your eyes and use senses other than sight. Get a feel for a place. Absorb the elements that make it unique.
~ Ask questions. Let your curiosity out and follow it.
~ Play what-if.
~ Determine what causes tears, what causes smiles, what causes lies.
~ Study the place or event, determine the major element or focal point, and then imagine what would happen if that major element was not there. What would happen if it had never been there? What would happen if it was suddenly or violently taken away? What would happen if everyone knew it would soon be gone?
As always when you encounter a list, don’t limit yourself to the items on the list; let your imagination go and add a few items yourself.
We’ll consider places and events as well as activities as sources of inspiration. Be mindful of rules and regulations and laws—get permission when necessary.
Places and Events
amusement park (field trips for our work can be fun)
art museum, unusual museums (the spy museum in Washington, D. C. is pretty cool)
biker bar, cowboy bar, sports bar, cop bar, karaoke bar
bowling alley on league night
busy park in the middle of the day, empty park at night
cave or caverns
city council meeting (especially when the topics are contentious)
county or state fair
court (divorce court? criminal trial?)
dance club (observe as well as participate)
elementary school (get permission first)
ER on a Friday night
farm (take on some of the chores)
gun range (learn to shoot)
hair or nail salon, barbershop
high school football game
horse race (try to figure out the betting system and strategies)
ice or roller rink
minor league baseball game
newspaper offices or TV news station
professional football, basketball, or soccer game
sporting competition of a sport you know nothing about
attend a beauty pageant
attend a political rally or convention
audition for a play
devise a game with clues, play the game
drive and/or walk around a big city at night
eat a whole meal of unfamiliar foods
explore the public areas of a fancy hotel
go flying (pick your machine)
go a day or two without writing or reading—put the written word aside
go on a bike ride; join a bike race
go on a road rally or murder-mystery weekend
go out to dinner and a movie by yourself if you don’t typically do that
go out with a wild and loud crowd if you don’t ever do that
go to a play, go to a play rehearsal
go to an all-night diner at three in the morning
hang out with the group outside a general store (share stories)
in a public place, wear clothing (even a uniform or costume) you feel wildly uncomfortable in
join the setup crew for a big or important event
learn to swim
lie out in your yard, stargazing, in the middle of the night
master a magic trick
participate in a military boot camp
read a magazine you’ve never read before—look for scientific advancements or theories, historic events or discoveries you know nothing about; read about psychology (such magazines are great for stimulating what-ifs)
ride along with police officers or firefighters
ride a motorcycle
shadow a professional for a day (something like a bring-a-writer-to-work day)
tackle a batting cage or driving range
take a class in a subject you know absolutely nothing about
take a cooking class
take a language class in a language wholly unfamiliar to you
take a vocal class (speech or singing)
teach yourself to read music or to play an instrument
try to get through a day or two without using a hand (or two) or without the use of a leg or even without talking
watch a child’s temper tantrum rather than turning away—get some insights
teach someone to drive, to read, to cook, to sew, to change a tire
test drive an expensive car
train with firefighters
visit all the shops along the main street of a small town
walk or bike or ride a horse for a couple of days rather than relying on a car or public transportation
Don’t Be Content With a Taste
Did you imagine going to these places on a sunny day? If so, consider going in the rain. Without gear. Or how about in the snow or heat? If you’re going to put characters into tough situations, understand what that means. Go deeper in your research.
Spend more than ten minutes at these places and engaged in these activities. Push beyond your comfort level.
No, I’m not suggesting that you need to experience everything that your characters will. But I am suggesting you step outside your office or writing space on occasion and experience something other than what is familiar and comfortable for you.
Push beyond minimal contact or simply attending events. Get involved in these events and with the people at them.
Yes, learn what you can from observation, but also jump into the thick of the action. Discover the realities of mastering a new skill or facing the unknown, maybe facing unnamed or irrational fears.
Shake up your routine so that your books deliver something new. Breathe life into your stories by breathing in some of that life for yourself.
This list could go on for pages. What I hope it prompts are visits to unfamiliar places and the trying of new activities. I also hope that these places and activities give you new ideas not only for story setting, but for emotions and character motivations. Character personalities. Maybe ideas for character backgrounds. Maybe even ideas for new worlds or new philosophies that affect individual and group behavior, philosophies that drive societal or governmental practices that influence your fictional world.
Break your own patterns and allow yourself to consider other truths, other realities. Put yourself in a situation that makes you a stranger, an outsider, and use what you learn from the experience to create uncertainty and fear and doubt in your characters. Remove yourself from the comfortable and familiar and try to deal with the unfamiliar and strange.
Imagine what a curious person would do in these places and situations. Imagine what a timid person would do. An unscrupulous person.
The point is to remove yourself from what’s familiar to you and explore the unfamiliar so you can afterward use what you discover for creating complex characters and new settings, for creating events with nuances you’d never imagined, for writing stories that tap into and challenge (or confirm) a reader’s ignorance, his fears, his perceptions, even his worldview.
You could make this exploration a regular part of your writing life, or you may only want to tackle a new event or place once or twice a year. Maybe you only need to go exploring when plot ideas feel stale and familiar. Whatever prompts you to go searching outside the common and ordinary, give the exploration a chance. Allow yourself to feel uncomfortable before you head back to your home or your familiar hangouts. Be a bold explorer who uses what he or she learns, not necessarily to familiarize others with the same new worlds you visit, but to create new worlds and characters worth visiting.