Finding Ideas: The Pasteurisation of Stories

Aspiring writers, they tell you only amateurs wait for inspiration.

Real writers establish a routine.

So you make time to write.


But still nothing comes.

You switch from laptop to notebook.

But your page is as blank as your screen.

You think of Tolkien and Rowling.

Did they have the same magical powers they wrote about in their stories?

The thing is, we all have that power.

We’re all human. We all have an imagination.

So how do we tap into it?

When I first started writing, this process was a huge mystery to me.

How could I just sit down and write if I didn’t have ideas?

I discovered you don’t.

Not if you really feel stuck.

While we do need to write regularly if we want to improve, we also need to know when it’s time to look outside ourselves.

A lot of writers are introverts. We treasure our time alone. So much of writing is thinking. But sometimes it’s too easy to get trapped inside our heads.

Of course our minds can be a rich sources of inspiration too. We all have unique life experiences. Even if we don’t want to write about ourselves, memories can be wonderful prompts for short stories or poems.

But even with all these thoughts sloshing around in our heads, we can still get stale. We overthink and become blocked. When this happens, the best thing we can do is step away from our desks.

Change the scenery

If you’re stuck for ideas, try visiting a new place. This doesn’t mean you have to jump on a plane. Where haven’t you been in your home town or city?

I like to visit new museums, galleries and exhibitions. Sometimes a painting will give me an idea for a setting or situation. If you think about it, many artworks are story scenes in themselves. If a picture captures my attention, I’ll start wondering about the people in it and ask myself questions. Who are they? Why are they together? What’s just happened? How are they feeling? What are they going to do next?

Museum objects have the same pull for me. I often find myself speculating about the people who used the items and what their lives were like. Some of my favourite museums are the small, local ones that are not curated. It’s like walking into a garage sale or an antique shop. Information plaques are scarce, but this leaves me free to dream and imagine.

If museums are not your thing, other places work well too. Take a hike in a national park, go to a local market or hop on a bus to a new suburb. Don’t be afraid to try unusual places either. Geraldine Brooks came up with the idea for Year of Wonders while visiting a graveyard in an English village.

Keep moving

Recent studies have suggested there is a connection between exercise and creativity.

Writers have known this for years.

It’s the reason why Charles Dickens’ novels convey such a strong sense of place. Dickens, who suffered from insomnia, used to take long walks around London at night. He even wrote a collection essays about what he saw.

He’s not the only one.

Kurt Vonnegut did push-ups and went swimming.

And Haruki Marakami is a big advocate of running.

There’s a large body of research that shows exercise can help people fight stress and anxiety. Looking at it from this angle, using exercise to fight writer’s block makes perfect sense.

Exercise makes us relaxed. When this happens, all sorts of ideas start to emerge from our subconscious mind. Think about some of the dreams you’ve had. Only this time it’s even better because you’re awake, so you’re more likely to remember them. Just don’t forget your notebook next time you go jogging!

I find that exercise where I don’t have to think works best for me. If I’m counting sets in the gym, I can’t focus on anything else. The sweaty surroundings are not very inspiring either! But if I’m out walking, I’m free to daydream and the scenery is constantly changing.

Yoga’s good too (although I tend to do it my way). When I try to empty my mind, I start thinking about a story I’m working on. I’m supposed to be meditating, but sometimes that’s when I get my best ideas. I let them come. I figure I’m still benefiting from the class, but in a different way.

Next time ideas are trapped in your head, get your body moving. Experiment with different types of exercise and see what works for you.

Look around

Have you ever wondered where Maurice Sendak got the idea for his famous children’s book Where the Wild Things Are?

He based the illustrations of the ‘wild things’ on his relatives. When he was a boy, they would come to lunch every Sunday and say he “looked so good we could eat you up.”

If you’re new to writing, you might be cautious about including family in your stories for obvious reasons. After all, Sendak’s relatives were dead by the time he admitted to this.

But you’ll probably find aspects of your friends and family members creeping into your stories without realising it.

Characters don’t appear from nowhere. The most memorable ones are usually a mixture of people the authors knew or observed. Characters may even contain parts of the writers themselves.

To help this combination process along, spend more time people watching. No need to set aside time to do this. You can easily build it into your day. Take your lunch break in a park or busy café. If you’re travelling, observe your fellow passengers (discreetly of course!) Airports and public transport are full of fascinating characters.

Read other writers’ work

I used to worry that all the good story ideas had been taken.

If you’re writing a mystery, it’s easy to believe that Agatha Christie has used up the best plot twists. But imagine if she’d had the same thoughts. What if she’d decided not to write about Poirot or Miss Marple because Arthur Conan Doyle had ‘done it all’ with Sherlock Holmes?

All the greats borrowed. Stan Lee and J.R.R Tolkien inspired George R.R. MartinTolkien’s stories were influenced by the medieval poem Beowulf. Beowulf’s author was an anonymous man who lived about 1000 years ago. If he were around today, he’d probably tell us he was influenced by earlier tales. He certainly wasn’t the first person in history to write about dragons.

The point here is not that these well-known authors were plagiarising, but rather absorbing elements of what they had read and blending them with their own life experiences, interests and interpretations to create something entirely original. They may not have even been consciously aware of it at the time.

A few months ago, I went to a gelato appreciation class for a friend’s birthday. I was amazed by some of the flavour combinations. OK, so I don’t think chopped tomato goes well with vanilla ice cream, but I can see why other people would love it. Look how popular salted caramel is at the moment.

We all start with the same ingredients.

Don’t be afraid of reading as much as you can, both inside and outside your chosen genre. You never know when you might find the missing ingredient that helps you create your own flavour.

Be patient

When I first started writing, I used to think that a brilliant, fully-formed idea would strike me one day without warning. I’d rush home and wouldn’t be able to stop writing.

While there are stories of this happening, it doesn’t work like this for most authors.

Australian writer Kate Morton captures this on her website where she explains how she thought of the idea for her complex historical novel The Forgotten Garden.

A book is never one idea: it is thousands of tiny idea-fragments, carefully selected and polished, that fit together mosaic-like to form a complete picture. I am a collector of such fragments and inside my mind there sits a great, dusty trunk — wooden and antique, I like to think — into which they are dropped over days, months and years, jumbling together until such time as they are needed. Some are images — snippets that I have glimpsed or gleaned; others are snatched pieces of overheard conversation, facts that I’ve read, issues that I’ve wondered about and puzzled over, and observations of the people whom I’ve met.
— Kate Morton

Sometimes we think we have no ideas, but in reality they’re already there. It’s often about piecing together small sparks of inspiration from different moments. This doesn’t mean we should avoid writing anything until all our ideas have come together. Make a note, so you don’t forget these fragments and then start writing about something else until they’ve had time to develop.

Morton’s description shows us how mysterious the creative process is.

Our minds connect thoughts in different ways.

But we can help the process along by treating it like making ice cream. There’s a kind of pasteurisation going on in our heads as we mix and heat up all of our ideas. As with gelato, our thoughts need time to settle and cool before we can shape them into a narrative.

Sometimes we don’t mix our ideas enough and they come out lumpy. Or they melt as soon as we take them out of the freezer.

But if we’re patient, and keep looking for ingredients in different places, we can all come up with something magical.