Where do the “big” creative ideas come from? As we all know, there isn’t a simple answer to this question. We all gather inspiration from different places. Maybe we find ideas from people watching or a dramatic report or scene on television. Perhaps you picked up on an archetype that fascinates you in a particular genre. Or maybe you are drawn to fascinating people from the past. If you are someone who falls into this latter category and loves to write all things historical, there are several productive ways to kickstart your imagination if you are struggling for an idea. (But these tips can work for any genre, really!)
One great place to look for inspiration is your own family tree. Even if you can only go back a generation or two, there are so many things you can learn that could lead to your next great idea. Simply finding a census with information about your great-grandparents (or, really anyone) can lead you to construct plot lines in your head. For example, when I was researching my family history, I discovered all kinds of stories, from tales of hardship on the frontier to conflicts between family members when they fought on opposing sides during the Civil War. Census records and historical documents also led me to a fifth-great-grandfather who came from Spain in the 1700s, settled in Pensacola, and worked as a surgeon for the Spanish army. Through searching a bit more through various books and newspaper articles, I discovered much about this man’s personal life (which was quite tumultuous), and suddenly I started to get to know this person a bit more in my head. Though I can’t learn everything about him, and though I wouldn’t necessarily use him as a character in a book, the details I discovered about his life definitely led to sparking my imagination about ways I could create other characters. But even if you can’t find out a lot of information about someone, the smallest details can be enough. Census records, obituaries, letters, photos, army records, family stories--all of these things can lead you down a creative path to discovering your next great character or plot.
Along the same lines, a trip to the antiques store can also help you if you are stuck in a rut. There are all kinds of fascinating things in antiques stores--old photos, letters, and magazines, just to name a few. Old photos are great visuals to help you start to imagine a story. What was going on in the subjects’ heads when the photo was taken? If it shows a couple, were they newly married? Do they look happy? What could have led to their marriage? What challenges had they faced in life? Every detail of the photo can lead to character formation. For example, how are they dressed? What is the background like? Are they wearing jewelry? What do their eyes tell you? Of course, a lot of this could be speculative, but that doesn’t matter. You are just fishing for inspiration! Another fun source for potential ideas is old books--especially if you find one with lots of marginalia. Each time I find a book with writing in it, I always wonder about the person who wrote the comments. What were they thinking? What provoked them to underline something or to write out something personal in the margins? Usually I end up creating some kind of plot line centered around a mysterious love affair--but you get the point.
Museums are also wonderful places to look for inspiration. Because I am part of a romance writer’s group in Alabama, I have to give a shout out to the new Museum of Alabama at the Alabama Department of Archives and History. This place is amazing, and there are so many personal objects to see that remain as relics of fascinating stories. You can look at clothing worn by people over a century ago, study an authentic Civil War surgical kit (yikes!), view artifacts from the Industrial and Civil Rights eras, and discover many other things that all tell individual stories about someone. And you can find things like this in any museum, of course. The key is you have to be curious and not separate yourself from what is in the glass case--something that is all too easy to do when we go to museums! So, take your time. Slow down, and really try to imagine the person behind the object.
Imagination and finding the next big idea depends on curiosity, I think. Sometimes we need a little help with that aspect of the process, especially when “normal” life and day jobs and everyday concerns tend to take us away from the frame of mind that allows creative inspiration and curiosity. And though I have been discussing inspiration for historical romance/historical fiction authors in particular, these ideas can be useful for anyone. It is time to fire up your curiosity and get your imagination going! Most importantly, have fun! Just let your imagination run wild so that you can find your next big idea.
Susan Sierra is a historical and contemporary romance writer. She loves books and old letters, adores her dog and family, and has a deep and committed love affair with coffee. She spent time as an undergraduate studying (having fun) in Mexico, went on to work for a large regional magazine as a copyeditor, and then decided that she hadn’t tortured herself enough in life...so she went to graduate school. After many years, she walked away with a PhD and an unhealthy relationship with Charles Dickens. She hopes to complete her first full-length novel in 2015.
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