Foraging for Ideas

In the last few months, I’ve found myself running around Hampstead Heath thinking ‘I need to find an idea for a short story.’ Thanks to sites like Creative Writing Ink, I’ve got a monthly alert of short story competitions and deadlines for magazine submissions, all laid out on my Google calendar. The problem is, I don’t have that much of a back catalogue yet, so for each one I need to come up with something new. And, funnily enough, simply trying to think of ‘a story idea’ doesn’t work. Trust me.

As far as non-fiction stuff is concerned, I find that much easier to spark ideas. Usually, the book(s) I’m currently reading give me more than enough scope to rattle on for a few hundred words. Either the ideas explored in the book, or the way it’s written, allows me to go off on a personal tangent into my other reading or writing experiences. Sometimes the same thing happens from a lesson I’ve taught, or an experience in the classroom, that also gives me a way in. Current news and events are always a good springboard, with my opinionated conversations often providing an article that has a good sense of personal voice. This has worked so well, it landed me a position as a guest blogger on the Huffington Post. You can read my first blog (about why modern women aren’t getting married) here. After all, we’re all passionate about something, so whatever it is, write about it, preferably linking to something else happening in the world at the moment.

Unfortunately, thinking of ideas for fiction (for me at least) is always a little trickier. It’s a bit like meditating. The harder you try to do it, the more difficult it is. Lucy Caldwell (tutor at City University) came up with a lovely phrase. She told us to ‘thin our skin’ when walking in the world. Open ourselves up to the little things we see on a daily basis, allow ourselves to drift into another person’s head, imagine what they’re thinking and seeing, and let the imagination take root.

Just last month, we looked out of the window of our flat and saw something in the tree. It looked like a canoe. From each angle, we looked and looked, but couldn’t figure out what it was. The next time I sat down to write, my protagonist was someone who became obsessed with something in the trees. You can read the story here. Thinking thin worked.

Images can also be incredibly powerful. While googling ‘story images’ tend to produce a rather flat set of images (fairytale castles, mountains) the strangest searches can also produce something you weren’t expecting. There’s a free writing competition (check it our here) that changes the image every two months, from which you’re encouraged to produce any piece of fiction. Even if you don’t win, it’s a great exercise in keeping your creative muscles going. The picture of a metallic rose led to my prize-winning short story (here) while a picture of some shoes sparked off a flash fiction piece about a first meeting and the changes that happen in relationships (read it here). Search for things like ‘feet,’ ‘doors’ or ‘keys,’ and ask yourself what they open, where they go, how they came to be there, and you’ll find your imagination will take you to unusual places.

Poetry is also a great resource. If you’ve got an idea around a specific theme or mood, try finding a poem that is based around the same set of ideas. Because the language is so condensed, it allows for a multitude of interpretations, that often lead you off on a tangent which might prove more unusual than the thing you began with.

Finally, go back to the things you love and the things that make you unleash a tirade at someone in the pub. If you’re that passionate about it, you’ll find that there’s a way to put it into your fiction. I’m currently grappling with an idea based on a woman who works in abortion clinic being treated like a witch (partly because I’ve been watching Once Upon a Time) and a re-imagining of the Adam and Eve story, where the monster that tempts them is not a snake. It’s possible that these ideas won’t go anywhere, but what’s important is that down the side of my Scrivener file marked ‘Stuff,’ there are a huge amount of titles, ideas, notes and words. Actively searching for inspiration in the world around you and acting on it will keep your fiction muscles toned. You wouldn’t expect a pianist to develop their craft without regular scales, so use the world around you as a way to hone those writing skills.

Good luck! Please post the things that help you find inspiration below.

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I'm a writer, teacher and drummer based in London. Short fiction and reviews are my main staples, along with some dabbling in novel writing.

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