Posts Tagged ‘inspiration’

I watch a lot of YouTube videos, both to relax and to provide writing inspiration. One of my current favourite channels is PBS Space Time, where astrophysicist host Gabe Perez-Giz explores some often crazy questions about space. I love the combination of bizarre topics with real science, which is very fertile ground for science fiction ideas. Here are two of my recent favourites – ‘Could you fart your way to the Moon?’ and ‘Could NASA start the zombie apocalypse?’

One day, maybe we can all fart our way to the moon.

When I go on holiday, even though I leave the writing behind I always find myself stumbling across inspiration. Of note this time…

Walking with (slightly unconvincing) dinosaurs, great for ideas for monsters.

Walking with (slightly unconvincing) dinosaurs, great for ideas for monsters.

One scientist's idea of intelligent life evolving from dinosaurs. Star of some future story.

One scientist’s idea of intelligent life evolving from dinosaurs. Star of some future story.

Dorchester's teddy bear museum, a place of the uncanny and terrible puns.

Dorchester’s teddy bear museum, a place of the uncanny and of many terrible bear-related puns. For any Thomas Hardy fans out there, this is the family of the Bear of Casterbridge. Because Bear = Mayor, and Casterbridge was based on Dorchester. Funny, right? Right? Why are you not laughing? I did.

Why yes, a soft toy of an infamous sadist sounds like an excellent idea. That's an inspiringly wrong juxtaposition of elements.

Why yes, a soft toy of an infamous sadist sounds like an excellent idea. That’s a brilliantly wrong juxtaposition of elements.

A tree with a scarf. I love it when random creativity escapes into the world like this.

A tree with a scarf. I love it when random creativity escapes into the world like this.

Not story inspiration but I made all my old Lego! And half my brother's! So much fun.

Not story inspiration but I made all my old Lego! And half my brother’s! And a new set I bought! So much fun.

Finally, the best cheesecake I've ever tasted, and I eat a lot of cheesecake. If you're ever in Dorchester, check out the Old Tea House.

Finally, the best cheesecake I’ve ever tasted, and I eat a lot of cheesecake. If you’re ever in Dorchester, check out the Old Tea House.

Boy, I'm glad that's not ominous.

Boy, I’m glad that’s not ominous.

There are a lot of different ways you can use randomisation to inspire writing. Phillip K Dick famously used the I Ching to guide him in writing The Man in the High Castle. I’ve dabbled with story dice and flicking through books to pick a word or picture. And this week podcast Writing Excuses used the I Ching both to generate questions and to create a writing prompt.

The Exercise

Randomly generated using the I Ching, this week’s writing prompt is:

Competing fiercely to become Spring’s queen, the garden flowers blossomed to their full beauty. Who will win the golden crown of glory? Among them all, only the peony stands out.

For me, creativity requires structure as well as chaos. To give this prompt a bit more structure, I decided not to use it to generate something from scratch, but to build on a story idea I’m already working on for this week’s flash Friday piece.

My starting place for the story was inspired by my friend Marios, who was talking about people having to present their academic theses on human skin – more specifically their own skin. It’s an intriguingly grizzly idea, and one that puts limits on what the characters write too. But beyond that high concept, I’ve got nothing for the story. Lets see what this prompt gives me.

Flowers and Competition

The obvious thing is the flowers. My character’s academic field is going to be botany. That opens up potential to look at strange, fantastical plants and their uses.

Conflict is also clearly present in that I Ching passage. The flowers are competing for the one place of high status. I’m going to transfer that dynamic onto the academics of my story. We have two botanists competing for a top prize, job or bursary. Only one can win through the glory of their work. Who will it be?

So, with two minutes’ thought, this random prompt has given me my conflict and some information about both my characters – I doubt I’ll have space for more than two in this flash story. That’s pretty good going.

The Joy of Chaos

I think that these random idea generators work so well at times because they give us rough edges to generate ideas off. The ideas we dream up can sometimes be neat but without the complex or contradictory details that bring stories to life. Randomness adds that.

Do any of you have favourite random idea generators? What are they, and how helpful are they?

And of course you can come back on Friday to see how this story pans out.

Picture by Payton Chung via Flickr creative commons.

I’ve fallen behind on the exercises from the course Writing Excuses are running. Fortunately for me, my favourite writing podcast still includes a wildcard episode once a month not related to the course, so by skipping those I’ll hopefully catch up. I know I have quite a few readers who are doing the course, so how are you folks getting on?

This week I’m catching up on the exercise from episode 10.4, a Q&A on generating ideas. The exercise is:

Take one of the ideas you’re excited about, and then audition five different characters for the lead role in that story. Make sure they’re all different from each other.

I’ve chosen a story I’m considering for a future flash Friday, returning to the weird western world of ‘Straight Poker‘. I want to expand on that setting by giving other games magical power. In particular, I thought that the Plains Indian act of ‘counting coup‘ by touching an opponent in battle would make an interesting magical rite.

If I had more time, I’d ‘audition’ characters for this story by writing a chunk of it with each of them. As it is, I’ll stick with discussing their merits as central characters. So…

A young Plains Indian brave: This character has obvious advantages. This could be his first chance to prove himself, counting coup against an opponent either on the battlefield or in some other tense setting. It’s clearly identifiable as a coming of age thing. It’s probably who I would have chosen without this exercise. Maybe a bit too obvious.

A rancher against whom coup is counted during an attack, thus laying a curse on him: Having an outside perspective makes it easier to retain mystery around the magic, but also makes it harder to explore it in a small number of words. Victims make good central characters if they fight back against their status, but can be too passive. Also, I’m not sure I want to fall into the old ‘cowboys good, Indians bad’ trap. And speaking of traps, I realised as I wrote this that I’d automatically made the rancher male, when a woman would be more unusual and therefore interesting. Bad Andrew, perpetuating the patriarchy – go invent a better idea.

An old Plains Indian woman: OK, I’ve swung as far as I could from young, white, male protagonist. And the results raise a lot of interesting questions – why would a woman like this want to count coup? what’s her connection to the magic of that act? how can someone old and frail achieve anything in a battle? It’s such a challenge for her, she’s instantly more interesting as a protagonist.

An escaped slave: Ooh, intriguing. Slavery existed alongside some of the conflicts between settlers and Plains Indians. Maybe this woman has learned that she can gain power over her former master by counting coup. Maybe she’s seeking shelter and acceptance in the tribe. Either way, it mixes up the binary cowboys and Indians dynamic often shown in westerns.

A Chinese railroad worker: If I’ve learnt one thing from Hell on Wheels it’s that driving railroad lines across North America caused territorial conflicts with the Plains Indians. The gangs laying rails from the west coast included a lot of Chinese labour, and that could give a very different perspective on this. There’s a clear source of conflict – the railroad – and an innocent worker just trying to feed his family, now caught up in that conflict. Maybe he knows some magic from his homeland, helping me explore this setting some more.

There we go, five ideas. I’m really glad I tried this exercise, as the first couple of characters are definitely the least interesting, and as I pushed myself to come up with various protagonists I realised that they could show me more about the world the story explores. I should do this more often.

Now I just have to decide which one to use – anybody got any thoughts on who would be best? Which character intrigues you most?

This also reminded of some of the exercises in Edward de Bono’s How to Be More Interesting. Despite its pompous title, and sometimes pompous tone, de Bono’s book has some good exercises for expanding your creative muscles, and might be worth a look if you’re after more exercises like this.

Did any of you do this exercise? How did you get on? And if you just want to try it now, why not share your ideas in the comments? I’d be fascinated to see what you come up with.

As mentioned in a previous post, the excellent Writing Excuses podcast is running as a free fiction writing course this year. I’m following along, completing the exercises and sharing my results here, and I hope you will too. If you’d like to join in, please feel free to leave your answers to the exercises, or a link to where you’ve written them up, in the comments below.

This week’s episode, titled ‘I Have An Idea, What Do I Do Now?’ discussed developing story ideas once you have them. The exercise is:

Using last week’s five story ideas (or five new ones):

  1. Take two of them and combine them into one story.
  2. Take one and change the genre underneath it.
  3. Take one and change the ages and genders of everybody you had in mind for it
  4. Take the last one and have a character make the opposite choice.

You can see my five ideas in a previous post, and here’s what I did with them for the exercise:

1. Combining:

I decided to combine my second idea, a historical novel about a young bowman’s experience on the Agincourt campaign, with my fourth idea, a science fiction story about trying to police planetary borders. It felt like a suitably challenging pair to combine.

I think that the most interesting way to do this, while keeping plenty of elements from both stories, is to make it about people trying to enforce customs duties along the English Channel during that period, with the sci-fi element becoming a bit of secret history. So these local officials – probably a couple of minor nobles or merchants with official tax-raising positions, along with a local militia – have to struggle with two issues making their life difficult – the huge disruption caused by Henry V’s campaign in France, and strange items they start running across while stopping smugglers. It is gradually revealed that these are extra-terrestrial gadgets, being used by secret societies fighting a private war behind the historical scenes. Someone is running a very different sort of smuggling operation, and things are about to get ugly.

Different characters interpret the devices in different ways, and all struggle to be believed. Someone turns out to be a traitor who’s in on the secret war. Everything comes to a head around the same time that the military campaign does.

2. Change the genre:

I’m changing the genre behind my third idea, a cabal secretly running the world using playing-card-powered magic. Instead of fantasy it becomes science fiction. The people running a future society do so through extremely advanced technology, but they have a limited number of one-shot devices and have lost the ability to make more. The shortage causes bitter competition for this limited resource, in which more and more of the devices are used up. It’s a situation that could bring the whole institution to its knees.

3. Change the ages and genders:

My first idea, about an ageing bureaucracy running a baroque galactic empire, gets a big age switch-around. Now it’s the young who are using ancient traditions and strange practices to exclude older people from any influence or power. After witnessing her wife’s death from neglect at the hands of this failing system, a grandmother sets out to begin a revolution.

4. Change a choice:

As in my original fifth idea, a pair of angry lovers decide to destroy the town that harmed them. But as they begin their rampage, one of them feels a great sense of remorse and tries to stop the other. Soon the lovers are battling each other, one defending the town, the other trying to destroy it.


Reflecting on the exercise:

Even after years of practice, I often still just write the first version of an idea that pops into my head, rather than trying to vary it or take a different angle. This exercise was good for making me move away from obvious choices, and I think that the stories are richer for it. I like that I now have an octogenarian revolutionary protagonist, but I felt like the most interesting shift came in the fourth exercise. Changing a character’s decision also alters their motives and character, as well as the course of the story. It took things in an unexpected direction.

What do you think of my ideas? Do you have any good approaches for refining story ideas? And if you did the exercise how did you get on? Please feel free to leave any comments or your own answers to the exercise below.

Happy writing!

I mentioned on Saturday that Writing Excuses are running this year’s podcasts as a free writing course, with exercises for each lesson. To try to add to what I learn from this, and generate discussion with any of you who are interested, I’m going to post the exercises and what I produce here. No set timetable yet – we’ll see how I get on. If you feel like trying these exercises and sharing the results then I’d love to read them – please put your ideas or a link to them in the comments.

So, a week behind, here are the exercises from the first episode of this course (10.1), and what I came up with:

Write down five different story ideas in 150 words or less. Generate these ideas from these five sources:

From an interview or conversation you’ve had
From research you’ve done (reading science news, military history, etc)
From observation (go for a walk!)
From a piece of media (watch a movie)
From a piece of music (with or without lyrics)

This exercise might not generate the very best ideas you’ve ever had, but it will definitely flex your idea muscles in new ways.

1. From an interview or conversation:

A galactic empire is run by an ageing bureaucracy full of strange customs and traditions in a Gormenghast style. Our protagonist must survive the strange and deadly customs involved in joining this august body before he can bring reform.

This one was inspired by a conversation about reforming Britain’s House of Lords.

2. From research:

The story of a young bowman in Henry V’s army on the Agincourt campaign. He becomes disillusioned with the warrior king he idealised, and with the romance of soldiering, as he sees the unpleasant reality of medieval warfare. The final act sees him plunged into a horrifying sea of mud and bloodshed as the outnumbered English fight for their lives in the famous battle.

This one is kind of cheating. It’s based on research I did for a couple of freelance jobs, and I considered writing it as a novel this year, as it’s the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt. Then I realised I didn’t have time, so I’ll just put the idea here instead.

3. From observation:

A secret cabal of mages govern the world using magic they tap into through playing cards. But each mage can only use each card once, and when they run out their power is gone. Different cards have different powers. The protagonist is a good mage fighting the bad mages, because I am too tired for a more nuanced plot right now.

Based on seeing an ace of clubs lying abandoned in a puddle.

4. From a piece of media:

A border police story, inspired by Canadian police procedural series The Border, except in space. A group of security professionals struggle to stop smugglers, terrorists and annoying tourists crossing the planetary border, in particular a shuttle docking platform on top of a geosynchronous space elevator. Combine it with The Wire-style plots where you get to see and sympathise with both sides of the criminal divide, and every act is politicised.

5. From a piece of music:

A pair of angry lovers prepare to burn down the town that persecuted them before disappearing into the night. It all goes horribly wrong.

Inspired by one of my all time favourite albums, Black Love by the Afghan Whigs, especially the tracks ‘Crime Scene Part 1’ and ‘Going to Town’.

Great song. Shame about the video.

There we go, my ideas. Please feel free to share yours in the comments, or comment on mine – who knows, maybe one day I’ll write one of them.

And go listen to Writing Excuses. It’s great.

La Belle Dame Sans Merci by Sir Frank Dicksee. Image via Wikimedia commons.

No-one ever asks me where I get my ideas from. Why would they? I know lots of smart people, and they understand that ideas come from all over the place. But looking through the stories I’ve assembled in Lies We Will Tell Ourselves I was struck by what a wide range of sources I’d chewed up and spat back out in these short stories:

  • How We Fall – came from a deliberate decision to turn the next two adverts I saw on the side of bus shelters into a story – the adverts were far less classy than what I made out of them.
  • So Cold It Burns – sprang from a couple of paintings I saw in Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, in particular the blighted leaves that hint at sorrow to come in Frank Dicksee’s La Belle Dame Sans Merci – the guitar strumming cousin and his song about an actress is based on my friend Dan and his hilarious Keira Knightly song.
  • Distant Rain – my friend Nick, a naval architect, was telling me all about submarines while at another friend’s wedding, and this is the result (the wedding in question was that of occasional commenter on this blog Jon Taylor, at which I met several people who are now good friends, so it was an auspicious occasion all round).
  • Day Labour – inspired by Kris Drever’s song ‘Harvest Gypsies’.
  • Digits and The Extra Mile – both written for a competition in a magazine with the theme of ‘five’.
  • Second Skin – influenced by working for a company that analysed investments, where I learned about hedge funds and how awful they are.
  • The Harvest – inspired by a chapter in an anthropology book on the subject of agriculture.

The only story where I can’t point at the inspiration is ‘Our Man In Herrje’, and I wrote the first version of that so long ago that the process is lost in the mists of memory.

It’s amazing where you can find inspiration. Where have you found yours recently?

And if you like the sound of any of these stories, you can get them all in Lies We Will Tell Ourselves, free from Amazon until Sunday. Why not give it a go?

Yes, I’m still thinking about NaNoWriMo

As I start planning for NaNoWriMo, I face the crucial question of what to write.

This might sound like an easy decision – I should write what I’m interested in, right?

Well yes, except that loads of things interest me. Steampunk adventures, speculation about bleak or hopeful futures, fantasy worlds of wild magic and stranger creatures, history and alternate history…

When I was focused on short fiction that was fine. I could write a new story every week, pander to all those different interests. But while short fiction’s a great calling card it’s not a great way to make money off fiction, and it’s obviously no good for a 50,000+ word novel. So I need to pick something to focus on.

I have two options I’m seriously considering, and that I need to pick between so that I can start planning.

On the one hand I’m taken with the idea of writing a historical novel around the Battle of Agincourt. It’s a period I know well, so the research I don’t have completed already would be fairly straightforward. I’m really interested in the Middle Ages. I think it could make an interesting story on what it means to become an adult and on the darkness of war. And next year is the 600th anniversary of the battle, which should make such a novel quite marketable in about six months time.

On the other hand there’s a steampunk detective story I’ve been contemplating writing for about a year. I’ve got a notebook half filled with the background of the world. It explores ideas of class, religion and what it means to be human, all of which interest me just as much as strange machines, curious inventors and sprawling industrial cities. And as I have some other steampunk stuff at the editing stage for release early next year, this is more in keeping with the brand I’ve been building.

As you can see, there are both artistic and writing-as-business reasons to go each way. I can write both books eventually, unless something more exciting drags my attention away, but the question is what should I write now? And with so many factors to consider, and so much enthusiasm for both projects, I’m struggling to decide.

So as the core of my small current readership is centred around this blog I thought I’d ask – which do you think I should write? Which book would you be more excited to read?

And how do you decide what to write? Maybe that’ll help me too.

Oh, and for any of you doing NaNoWriMo, I’ve now signed up to their website as gibbondemon – come find me as a writing buddy!

As will be obvious to those of you who’ve been reading From a Foreign Shore, I’m a big fan of the Middle Ages. Like a lot of people who grew up reading about Middle Earth and Narnia, I loved the idea of knights and chivalry and everything that came with them. When I was a kid we’d always visit castles during our summer holidays, running around ruins and playing at King Arthur and Robin Hood.

I specialised in medieval history at university, and that took some of the romance out of it, but not the fascination. Sometimes the past truly is a foreign country, and the deep sense of duty and hierarchy that held up medieval Europe is all the more intriguing for being so different from my own values. Sure, the knightly ideal of chivalry was observed more in the breaking than the following, but it was still an ideal, and one that combined courage, romance and a twisted sort of concern for the people around you.

It helps that the era’s most staggering architectural achievements, its castles and cathedrals, never stopped being awe inspiring. I went to Durham University, and there are few sights more breath-taking than Durham Cathedral seen from below, lit up against the night sky.

The Middle Ages are full of great writing inspiration, from the spectacle of pitched battles to the delicate craft of monks creating illuminated manuscripts, the rough belligerence of Viking raiders to the fragile courage of Joan of Arc. If you’re looking for heroes, villains and strange settings then the medieval has it made.

I’ve grown past the point where the medieval is the only era for me. All of time’s rich tapestry is full of fascinating pickings. But the Middle Ages will always have a special space in my heart.

Now your turn – what’s your favourite period of history, and why?

Inspiration is a funny thing. It’s an idea that we romanticise, especially when talking about the arts. But it’s also a vital artistic tool, and one that we should constantly work on if we can.

Dylan Hearn wrote an interesting piece on his blog about this, and it got me thinking about my views on inspiration. So, because I’m a worse bandwagon jumper than revolutionary France, and because Dylan wanted to hear more from me  on this, here’s my take on how to encourage inspiration.

Muscular metaphors

We have a lot of different models and metaphors for how inspiration works.

Some people see it as a magical, mystical process. Something wild and uncontrollable that strikes out of nowhere.

I don’t buy into that view. Inspiration is something that happens in our brains, and one of the beautiful things about being human is that we can reshape our minds to do better. In fact, I think that mystifying inspiration is dangerous for an author. It implies that it’s something you can’t control, can’t work at and develop. That can give you an excuse not to put the words down – ‘I wasn’t feeling inspired’ – and of course it’s an excuse not to work on becoming more inspired – how can you if it’s not up to you?

I also don’t accept views of inspiration as a finite resource. Like you’ve only got so many great ideas in your head, and when the well runs dry that’s it.

In my view, the best way of understanding your mind’s capacity for inspiration is as something like a muscle. The more you flex it and train it the more it grows. Sure, if you over-use it you can get burned out in the short term, but in the long term you need to stretch it to do better.

Training regime one – the busy brain

One way to encourage your inspiration is through busyness, doing all the things that will get the cogwheels whirring in your head.

Research is one great way to do this, filling you full of facts, bouncing them off each other until they spark new ideas.

Practising coming up with ideas is another good way to develop those inspiration-making muscles. Nick Bentley’s 100:10:1 method is good for pushing yourself further, exhausting the obvious ideas so the great ones come out. Mumaw and Oldfield’s Caffeine for the Creative Mind has exercises for sparking creativity in different ways, and though it seems to be targeted at people in marketing it’s still useful for us mere writers.

And then there are exercises and guides to teach you how to think in different ways. Edward de Bono’s How To Be More Interesting has a terrible title and a sometimes pompous tone. But it also contains a really good breakdown of different ways to expand upon an idea, as well as some exercises to practice developing ideas.

But really what all of this comes down to is practice. However you do it, you should practice coming up with ideas and connections between them, because then more will come.

Training regime two – the quiet brain

Your body needs rest between bouts of exercise, so that it can recover and rebuild itself better, faster, stronger. The same applies to your brain. Spend the whole time busy and it will get overwhelmed.

Take some time to let your brain be quiet and relaxed. Not the distracted sort of relaxed that comes with the TV on, but the empty relaxed. Let your mind wander while you’re walking or washing up. Try emptying out your clutter using mindfulness exercises. Give your brain some peace and quiet.

The thing about that peace and quiet is that it won’t last, and that’s part of why it’s so valuable. Ideas will bubble up unbidden. I came up with the climax of an upcoming novel while driving, my brain drifting while on long straight roads and then ticking over at traffic lights.

Train your brain to come up with ideas, and then give them space in which to emerge.

Just like with this blog

My blogging is an example of this in action. I used to struggle for things to say, but for the past year I’ve written five or six blog posts a week. Now my brain is trained to come up with blog posts and so blogging inspiration strikes all the time. I’ve got a notebook of ideas, and some of the older ones will never see a computer screen because new ones keep flooding in.

So train your brain to be inspired. Don’t just wait for your muse to strike, because that way lies an atrophied inspiration muscle and a very long wait.