Inspiration Without Experience

Photo Credit: Writer’s Block II by Drew Coffman

If you’re a writer (and even if you’re not) you may often find yourself drawn to an object, place, or person. If you’re like me, you describe them mentally, right there on the spot.

“Can I take your order?” she asked me, the pimpled specks of purple and white across her chin straining. 

“I need a minute,” the stunning customer replied. She tried not to stare, tried not to picture the pimpled face hanging over her food. The cashier must have put the hair net on six hours ago at least, greasy strands poking up like a porcupine ready to quill–my poor french fries.

“Seriously, lady, you okay?” pimple-face was on to me. Oh no, they’ve all noticed I’m a crazy person. Speak, speak, you weirdo author, speak!

“YEAH, ARE YOU OKAY?” whomp whomp whomp…

Awkward moments aside, it’s the mark of a good writer (so I’ve read) to observe and exercise narration whenever possible.

I have been saving a gem about a bus window since the 8th grade, no joke. And I have more random pictures of interesting architecture and surreptitious captures of unwitting citizens than you could describe in a lifetime. You can bet that nearly every character I create I’ve met in some greater or lesser degree, with some fabrications, of course.

What do you do when you don’t have first-hand experience? Or movie-hand experience?

What if the character is an alien that must live off a previously unidentified gas or form of life? What if the scene is a murder scene involving futuristic weapons, or medieval weapons? What if I’ve never seen the place where my story is going?

Few writers have an imagination capable of pure fabrication out of thin air; H.P. Lovecraft was inspired to write Call of Cthulu by recent developments in marine biology and the folklore of ancient cultures.

If there were all the time in the world to craft one masterful story over the course of a lifetime, then imagination would be sufficient. If you’re serious about writing, you don’t have the time.

I don’t have the time.

As a writer of science fiction and horror, I spend most of my writing time in imagined worlds, but with a goal of 4,000 words a week (lightweight) I don’t have the luxury to spend all my time there.

Great writing, in my opinion, is not a recitation of facts, of what I’ve seen put down with exactness, it’s a bending and embellishment of fact-based ideas. What do I do when my brain is feeling feeble from all the forceful reaching? From trying to turn my memory of a toad into a full-scale alien lifeform? I hunt and steal for inspiration.

Stealing from Others

Flickr, Google Images, and Pinterest are my go-to sites for imagination stimulation. Of the three, Pinterest is the most helpful for me. Let me explain.

Flickr and Google Images require targeted search queries and have limited flexibility. Google Images is helpful if you need assistance describing one exact factual object, but otherwise it’s a mood-buster for me.

Pinterest is by far the most inspiring site for visual images. Your search term can be vague and still be effective because Pinterest scrolls through hundreds of semi-matching pictures. As you click on one, more images are recommended, narrowing the criteria through imagery alone and not through words. From the first clicked image, I worked quickly to this point:

Screenshot 2018-04-02 at 12.52.01.png

Several of these images boost my own imagination. Before, it was a haze of colors and vague ideas, now it’s more concrete. And it doesn’t look like any of these images. But they got me in the ballpark.

Pinterest is more about maintaining the creative flow. I may start looking for ideas about life on a spaceship and come out with a setting for an unrelated story.

Another advantage of Pinterest is the ability to use boards. I have several secret boards for stories I’m working on.

Why You Should Keep a Pinterest Board (or Two)

  • Research
    • Pinterest links to corners of the Internet you likely wouldn’t have found on the first few pages of a Google search. Following down conspiracy theory roads yields innovative twists to your stories.
  • Overcome Writer’s Block
    • Stuck in a scene? Mess around searching for different related images and you’ll find a new path or something else will click.
  • Get into the Writing Mood
    • I have three different stories being actively worked on. By keeping a separate board with images related to the stories I can scroll through them and instantly feel myself drop into the appropriate world. Transitioning from one story to the next is easier, as is picking up where I left off.

Taking a walk, taking a nap (yes!), and hunting through the limitless world of online images are my favorite ways of bringing freshness and ingenuity to my writing.

What are your secrets to imaginative world-building? Tell me in the comments. 

2 thoughts on “Inspiration Without Experience

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  1. Yes! This is what I do. Other than the actual writing down of things. So many pinned images of random shtuff for a later day…

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