5 Sure sources of ideas for creative writing

Among the gamut of creative writing topics and theories, there is an entire ocean of consensus (way beyond the school of thought) that believes that inspiration for a writer is overrated. Across the border, the very talented H.M.Naqvi, author of “Homeboy” and winner of the first DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, famously mentioned in an interview to Express Tribune (dated 9th September 2012) that, “Inspiration is whimsical. But, inspiration doesn’t get books written. You have to sit down every day and work like a carpenter.

So, let’s break down the ‘I’ word.

Inspiration (n) – being mentally stimulated to indulge in a creative pursuit

Or a Writer’s definition (on some days); we’ll call this the other one

Inspiration (n) – the cumulative desertion of all creative muses* leaving the writer in the lurch

So you’d agree, there are days when you encounter the other one, a tool-less-carpenter feeling, if you please. So what do you do? Here are five (tried and tested) sources of ideas that never fail:

1. PEOPLE can inspire creative writing

Did you know that Shrek’s appearance was inspired by a wrestler called Maurice Tillet? And, Sherlock Holmes was inspired by Arthur Conan Doyle’s employer (he was the latter’s clerk), Joseph Bell.

Most writers are self-confessed people-watchers. They observe mannerisms, speech styles, clothing; they survey the presence of little accessories (zodiac ring, moonstone pendant, evil-eye warding pendant) and they sometimes take in a defining feature (eg: sharp nose, pronounced jaw line). And well, those are ideas to add layers to your character.

Your characters develop during and over the creative writing process. So, look around you – the man with a large wart on his face, the lady in a voile saree running to catch that bus or the solemn-looking lady in the cramped ladies compartment with the frown-lines. Pick an element of what you see and tweak it to fit your character.

For instance, the protagonist in my novel has six fingers on her right hand. She constantly fidgets with this when she is nervous (and I have given her enough reason to be) and this fidgeting repeats itself, giving her a defining characteristic. Of course, I had observed that one of the fruit vendors I buy fruit from had six fingers in her right hand.

Word of caution: Observe, don’t stare! And, each person carries with them their own unique problem. Those are ideas too. But, you have to be careful when writing about other people’s problems. You either need to seek permission or rehash it completely and give it a new twist.

2. CONVERSATIONS can trigger creative writing

Eavesdrop. Okay, I need to make a point (another one): This is not a one-stop joint for border-line perverse social interactions. This really is a source of great ideas. What would you think if you heard random snippets of conversation without context? Like these:

“My grandfather is only 41!”
“She is not modern, she is not traditional also. She is, what to say, that intelligent-boring kind.”
“The broom caught fire first” (Firebolt, anyone?)
“My mother says she hates my grandmother but I have to love her”

(Note: These are actual conversations I’ve heard. They dutifully went into my journal)

Well, you could use these in a scene. Send your protagonist on a mummy-papa arranged rendez-vous with a lady before he meets (your other character) his lady love. Let the rendez-vous lady be the not modern, not traditional, intelligent-boring girl. Voila, there’s a scene.

3. THINGS that can generate writing ideas

Have you ever cleaned out a shelf after years (of nagging?)? Did you look at something, disfigured beyond recognition and say, “What is the hell was that?” That, my friend, is an idea. Your character could find the clichéd withered rose in a book of poetry or your badmash ten-year-old character could find the corpse of a spider in a locket.

Look for things that your character could carry or possess – old coins, gadgets, a pile of dog-eared visiting cards (travelling salesman?), photographs of a pet, a suicide note.

Write about it. Describe it: what’s it made of, how many, how new or old, is it dear to your character and why. These little nuggets enhance the reading process.

4. EVENTS can be great sources of inspiration

Ah, these are the hot-beds of ideas for creative writing topics. The cultural context, the setting, the world your character belongs to.

Did that ‘big thing’ you’ve been writing about (the thing that happened to your main character) happen at the resident’s association annual gala or at the monthly Post-Masters’ Grievance Redressal Gathering? Did it happen at your chachi’s baby shower or your best-friends’ brother’s wedding outside the registrar’s office? At the general body elections of the Breed-Dog owners club or… you get the idea.

Think weddings, social gatherings (whatever maybe the excuse or give them one), religious functions, atheists and agnostics lecture group – whatever. Look around you, there are plenty of events to choose from.

5. PLACES can take your creative writing, er, places

So you don’t know what happens next. Write about where things are happening. In one room chawls or beautiful archetypal white bungalows with curvy domes. On the sidewalks, beside a busy vada-pao stall or in brothel houses (every book worth its cover price has a character of a prostitute; I think of the 500-year-old prostitute in Midnight’s Children as I write this )

Walk around your neighborhood you’ll find a treasure trove of place-ideas: Angel Tailors, Super Fun-zone (they sell cool drinks, guys), Aroma Restaurant, A1 Saloon, Spice and Nice (they sell chicken)
Get your characters to meet in the nook behind Aroma Restaurant after he has had his monthly hair-cut and maalish from A1 Saloon. Your readers will love it.

(An aside: These are nuances that add the fluff around the story. Sometimes you might get an entire story out of an event that you’ve been privy to but these cannot be the entire story. These are sources of ideas to help you write a better book. You still need a strong book idea in the first place in terms of a plot – the raison d’être, if you please)

*(n), plural, a source of artistic inspiration

About Lavanya

Lavanya Shanbhogue-Arvind | MBA | Winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Special Prize (2011) | MFA in Creative Writing programme (City University of Hong Kong) | Her literary fiction novel will be published soon by Roli Books.

One thought on “5 Sure sources of ideas for creative writing”

  1. Arundhati Khopker

    I have written a novel in romantic genre but have not been accepted by any agent or publisher. Writing a synopsis which will attract the interest of a publisher is difficult because love stories are so common and my story synopsis is not modern. it involves family, arranged marriage and tradition to a large extent. I am losing hope although I do plan to keep trying without stopping. Of course, your advice is encouraging but I would like to know if writing a blurb in the Query letter is ok? or it has to be separately mentioned? Hope you can guide me as a have approached agents and was rejected by them so i am going after publishers now? Is it a bad idea to re-approach those same agents with a differently written synopsis.??

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