Writing Inspiration: Where Do Writers Get Their Ideas?

Magic Beyond Words
Magic Beyond Words, TV movie about J.K. Rowling’s earlier life and the creation of Harry Potter up to the film release of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Originally released by Lifetime, image retrieved from IMDb

Nothing is more mystifying than inspiration. Inspiration for all art–paintings, sculpture, film, writing–seems to come from nowhere. We’ve all read books, stories, and poems which make us wonder how the writer could have possibly thought to write them in the first place. The origins of our favorite books captivate us. I can’t tell you how often I watch Magic Beyond Words: The J.K. Rowling Story. We want to learn more about our favorite writers’ inspiration in the hopes that they could help us find our own.

I won’t pretend to speak for all writers. We may claim to know where other writers get their ideas but we don’t. Honestly, we don’t always know the source of our ideas.

There’s only one thing I can say with any confidence: if they can find inspiration, so can you. As proof, let me tell you about my own experience with finding inspiration.

I seem to get my ideas from the most random places. As an undergrad, my mind drifted during class much more often than I am willing to admit. I doodled in the margins of my notebook, worked on essays from other classes, and listened to my professors just enough to know when I needed to jot something down. As I zoned, I would retreat into my imagination, allowing myself to become submersed in elaborate worlds. Sometimes I would leave class with a plot, other times with new character histories, and others with an entire scene written.

Sitting through lectures, at the movies, taking walks, I find inspiration whenever I can let my mind drift from the present.

Find isn’t the right word. I don’t actively look for inspiration. In fact, writing inspiration alludes me when I attempt to chase it down. The ideas must come to me. They find me, not the other way around.

External conditions aside, inspiration finds me most when I’m reading or watching TV and movies. I’m not talking solely about fiction. Academic articles, news reports, documentaries, fiction and nonfiction alike inspire me when I’m reading/watching it. Why? It’s all thanks to the “what if” impulse.

What if the Confederacy had won the Civil War?

What if the Four Horsemen became American politicians?

What if the Roswell UFO and Kelly’s “Little Green Men” were connected by more than the “supposed alien sighting” factor?

This impulse isn’t limited to “what if” questions or to what I watch and read. Why, who, and how, what I hear and what I live, they all spark my imagination.

Why might aliens have such large eyes?

How did so many branches of my family end up in California?

What if the legend about Lemurians in Mount Shasta isn’t a legend? (Check out this link if you haven’t heard this story. It’s humorous, ridiculous, and intriguing all at once.)

Natural writing inspiration
It’s hard not to be inspired by beauty like this, and I can see why people think there’s something mythical happening in that mountain.

Sunrise on Mount Shasta, picture by Michael Zanger, retrieved from Mount Shasta Wikipedia entry

Inspiration comes from everything and nothing. What inspires a writer once may not inspire him/her again. That which annoyed a writer once may become the catalyst for his/her next novel. You never know what could spark your imagination. All you can do is read, watch, and experience everything to the fullest in the hopes that something, no matter how obscure, will catch your attention and send inspiration your way.

I’ll write more on what inspires me in future posts. In the meantime, where does your writing inspiration originate? Discuss it in the comments or email me and you might be featured in an installment of “Writing Inspiration”.


Stephanie's Logo
Designed by Stephanie Hoogstad circa 2011


ALA Frequently Challenged Books List

I should probably wait until Banned Books Week to write this post but recent discussions about the media and “fake news” have planted the topic of censorship firmly in my mind. I will still be addressing Banned Books Week in September. However, I didn’t want to wait over five months to talk about the American Library Association’s Frequently Challenged Books.

For those who aren’t familiar with this list and/or wish to see which books made it this year, here’s a link to the ALA website.

I have been following this list since high school. I stumbled across the site while preparing a presentation on the first amendment and censorship and got a kick out of the books that had been challenged. Ever since, I’ve revisited the list for updates and when I’ve needed a good laugh. Every time I read it, I feel a mixture of outrage and amusement. Sometimes I even skim it for new books to read.

First Edition Cover of Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, art by Joe Pernaciaro, published by Ballantine Books, picture retrieved from Fahrenheit 451 Wikipedia Entry

Everything from children’s books to literary classics have been challenged. My personal favorite is Fahrenheit 451, which is number 69 on the Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books: 2000-2009.

What’s even funnier than the books are the reasons why they’re challenged. “Offensive language”, “sex education”, “inaccuracy”, the list goes on and on. Did you know that Captain Underpants made the list for being “unsuited for age group”? That Bridge to Terabithia was accused of occult/Satanism? That The Holy Bible was challenged for “religious viewpoint”?

If nothing else, the trends among the challenges reveal what is most on the minds of Americans the year(s) the data is gathered. That information in and of itself is invaluable. A wide variety of professionals can utilize these trends, from politicians to sociologists to, yes, writers.

I don’t mean to offend anyone by finding the challenges and the reasons behind them humorous. I have my own very strong viewpoints and I accept that everyone is entitled to their beliefs. I don’t want to hinder that. However, this respect deserves similar treatment in return.

Goosebumps series by R.L. Stine made the Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books of 1990-1999 and 2000-2009

Published by Scholastic, picture retrieved from Amazon

There is no excuse for censoring literature. Literature always has and always will offend people. We can criticize it all we want. That’s the flip side of free speech. Nevertheless, that does not mean that we should restrict other reader’s access to these writings. We should be in control of what we read. If we stumble across something which offends us or strikes a nerve, well, lesson learned. Don’t read that book/story/whatever again. It doesn’t mean that you should force others to follow your lead. Everyone deserves the chance to decide what they do and do not want to see. Besides, you never know what you are missing if you do not explore controversial works for yourself.

I can hear the counterargument already: what if I don’t want my children to read it?

Yeah, what if you don’t want your children to read it? I suppose that you’ll have to pay attention to your children, talk to them about what they’re reading, and teach them what is and is not OK to read. Let them ask you questions. Try and explain why you don’t want them to read something. As they grow older, expand your conversations to allow them to tell you what their beliefs are becoming. You could both discover new writings and new ideas. You could grow as people together.

The wonderful thing about literature is that there’s no end to the ideologies represented and no limit to what you can find. Don’t restrict the possibilities because you’re afraid of an idea. If you don’t want to read it, that’s fine. Don’t read it. If you don’t want your children to read it, open a dialogue with them so they know what you don’t want them reading and why.

Remember, limiting your reading list limits your brainpower.

Were you surprised by any of the books on the list? Angered? Humored? Were you surprised that a book wasn’t challenged a certain year? Let us know in the comments.

And if you enjoyed this article, feel free to share it by clicking one of the links below this post. Also remember to subscribe to our email notifications to keep up-to-date on happenings at The Writer’s Scrap Bin.

Designed by Stephanie Hoogstad circa 2011

Stephanie’s Master’s Degree Adventures: Editing without Ruining

For the past two weeks I’ve been participating in my program’s second writing forum. Here, in a nutshell, are what these writing forums consist of: students are divided into groups in which they stay for the entire year, they post stories for feedback, and the students and supervising tutor give feedback on all the stories. The second week, as people are wrapping up their initial feedback, students ask/answer questions about the feedback and the tutor posts topics for general discussion. If they have finished their initial feedback, students can post general discussion topics as well.

This time I posed a question for my fellow writers: how do you change aspects of a story without ruining the parts that readers liked?

I have wrestled with this issue most of the academic year. The pressure has only gotten worse as the May 31st deadline for our portfolio inches closer. Well, “inches” takes the urgency from it. It’s more like how objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.

Since the deadline has gotten so close, I’ve begun to edit and rewrite the stories that I plan to include in my portfolio. The most prominent problem at the moment is that two of my stories have a very distinct feel that the readers enjoy. In attempting to address the weaker points of the story, I’m afraid that I will shatter that which makes the readers enjoy the stories already. I liken this conundrum to playing Jenga: if you remove or alter one piece, the whole structure may come tumbling down.

I know I’m not the only writer struggling with this issue. That’s why I want to discuss the answers I received on the forum.

Their advice boils down to four simple points: trust your intuition, do what’s best for the story, step away, and save your revisions.

  1. Trust Your Intuition: If something in the story doesn’t feel right to you, there’s a reason. You know what you want for your work. External feedback points you to weak spots and helps put you on the right path but at the end of the day, it’s still your story. Did your readers suggest alterations to the dialogue that felt artificial when you put the advice into practice? Step away to give yourself some space and then take another look at it. Did your readers really like a scene in your story but you don’t feel that it fits with the newer version? You’ll have to decide which is better for the story, that scene or the entirety of the revision. Deep inside you sits your inner writer, the one that is connected with the essence of all your writing, and if he/she starts telling you that something isn’t right, you need to listen. It may conflict with feedback but it’ll be worth the risk. You can always start over again.
  2. Do What’s Best for the Story: This idea seems obvious but, in fact, it’s often forgotten. We end up worrying more about what the readers want than what will help our stories become what they should be. Readers and their opinions are important but, as I said in #1, you have to trust your intuition. You can’t make your gay character straight just because your target audience wants. You have to ask yourself, will it make the story better? Or worse? If a reader suggests adding exposition to the dialogue, you have to decide if it will weaken the integrity of the narrative. You won’t be able to please everybody. Your only real obligation is to the story and your inner writer.

    Quote retrieved from Goodreads
  3. Step Away: I’m going to give you this advice a lot. Might as well get used to that right now. In this case, I was given this advice by the published writer supervising my program’s forum. We read our own pieces to death. Our objectivity all but disappears and we risk missing weak points that objective readers see instantly. We skim over spelling errors, holes in continuity, and flat out bad writing. Almost more importantly, we become bored by our own work and so we don’t know when we’re bored with ourselves and when something will genuinely lose the reader. Robert Frost once said, “No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.”
  4. Save Your Revisions: I made this point bold and red because I cannot stress it enough. Keep copies of all working drafts. Our tutor also recommended labeling them clearly and/or using track changes. Every time I make a change that isn’t very small or I make several small changes that add up to a significant change, I save it as a new file. I have five to seven copies of one story on my computer at any given time. Trust me, when you suddenly decide that you’re writing from the wrong character’s perspective and attempt to rewrite nine-tenths of the story, you’ll be happy to have those earlier drafts. Don’t think that it’s only with major changes like that for which you’ll need copies. You may decide that you liked how a sentence was worded the first time but you don’t remember it exactly. Maybe there’s a small gesture by a character that you removed, thinking it insignificant, only to realize that it was much more important than you first thought. You’ll hate yourself if you have that sort of epiphany but not the earlier draft to refer to.

Revisions and implementing feedback are rarely easy. (I’ll go more into revisions and feedback in future posts.) Despite what common sense may dictate, fewer or smaller edits do not necessarily mean the process is easier. Instead, you find yourself in the limbo of “I need to change this but changing this may ruin that.” There’s no clear-cut answer. However, the four points above are a good place to start.

If you remember nothing else from this post, remember this: SAVE YOUR REVISIONS.

Have any ideas for making small edits without destroying your stories big time? As always, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.


Designed by Stephanie Hoogstad circa 2011

Friday Fun-Day Writing Prompt: And Then the Murders Began

Welcome to another regular feature on The Writer’s Scrap Bin: Friday Fun-Day. Every Friday I’m going to dedicate at least one post to something fun, like interesting facts about a famous writer, literary crosswords, etc.

Today’s Friday Fun-Day post is a writing prompt. Three or so weeks ago my mother brought to my attention a particularly entertaining trend on Twitter. Marc Laidlaw tweeted “The first line of almost any story can be improved by making sure the second line is, ‘And then the murders began.'” As you can imagine, Twitter had a lot of fun with this concept, taking famous first lines and following them with “And then the murders began.” Thus #LaidlawsRule began.

In addition to getting a kick out of the tweets, I was inspired to create a new writing prompt.

Find a generic, horrible first line and add “And then the murders began” or some variation of it. Use this combination as the opening to a story and keep writing.

I haven’t had the time to fully pursue my idea yet, but I will put the opening as an example:

“Around here, strawberries don’t ripen until late spring. And then the murders begin.”

Make the first line as hilariously terrible as you can. Have fun, roll with it. When you’re done, post your opening in the comments. I’d love to see what everyone comes up with.


Designed by Stephanie Hoogstad circa 2011

Contest from Writer’s Digest

Happy Friday! The weekend is here (well, technically). I’ve decided to start the day with a brief announcement about a contest via Writer’s Digest.

It involves writing a very short story (maximum 700 words) for the picture prompt that they provide on the site. If you win, your story will be published in an issue of the magazine under their “Your Story” section. Deadline is April 10th.

Follow this link for the full details:

Your Story #81: Submit Now!

Remember, “short” doesn’t mean “easy,” so be sure to give it your best. It will be good practice in writing and competition submission. Good luck!


Designed by Stephanie Hoogstad circa 2011