Attentive writers will already know that stories are all around us. I bet your next-door neighbor has a story or two to tell, and that great old oak tree behind your house has witnessed its fair share as well. And you? You might be harboring thousands of stories waiting to be written — and hopefully some you’ve already started putting down on the page!
But just because there’s an endless supply of stories already out there in the world, doesn’t always mean that the mining and refining comes easy. In fact, in my experience, it’s often more like trying to draw blood from a stone.
Fortunately, there are a number of ways to unlock the door to your best ideas and shape them into books. If you’re convinced you’ve got a beloved bestseller inside you, but are struggling to bring it to fruition, I’ve compiled three inspiring and effective tactics to unlock your book ideas. (And if you’re looking for more inspiration, be sure to check out that post!)
1. Turn up the volumeOne of my favorite ways to find inspiration for a new story is to turn to music. Storytelling doesn’t stop with leather-bound novels or fireside fairytales, and music is a fantastic way to access the emotions and personal experiences that help you discover your voice.
Picture this: you’re riding the bus listening to a sad song. It’s dark and rainy outside. You watch the drops racing across the window and imagine yourself in a music video. Then you shift your perspective to that of a character, and start building their backstory. Why are they alone and sad? Did something happen to them? Where are they going? That’s how it starts. Just like that, you’re laying down the puzzle pieces for your next novel.
Indeed, one of the most impressive traits of music is its ability to convey deep emotions — not even necessarily through words, but through feeling. Sadly, you can’t just hop on a bus in the rain each time you want to draw from this creative wellspring. So in order to harvest music’s potential in any situation, here are a few steps you can follow:
● Pick a mood to define the contours of your novel or protagonist.
○ For example: angsty, melancholy, adventurous, etc.
● Curate a playlist that captures that mood in different ways.
○ If you’re struggling to find songs, most streaming services will have options to explore according to mood, or related artists to those who have really nailed your desired “vibe.”
● Explore the different components of the songs and incorporate at least one element from each into your story structure.
○ Start by looking at the lyrics. Does any particular phrasing stand out to you? Is the song using interesting imagery or symbols?
○ Which other elements of the song are contributing to the mood? How can you recreate them in your writing?
● Once you’ve gone through these songs, you should have a list of at least 10 elements to base your story on, which you can move around and piece together as you please.
2. Dig through the archivesA slightly more conventional (but equally helpful) way to find inspiration is to turn to existing stories. The public domain is your friend here — and there are a few different ways you can use it to your advantage.
Looking up old myths, for instance, is a great way to learn about successful story structures. From there, you can either adapt a common one like the Hero’s Journey to suit your purposes, or go ahead and rewrite the myth itself!
Two examples of contemporary novels based on myths include Ponti by Sharlene Teo, which is partly based on a Malay myth, and Circe by Madeline Miller, a Greek myth retelling from the perspective of Circe, the daughter of Helios. Without a doubt, a huge part of these books’ success came from building on established stories to create super-strong, well-structured narratives that were both familiar and surprising to readers.
Another method is to turn to more recent public domain literature. This is a tried-and-tested method for bestsellers — just think of all the different adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels, like Bridget Jones’s Diary or even Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. As with myths, there’s a lot to be said about the evergreen qualities of classics and the power of intertextuality, but I prefer turning to the public domain with a slight twist.
On that note, try this: instead of choosing your favorite work in the public domain, choose one of your least favorites. Anger, frustration, and annoyance are all incredibly potent emotions that you can use to write a book that corrects or interrogates the things that bother you the most. Then, when you have your outline or first draft down, you can take a step back and add some more nuance.
For a perfect example, take Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea. This Jane Eyre-inspired novel redeems and dimensionalizes the character of Bertha/Antoinette, all the while unpacking the horrific consequences of issues like stigmatized mental health, the patriarchy, and colonialism. I’m not saying you must write a book that tackles quite so much — but also, if you’re going to modernize a classic, you may as well try to fix what’s regressive or harmful.
3. Get out from behind your deskMy final tip is a reminder that the romanticized idea of author-as-lonely-suffering-genius is not conducive to unlocking the masterpiece inside you. Don’t make the mistake of shackling yourself to your desk; some of the best writing happens when you’re inspired by an experience, people, or events in everyday life. Essentially, if you’re feeling uninspired, that’s unlikely to change unless you stop punishing yourself with the sight of the blank page.
Stepping out of your writing chair, your apartment, and (preferably) your comfort zone not only allows you to relax and regain some processing power, but also to experience inspiring real-life moments, both big and small. Just remember to record your frustration as you’re waiting in line at the grocery store, or the exhilarating smell of the pine trees when you’re out in the forest — even these small efforts can result in some truly brilliant creative writing.
Lastly, you can turn your attention to real-life (current or past) events, like Han Kang did in Human Acts, which closely follows the Gwangju Uprising in the 1980s in South Korea. Or, to use a more mainstream example, think of Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, loosely inspired by reality TV.
You never know when inspiration will strike, but with these tips and tricks, you can significantly increase your chances of harnessing it! May all your best seeds of ideas blossom into books.
Savannah Cordova is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects self-publishing authors with the best editors, designers, and marketers in the business. In her spare time, Savannah enjoys reading contemporary fiction and writing short stories.