Of the many places I frequent online, Warren Ellis’ Whitechapel forum is one of the places I haunt the most. Warren is one of the moderators and is a frequent contributor over there despite his busy schedule. Occasionally he will put up “Interrogation of Warren Ellis” threads where members of the posting public can ask him questions about himself, his work, and other random stuff. Sometimes he answers, sometimes he doesn’t, and sometimes he can’t (when it pertains to his work), but when he does I find many of his answers interesting.
One time he was asked about where and how he gets his inspiration for his work. Warren described his process as he reads, a lot, taking in vast amounts of data on topics that interest him and then lets that information sit and stew and percolates until ideas for stories start bubbling to the surface. Considering the things he’s posted on his own website (warning, do not click the “Conan, What is Best In Life” posts unless you’re not at work and have a strong stomach) and Whitechapel, and his description of the size of his RSS feed list, it’s not difficult to see where he gets his ideas. I thought that method of generating inspiration through stew-like absorption and combination was interesting and it led me to consider where my inspiration comes from.
In several ways the methods that I use to come up with ideas are similar to Warrens. I try to read a fair amount of both fiction and non-fiction in areas that I find interesting and also simply to broaden my horizons. Whether it’s researching the Great Plague and Fire of London in 1665-1666, period fencing styles of the Renaissance, Viking burial methods or the latest in research in AI or cybernetics/prosthetics, I try to take it all in. Why? Simply put, while some people may be may be originally creative all on their own and able to self-generate their inspiration with different degrees of ease, I find that information is like fuel for inspiration’s fire; the more you know the more you’ll be able to draw on and use.
Some story ideas are built off of what I see around me. Sometimes I might see a person walking past me on the street and I’ll find myself wondering about them, who they are, where they’re going and why and from all of that a story grows. Maybe I’ll see a piece of graffiti on the wall and wonder about who painted it, where did they get their inspiration from, or some piece of public art might help create an idea inside me. I know that I find myself passing through most days seeing without really looking at what’s around me and it’s taken some effort to force myself to really pay attention to what’s going around me beyond “Am I about to get hit by that bus?” The world has a lot of potential to generate story ideas (my friend Jennifer Brozek says “I see story ideas. All the time. Just walking around like normal ideas. They don’t know they’re stories.”). You simply have to discover the point-of-view you want to take in looking at the world and practice at really seeing it.
I draw a fair amount of inspiration from music or the sounds of the world around me, whether it’s a line from a song that forms the core of a story or the emotions that are created when I listen to a particular track. Music is especially useful for setting the tone of what I’m writing in the moment. I don’t usually write with music playing, I prefer there to be as close to silence as I can get it because, I’ll admit, I’m easily to distract but sometimes it helps, rather than hinders. For instance, if the scene I’m working on is a fast-paced, running gun fight I might put on some industrial music, figuring out the flow of words to the timing and tune of the hard driving beat. Those times don’t happen that often but when they do the story just flows really well, almost effortlessly.
Sometimes inspiration comes from the writings of others. Maybe they didn’t take an idea in a particular direction and so I work up my own story that was inspired by what I saw as a potentially missed opportunity in someone else’s work. Perhaps in reading something I’ll go “Hey, what if these characters were like this, would they have reacted in this situation?” Other times I’ll read a person’s work and go off and write my own story but try and emulate their style to see what might work for me and what might not.
Finally, sometimes inspiration just…shows up. I’m not certain where it comes from. Maybe my subconscious is looking at everything around me, putting things together in such a way that it’s like a light turns on when the idea finally floats to the surface, hours or sometimes days later.
One thing I have noticed about inspiration, whether you draw it from a number of places or from one particular thing (such as music); it feels like inspiration is a muscle. The more you strive to find inspiration, the easier it gets to come up with story seeds to write on and explore. If I can judge this idea by my story output over the last few years, I would say that it’s an accurate analogy as each year I’ve had more stories started and more stories finished. For instance, by the end of this month I should finish three short stories and complete fifteen thousand words on my novel. If I’m able to do that I will have completed 1/5 of the total amount of short story projects started last year and 1/3 of the short stories finished.
In the first month of 2011.
So, if sometimes it feels like drawing inspiration from something is like attempting to squeeze blood from a stone, keep trying. It does get easier over time.
Where do you get your inspiration from? Tell me.