Writing Inspiration from Yourself and Your Inner Circle

Two enormous sources of inspiration that you may overlook as a writer are you and your immediate circle of friends and family. Especially when I was younger, I tended to think my family, my hometown, my experiences were strictly ordinary and no one would want to read about them. I looked far outside myself to find writing inspiration in things like 1920’s New York City, Sherlock Holmes, and Scotland. But as I grew older, I realized some aspects of my life were not typical and might interest other people. When I married and started a family, my time to conduct research vanished. So mining my own experiences and those of people I knew well helped me make the most of what time I could snatch out of my day for writing. To find writing inspiration from yourself and your inner circle, ask the questions below.

Where have I been? What places have friends and relatives lived in or visited?

Using a place you know first hand as a setting will save a huge amount of time that would be taken up with research. Even if you have to do some research to flesh out the setting, it’s not as much as you would need to do if you’d never visited the setting before. The next best thing is interviewing friends and relatives for places they’ve lived or visited. I have a cousin who served in Afghanistan. I can easily get an American view of the country by asking him. That interview would give me a jumping off point for additional research.

What jobs have I worked? What jobs have friends and relatives worked?

My teen detective Rae Riley works in a library because I know that business. I don’t have to spend hours learning the duties of a clerk in a library. Her aunt is a writer–I know that job. By using jobs I already know, I provide myself more time for research in other areas. My husband works in the utility industry. If I wanted to write a mystery involving a utility, I wouldn’t have to go far to find an expert to interview. My cousin who served in Afghanistan is an MP. I might have the makings of a thriller if I interviewed him.

What are my hobbies? Hobbies of friends and relatives?

Currently, my hobbies are baking, biking, and hiking. And no, I didn’t pick them because they rhyme or are spelled almost the same way. I’ve also taken riding, cake decorating, scuba, and fencing lessons in the past. My love of horses I gave to Rae’s aunt and uncle. Baking is something her grandmother is known for in their county. My oldest did a 4-H project with alpacas. Those fluffy critters made their way into my novel. My husband recently took up beekeeping. I’d love to figure out how to use the bees as weapons in a murder or attempted murder.

What would I like to learn?

If you have the time to do research, use it wisely and investigate subjects you personally have an interest in. I made Rae an amateur photographer because I’m interested in photography. I find law enforcement fascinating and never tire of learning more about it.

For more ideas for writing inspiration, click here.

What writing inspiration from yourself and your inner circle have you already used?

Analyzing the Mood of a Setting

One thing I enjoy about visiting new places is analyzing the mood of a setting. Of course, the mood I bring to a location will affect how I perceive it, but I also try to examine the “vibe” a place gives off, independent of how I’m feeling at the time.

For example, I visited a library in a small city. Now I’m predisposed to love libraries because I’ve used them since I was a child and was a children’s librarian for ten years. But I wasn’t in the building long before I felt uncomfortable and even depressed. This wasn’t a friendly library. So I tried to figure out why I felt that way. Signs were posted warning patrons about rules. The library was extra quiet. Although the staff was polite, they weren’t friendly, as if they had other things to do than wait on patrons. I have the impression that removing books from the shelves would have been frowned upon.

Once I’ve dissected the mood of a place, I can file it away for possible use in a story.

Want to try out your analysis of setting? Check out these setting prompts.

Do you analyze the mood of a setting? How do you write about it?

Start a Story with a Character

I’d say the majority of writers like to start a story with a character, and I’m one of them. Usually a face I’ve seen somewhere takes hold of my imagination and I begin to build a character behind it. Before I list tips on how to start a story with a character, I want to emphasize two dangers when developing characters.

Too Much Backstory and Not Enough Real Story

One problem with creating characters is that a writer will get so caught up in characters charts, personality quizzes, and history that he or she neglects to actually move on to writing a story. Playing with our characters is fun, like playing with our kids. But at some point, playtime is over, and it’s time to do homework.

You probably know some writers who are always in the planning stages of writing a novel, who talk all the time about the fascinating characters they’re developing. But they never graduate to plotting a story.

When you first discover an intriguing character, by all means, have fun. Enjoy the discovery process as the character reveals different aspects of her personality and history. But keep in the back of your mind all this fun is pointless unless you actual settle down to writing a story about this great character.

Take Off the Rose-Colored Glasses

Characters are like our children. We often overlook their flaws and only see their virtues. This can be deadly in a story. If I’m reading a story in which one of the main characters is consistently praised by every other character, I begin to dislike him or her. If you have a likable character, let readers come to that realization on their own. Those kind of discoveries are a joy for readers. You don’t have to prime the reader’s pump by having the other characters constantly point out a main character’s sterling qualities. Yes, friends or family would complement each other, but keep it to a realistic minimum.

One of the things I enjoyed about writing my mystery short story, “Bovine”, was describing my fictional Marlin County, Ohio, in a negative way. The main character is a New York novelist who comes to the county to enact his perfect crime. Not being used to country life, or country people, and being entirely self-absorbed and nasty, he views the area through his snobby perception. He considers all locals “bovine.” Not only was this character a change of pace for me but it helped me see my fictional world in a new way.

Make Your Character Fit Your Genre

If your hero has weathered more trials than Job, he probably won’t work in a rom-com. If he’s a comedian, he might not fit in a gritty police procedural. Once you have a decent grasp on your main character, determine which genre will work best for him.

Road Test Your Character

If you have no idea what kind of plot to drop your character into, write a few scenes as road tests to see how she operates under different conditions.

  • A scene in which she is kind
  • A scene in which she is angry
  • A scene in which she has a victory
  • A scene in which she has a defeat
  • A scene with her best friend
  • A scene with her closest relative
  • A scene with an enemy
  • A scene with a difficult person

After you’ve seen how your character behaves, hopefully, you will start generating ideas for plot in which he can get to work.

For another view on creating characters, click here for a ten-part series on The Write Conversation.

For character prompts, click here.

How do you start a story with a character?

Inspiration for Creating Characters

I’m a character writer. I can’t start a story until I have a good grasp of most of my major characters. I usually start with a face that catches my attention for some reason, but there are so many other ways for finding characters. If you need inspiration for creating characters, try the suggestions below.

  • Yearbooks–especially if you are writing historical fiction
  • Paintings
  • Crowds–for finding faces and for overhearing passing conversations. The way somebody talks or a comment about someone can spark a character.
  • Old movies–and I mean old. Look at movies from the ’30’s, 40’s and 50’s. You might be surprised at the casting choices of old Hollywood.
  • Songs--I’ve always thought “Lyin’ Eyes” by the Eagles would make a perfect noir, as long as one of the three characters described in the lyrics is killed. Click here for more on songs as writing inspiration.
  • Poems
  • BibleClick here for my post on the Bible as writing inspiration.
  • Friends and relatives–although use them with caution. I never take a someone I know and dump them into a story as a whole character. They may not care for the character I choose for them.
  • Free image sites--I use Pixabay. I use the search term “portrait” or “faces” and see what comes up. Below are the portraits that have turned into characters.

Her name is Coral. She’s twelve. She loves working outdoors on the family farm with her father and grandfather. She also loves animals, both domestic and wild, and hates everything about school.

Her name is Egypt. She’s twenty-two. Her grandfather calls her Gyp. She fights with him but is very loyal to him and has an explosive temper.

Now it’s your turn. Where do you find inspiration for creating characters?

Start a Story with a Setting

Settings are the ugly ducklings in the world of literary elements. They aren’t appreciated for how rich they can make a story. But some writers can’t begin a story without first finding the right setting. Maybe you want to start a story with a setting, but that’s as far as you’ve gotten. How can you develop characters? Concoct a plot? Find a theme? Ask yourself the questions below so you can home in on why this setting seems perfect for inspiring a story, beyond that you kinda like it.

What first attracted you to the setting?

Is it because you are very familiar with it? Knowing a setting down to its roots can make it come alive to readers. Maybe it’s the small mountain town where you grew up. Or the fishing boat you worked on for three summer in high school. Perhaps you’ve worked at a fish hatchery for ten years and know that business inside and out. Or you love to bird and love the settings you’ve visited to pursue your hobby.

Or maybe the setting captured your interest because you’d love to know more about it. I started watching Nova and Nature on PBS years ago because my oldest is a science nut. I still watch them because I find them introducing me to worlds and occupations I never new about. Several years ago, PBS showed a series on a revitalized Gorongosa Park in Mozambique. A wildlife filmmaker who grew up in neighboring African countries was the host. Through the series, I learned about him, the rangers in the park, his sister, who studies elephants, and the politics of the country, both past and present–all kinds of information stemming from a gorgeous location.

Who lives in this setting?

Once you pinpoint why you think your setting would be terrific for a story, make a list of the people you would find there. If you’re not sure, do research. Like I said above, I learned about the people who live in and around the national park, enough to spark ideas for stories set there. If you can visit your setting, talk to the people living there. While on vacation on the coast of North Carolina, my family took a pontoon boat to Cape Lookout. The captain of our boat had the strangest accent– it sounded like a cross between Australian and southern. As he spoke to other passengers, I learned that he had been raised on one of the barrier islands along the North Carolina coas, and those people have their own unique accents. I’d heard the same thing about people growing up on islands in Chesapeake Bay.

That got me to thinking: why do they have unique accents? Do people still living there retain them or is the outside world making them sound like everyone else in North Carolina? What would it be like to grow up in a place that’s isolated enough to produce its own accent?

How do people live in this setting?

Once you start getting to know the people of a setting, plots will start popping. If you want to use your hometown, maybe it’s because a corrupt mayor was arrested there when you were in junior high and you think that could kick off the plot for a mystery. Since I tend to write for teens, I might wonder what it’d be like for a high schooler to have grown up on a barrier island and feel torn between a life there and one in the larger world.

For more advice on writing about settings, click here.

How would you start a story with a setting?

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