Hear it “Write”

Hear it “Write”

Cypress in a pond

When you hear a common sound, or something buried in the everyday bustle, you dismiss it without a second thought. Think about it: how often do you stop and listen to the cawing of a raven or crow? And when was the last time you paid attention to the clicking of a stoplight? They fade into the general background of our lives – present but not particularly of interest. If you take a “common” sound and transplant it into a different situation, though, we start to take notice and pay attention. And for anyone with even a spark of imagination?

Yeah, writing catalyst!

Let me give you the perfect example. This weekend, my husband I went kayaking at a pond. Not a well-known state park, and we only saw a couple of other people the entire time. That meant the only sounds we heard (save when we got closer to the road) involved nature. And while I DID major in marine biology, we were miles from the coast. So I didn’t recognize the birds and frogs well enough other than to place the calls into a general, “Birds and Frogs” category. But most people who’ve spent any time in the natural world could do that. What caught my attention, though, was the creaking of the cypress trees.

Have you ever heard one? I could offer a dozen different descriptions. And that’s where my point comes in. At one point, in the middle of pure quiet, the groan circled around us. I glanced over my shoulder, and my first thought was, Where is there a house out here? It put me in mind of a squeaky door, and I had an immediate flash of a dilapidated shack, perched up on the roots of the trees. My rational brain reminded me there was no way a house existed out there, but the sound conjured the immediate image.

Laughing, I mentioned the thought to my husband. And then I really started ruminating on the sound, turning it over and over in my head. Was it a creaky door? Or did it have overtones of a voice? Maybe a moan? Could I layer something more into it, if I really thought about it? As we continued paddling, I tossed out the casual observance that, if you heard something like a cypress out at night, it wouldn’t take much to convince yourself you’d heard something otherworldly or supernatural. And while we started laughing about some of the paranormal shows we’ve watched, the thought stuck.

What other sounds could I warp?

Even knowing the cypress forest around us held responsibility for the snaps and creaks, my imagination took off running. The shapes of the trees were already strange. And with duckweed covering so much of the water – not to mention the tannin load obscuring the rest of your view to the bottom – the quiet pond made for the perfect setting for ANYTHING. And the more I continued to pay attention to those sounds and think of the potential possibilities they represented? I found myself with plenty of stories bubbling away – horror, dark fantasy, fantasy. Play the sound for a generic audience of characters and ask them for their opinion, and the plots wrote themselves.

And you can do the same thing! Whether you decide to venture out into nature to find a sound of your own or simply pay attention to something “germane” in your daily life. ANYTHING has the potential to catch your ear if you keep your mind open. Because no two people catch the same thing. Going back to those paranormal shows (which, I admit, I don’t take seriously – other than the fact they’re the best cure for insomnia I’ve yet found), I never hear anything they claim. And if you ask someone who isn’t reading a script for the show, they probably don’t, either. Everyone’s wired a little differently. So work with that! Cast your characters into various backgrounds, lock them in a room, and hit play on a tape recorder (or, you know, MP3 player – whatever). Then “record” their reactions.

You won’t regret the exercise. Before you know it, you’ll find yourself with at least ONE new story to play with.

What Do You Meme?

What Do You Meme?

Meme of cat face
Image by DivvyPixel from Pixabay

Following close behind cat images and cat videos, the internet has turned into a meme-generating machine. And you can’t deny that you’ve shared one or two – probably in the past week. People find images that spark the message they want to share, and they add the appropriate text. Often, one image ends up expressing a variety of emotions and conversational topics. Because pictures? Yeah, that whole “thousand words” thing is genuine.

But there’s more to memes than meets the eye.

Have you ever found yourself taking a few extra moments to study a meme? Not because you feel the original author (artist?) did a fantastic job with PhotoShop (or whatever program they happen to use). No, it’s something more. Maybe it’s the picture. You could care less about the words – even if they make you laugh/think/cry/grit your teeth. The image the person chose bores into your brain and sparks a glimmer of imagination. Your writing brain starts churning out a story the longer you stare.

Or maybe it IS the words. The phrase twists and turns inside your mind. Dialogue for a character? The main theme of a tale? An opening line? The description of the world? Whatever it is, the writing starts flowing. Before you know it, you have a short story, a novella, an entire novel. From a meme.

Sound crazy?

Inspiration comes from EVERYWHERE. And you never know what’s going to catch your imagination’s attention. Is that the purpose of a meme? Probably not. I doubt people are sitting around their computer thinking, “I’m going to help a writer out there get a story off the ground.” (I mean, MAYBE they are. You never know) Does that mean you can’t start combing through social media feeds LOOKING for that tiny bit of inspiration? Of course not. Because memes are laid out differently than simple photos. They include someone’s point of view. And it may differ from yours – which is what you need! It gives you a glimpse into a character’s head. It lays out a world you don’t exist in. And it challenges the way you think.

I’ve pulled ideas from funny memes that turned into horror stories. No, that’s not what the original author intended, but that’s where my brain took things. Because turning things on their head is what writers DO. And I’ve looked at serious memes and made comical stories (one was accidental. You know how characters take on minds of their own). Sometimes the words did it, other times the images, and now and then the two together. But it’s made me look at memes in an entirely new light.

Memes are a GOLD MINE for writers.

Okay, yes, some aren’t worth a second glance. And the ones with grammatical and spelling errors make me cringe. But when I get past that (or mentally correct them), I find fresh ideas to add to my list. And writers NEED ideas. When your brain dries up, leaving you without a resource, you feel empty. A writer HAS to leave themselves open to the possibility of finding inspiration anywhere – even in a silly social media tradition.

(And, yes, that means you can look at the cat pictures and videos, too. You can always add more cat-centric literature to the world)

Cue it Up

Cue it Up

Playlist of records
Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

The ancient Greeks divided up inspiration among nine different Muses, crediting their influence for the creativity that flowed over the known world. Terpsichore held dominion over music and dancing. So the Greeks felt music held the same importance as poetry and comedy. Probably because separating music from writing is damn near impossible. And when you’re stuck, mired in writer’s block, Terpsichore lies in wait in the wings, waiting to assist you.

Simply put: Turn on the radio.

Nowadays, finding inspiration has myriad forms. Music lurks everywhere, in every form. CDs reside in hefty binders or stacks against the wall (don’t deny it – you know you have them), records have returned to weigh down shelves, and computer drives hold decades of MP3 files. Not to mention the variety of streaming services open to people – free or paid. If you can think of it, there’s a station for it. Type it in, and you have music blaring from your computer, laptop, or phone.

I’ve said before that I refuse to work in the vacuum of silence. The music calms my brain, but it also helps me when my writing brain locks up and refuses to work. I have playlists designed specifically for inspiration. They’re chock full of songs that take my breath away and energize my imagination. They transport me into different places, different times, even different worlds. They drop the curtain on the world around me, giving me a chance to breathe and reorient myself with what I’m struggling with. And they jolt electricity through my imagination, sparking new ideas into my writing.

Magical playlists? I guess you could say that.

The funny part is, none of the lyrics have every prompted a story idea. I don’t take inspiration from the words, from the scenery (a lot of the entries on the playlist come from Broadway shows), or even the original concepts. It’s the feeling generated by the music that does the trick. And I know you have songs that engender that feeling in you. Music that gets into every nerve fiber, causing you to freeze up. You find yourself in another place – somewhere YOU created – feeling emotions only your writing brain has words for. Maybe it’s the beat, or the harmony, or something less definable. You just have to stop and let the power sweep over you.

And then the words flow – so fast your fingers can scarcely keep up.

Maybe that’s why the Greeks felt there were demigods behind inspiration. It’s an immediate rush. Or, sometimes, it’s perfect quiet. Other times, you break down completely. The music provides the emotional connection your brain needs to break down that wall blocking your creativity. Or it ignites the imaginative spark in the first place. The rush is crazy, and when you “wake up” from it and see how much writing you’ve accomplished, you’re amazed.

Everyone needs that playlist.

Think over the songs that resonate with you. Start setting them aside into their own playlist. Organize them into the order you need – or leave them on shuffle. (I get some amazing results when I do that) Keep it labeled so you can find it the next time you need a jolt of inspiration. And each time you stumble over a new piece, add it. Will the songs have any kind of cohesion? Of course not. Will people look at you strange if they hear that particular playlist? Probably. (Mine bounces from classical music pieces, through musicals, to modern instrumental pieces, to hard rock, some pop, a couple 80s – it’s a crazy hodge-podge and I love it!) It doesn’t matter. If it resounds with your imagination center, that’s what counts.

And the next time writer’s block rears its ugly head, sit back and cue up the list. You’ll clear the obstruction in no time.

Out THERE

Out THERE

Natural waterfall near Natural Bridge, VA

Writers are, by nature, introverts. We like staying indoors, huddled in our offices with our computers (or laptops, or – for some – pens and notebooks). The outside world has people (ew!). The outside world has noise. The outside world has distractions. The outside world lacks electrical cords. It’s just not for us.

Except it IS!

Not the people part (I’m not crazy, don’t worry). No, just the outdoor part – away from people, noise, and, yes, electricity. The natural world provides exceptional resources for writers, if you’re willing to take the time away from your computer.

Regardless of where you live, there’s a natural space SOMEWHERE. It doesn’t have to be green to speak to the creative part of your brain. Forests and waterfalls call to the fantasy writer in me. I love waterfalls, and I’ve always been drawn to them. The sight of tumbling water – large and small – the sound of water bouncing over rocks, and the smell of moisture in the air. Not only does it spark creativity, it recharges my mind. I reconnect with the primal part of myself that savors escape from computers, noise, and other human beings.

Two for one!

Even as a kid, I’d find stories popping into my head when we spent time out in the real world. Camping, touring caves, hiking, going to the beach – each provided different backdrops for my vivid imagination. I haven’t lost my touch now that I’m older. While others my age might hit the beach to work on tans and down alcohol, I stare into the patterns of foam and conjure new worlds. When storms roll in and people whine about lost daylight, I envision monsters roaming among the lightning. I never step into a forest without fairies flickering in the corners of my eyes.

Nature doesn’t discount science fiction, either. Dystopian work bubbles out of vines climbing over ancient railroad ties. Last autumn, we went to Northern Virginia and walked along a river bed, desperately low from drought. Looking at the natural water line etched into the rocks, my mind raced with climate change possibilities. Beautiful, twisting tree growth superimposes over shattered buildings in my brain – nature reclaiming the world after some cataclysmic event.

The possibilities are endless!

When you go outside and let the quiet permeate your mind, creativity steps into the silence. You recharge yourself (yes, I’m one of THOSE people), and you recharge your ideas. And, as I said, you don’t even have to go that far. There’s a park five minutes up the road from our house. We can put our kayaks in and go up or down the river, with different views available. The Botanical Gardens are only a twenty-minute drive away, and they cover MILES. We have hiking trails and beaches within an hour – many lacking in popularity with locals and tourists.

Step away from the machines, tuck a notepad in your pocket, and step outside. Hell, even sitting on my back porch brings ideas! (Though I really think you need to go further) When storms roll in and lightning dances across the sky – how can that NOT inspire something?

Nature holds fascinating possibilities, and it reconnects you to the world in which you exist. If you gain inspiration AND recharge yourself – how can you NOT take that chance? Give it a try – you won’t regret it.

Two Little Words

Two Little Words

Skull image with "What if" questions
Image by John Hain from Pixabay

I am going to hand you the keys to the kingdom, the magical secret to an infinite supply of writing ideas – no matter what genre you write in (okay, if you’re aiming for autobiographies or non-fiction, you’re out of luck – but, as I’ve mentioned before, those people aren’t likely visiting this blog). Like all dramatic secrets, it’s exceedingly simple, and you’ll kick yourself if you haven’t already been exploiting it:

What if…

That’s it! So simple and yet so amazing! Those two little words are a crazy gold mine of inspiration! You can apply them across the fictional board, creating pages of story ideas that span from flash fiction up to novel-worthy lengths. After all, we know writers have a surfeit of imagination, so it takes very little effort on our part to start wondering things. Let me demonstrate.

What if a fairy tale was swapped to a science fiction setting? Disney pulled it off beautifully with Treasure Planet (such an under-appreciated film). I’ve done so myself: my short story “Glissando” is a retelling of the “The Nightingale.” Yeah, it takes WORK to transplant something that is so well-known into a different setting, but it you’re willing to take on the challenge, the reward is worth it.

What if you swap the protagonists and antagonists in a well-known story? Neil Gaiman did an amazing job in “Snow, Glass, Apples.” Again, it takes a deft hand to flip an established story in the mirror (no pun intended), but who doesn’t relish a challenge? Best of all, it gives you a chance to explore the background of the antagonist, to give them motives and sympathy – something overlooked in those fond fairy tales.

(Side note: fairy tales get a lot of mention here – sorry, not sorry)

What if the story didn’t end where the author left off? What if there was something left out? What if there wasn’t a “happily ever after” after all? You can take something bright and glittery and turn it dark if you have the mind. Personally, I despise “Snow White and Seven Dwarves” – I always have; Snow White is a complete idiot, and I didn’t feel she deserved a happy ending. So in my short story “Everapple” I took it away. In a similar fashion, I really felt there was an injustice done in “The Little Mermaid” – that scheming princess lied and there were no repercussions. How could Hans Christian Anderson let that stand?! In “Sea Foam and Fire” I fixed it. Yes, both of my short stories fall square in the dark fantasy category, but they came out of my asking, “What if…”

You can do the same thing!

Look at the stories that irk you and bother you, and start asking, “what if this..” Now, you can’t violate copyright (which is why fairy tales are a boon since they belong to the public domain), but you can still use them as a starting point. Those two little words will get your inspirational juices flowing, believe me. You can even mine multiple ideas from the same story, depending on how many questions you ask.

Using “what if” for broad questions works, too. I’ve done it for several of my novels, the questions just floating to the surface of my mind out of the blue (play the game often enough, and it’ll happen to you, too – inspiration’s fun that way). “What if there was a version of Neverland for adults?” Bam! – my novel Lethe started breathing. “What if the villain was the main character and you built sympathy in the reader from the start?” And Confessions of a Teenage Villain (title still pending – titles I’m never sure of until I’m well into the novel) came to life. “What if depression was a living, breathing character?” Suddenly, that vague idea I couldn’t figure out turned into Oubliette.

Those two words are a reader’s dream. Whenever you hit a brick wall, sit down and start asking, “What if…” and just write out the questions. Something will strike your writing brain in just the right way, and you’ll be zooming along in no time. You’ll be amazed at how many questions you can think of (and the kinds of questions you’ll come up with – believe me, I scare myself on a regular basis).

Two words – unlimited inspiration. Give it a try.

Written Word

Written Word

One of my personal bookcases.

Look at the image above and tell me what you see – what you really see if you look close. I could get dozens of answers, but I doubt I’ll get the one I’m looking for. Yes, there are all of the following:

  • Pictures
  • Stuffed toys
  • Old type-set tiles (if you actually said that you have incredible eyes…or you’ve been in my house, and I might be a little scared if I don’t know you)
  • Books

Those are easy answers, though, and they aren’t answers stated by true writers. What do I see?

A million possible story ideas.

Okay, yes, there are hundreds of stories sitting right, there – I know that (and, yes, I have hundreds of books. I refuse to subscribe to that nonsense that you should own less than thirty books; that is absolute crap). What I’m talking about is the fact that each one of those books contains the possibility of sparking hundreds of ideas in and of themselves. Not the fact that each story is based on a story itself – we all know that there are no original stories – but the actual words themselves.

Every written word!

Crazy, right? It’s true, though! I have seen a word or phrase in a book and felt that shiver of inspiration go through me. In the past month, reading two different books, I have felt the spark for THREE different short stories from just a handful of WORDS! The words weren’t even integral to the plots of what I was reading! Something in the order they were arranged connected the right synapses in my writing brain, though, and BAM! Idea central!

It can be that simple if you stop and think about it. After all, writers and first and foremost READERS. We’re fascinated by words (if we weren’t we wouldn’t be writers). We’re drawn to words like magnets, and we focus on them everywhere around us. I have friends who came up with stories after seeing signposts along the road!

So before you do something insane like whittle your book collection down because some insane person thinks thirty is a rational limit (seriously?! Only thirty?!), think about what you could be sacrificing. There is inspiration potential lurking on those shelves, waiting to be found. If you give that up for the sake of…okay, I can’t think of any reason a person would sacrifice that kind of gold mine. Seriously, there is always somewhere you can stack up more books. Get rid of something you don’t need like extra shoes or clothes.