Everyday Inspiration

Absolute Blank

By Lisa Olson (Boots)

I write a lot of unusual stories. For example, “Freedom Dance” is about a married woman desperate to leave a dance bar. Awash in a sea of pick-up lines and staggering drunks, she does everything possible to escape her situation while the crowd, and her friend, does everything to keep her there. The colors and sounds are alive and vivid in the story, the terror real and tangible.

Well, they should be. I was this horrified woman.

A single friend of mine hates to drink alone and wanted to try a “new” place. I’m a fairly game girl and went along for the ride. I ended up in a personal hell, and a writer’s paradise. I sat in a corner with a drink (okay, several) and wrote down every terrified thought, every sarcastic comment, and all the detail I could. Including how everyone stared at me as I wrote in my notebook.

Most stories come from real life inspirations like this. A random comment can become the plot for a murder mystery. An unusual landscape can be used as the setting for a fantasy short. An old man walking his dog might become a background character in a piece of literary fiction.

But where and how can YOU find everyday inspirations?

Write everything down. Have some kind of paper, and something to write with, with you at all times. Consider a pocket diary, a 5×7 notebook, a small amount of loose paper, a bunch of 3×5 note cards, whatever works best for you. Keep them all in the same pocket of your purse or handbag, so you can find them when you need an idea.

I have a blank diary, just big enough for my purse. It has a very permanent and literary feel to it, and it’s a lot harder to lose than a 3×5 card. Besides, it was a lot of fun to pick out one that reflects my personality. I use my pen as a bookmark so I know where the blank pages are, and where the pen is. When something strikes me, I can instantly jot it down.

Have an adventure. This doesn’t mean you should take the first flight to Brazil. Well, if you can fly off to a foreign country, go right ahead. The important thing is to get up from your computer or desk, and get out into the sunshine and the rain and the snow. Experience weather, traffic, crowds, and lines.

Take yourself or a friend out to coffee. Go to the library or your favorite bookstore and sit for a while. Visit friends or relatives at work or at home. Take a sandwich to the park or have a picnic at the zoo.

Don’t use your car. If you need to go across town, try using public transportation. Walk up to the store instead of drive. Ride your bike over to a friend’s house or up to the park.

Ask questions. Look at everything with wonder and curiosity. Ask yourself where people are going, what they will do when they get there, what is inside their bags and boxes, where they started out, and just what is their biggest problem? Try asking the same two questions for every person in the room, on the bus, in the car next to you, or wherever you happen to be.

“Why is this guy alone on the bus with two cans of Dr. Pepper and a coconut?” my notebook asks me. I can see him now, awkwardly juggling those two cans and shifting the single coconut around. From this simple question, I might get a great story, or a novel. I know I have a great joke already, or an anecdote I can somehow put into an article I’m writing.

Listen harder. Really hear what everyone around you is saying. Your friend makes a sarcastic comment. You overhear a pithy saying. A guy at the bar tells you a ribald joke. Put them all in your notebook. You never know when a single statement will spark off a story, but it sure can.

We found a broken and useless gun in a box in our attic when we moved into this house. The police were called and it was taken away for ballistic testing, “Just in case it was used in any unsolved murders.” As he stowed the item in his trunk, the policeman said, “How can anyone lose track of a gun? I know exactly where mine are at all times. It just doesn’t make sense.” He was appalled, but I was inspired. What if someone had MEANT to leave it behind? From his off-hand remark, I had a great story.

Look deeper. The best writing has realistic details and descriptions. Capture a beautiful sunset on the beach or the dirt and grime under a bridge. Describe your house, yard, or neighborhood. Write down what color shoes the woman on the bus wore, or how much makeup she wore.

Take a few trips back and forth into time while you are at it. What did that look like when it was new? How will it look to your children’s children?

“Freedom Dance” is about how a married woman perceived the bar. The neon glare and flashing lights, the too-short skirts and too-tight pants, and the wiggles and swaggers. If I hadn’t written down gems like, “The black pants, the white shirt, the black vest, the black cowboy hat, the red steel heart reflecting gently on his breast. The sheriff of love.” I couldn’t have captured the flavors of that bar and shared it with my readers.

Fear nothing. Don’t be afraid to write down anything you want, anytime you want. If it was funny, if it was cute, if it got your attention, write it down. Worry about how you “look” later.

Your friends will understand if you jump up and take down what they said. Heck, they will usually repeat it if you ask. They like to be noticed and remembered, even if it’s only in your notebook.

People will stare and wonder what you are doing, but they can’t read over your shoulder unless you invite them to. Or unless your best friend shows the notebook to the guys you were just describing. Remind yourself that the fellow with the coconut doesn’t know who you are, and won’t be calling you later.

Don’t worry about libel because by the time you are published, they won’t remember saying or doing anything of the sort. Don’t censor yourself because of a “what if”. It probably won’t happen.

Prepare yourself. An unusual activity, like writing, will generate questions from the crowd. It might be easier on your ego and psyche if you already have some answers ready to the usual questions. “What are you doing?” “Why?” “What have you written?” “Are you published?” “What kind of writing do you do?”

I answer with honesty if I can, and with a lie if I’m annoyed. “Writing a letter to Grandma,” can be less threatening than, “Writing down the fact that you picked your nose,” to a stranger. Especially if he happens to be dubbed, “The Sheriff of Love.”

Be inspired. Story ideas are all around, if you know where to look for them. So get up and get out. Bring a pineapple and treat yourself to a pina colada. Someone else will have the coconut.