Unexpected Incidents as Writing Inspiration

All stories need tension. Throwing my main character (MC) into an unexpected incident propels him out of his comfort zone, creating tension. Unexpected incidents are also the building blocks for humor. Whether you write comedy or drama, see if the unexpected incidents below can act as inspiration for your writing.

Travel Incidents

Any mishap in travel plans can create tension, funny or dramatic. A traffic jam, getting lost, a missed flight, or a vehicle break down. I can use my experiences with unexpected travel incidents to root my story in reality.

Twice in my life I was stopped dead in a traffic jam for so long that I got out of my car. One was for an accident, and the other was for a small wildfire that firefighters were putting out beside the highway. During the wildfire, I had to go to the bathroom and went on a search. That motivation for a MC could lead her to meet sinister characters, witness a crime, or find herself in a comic predicament when she asks the owners of a RV if she can use their bathroom and overhears a family fight.

When I was seventeen, I drove home one night from a friend’s house where we’d been studying. I’d never been to her house in the country and turned onto the wrong road. When I tried to turn around, I got my car stuck. I had passed a few houses and walked back to them. One of the mailboxes had a name on it that was similar to the name of a senior at my high school. So I went up to that house and knocked. It turned out it was his home, and his family couldn’t have been nicer.

But what if my MC chose a house with an owner who wasn’t so friendly?

Expeditions

I’ve watched enough PBS shows with my Nature Nut to realize that sending my characters out on some kind of expedition is the perfect way to toss in unexpected incidents. It can be a scientific expedition, research trip for an artist or writer, or a mission trip. Andrew Klavan showed how a mission trip can go Horribly Wrong in his YA novel. If We Survive. You can read my review here.

The advantage of the expedition is that it gives characters a legitimate reason to venture into unfamiliar territory.

Warning: Idiot Plot

Whatever unexpected incident I decide to use, I need to watch out for the Idiot Plot. This is a plot twist that only works if the characters are idiots. I want my incident to be unexpected, not stupid. For more on the Idiot Plot, click here.

What unexpected incidents from your own life can provide inspiration for your writing?

The Sea as Writing Inspiration

This month’s “Writing in Time” post was going to be about the beach and the sea as writing inspiration. But I ran into a problem. The beach left me completely uninspired. It’s not as if I haven’t done enough research. My family and I have gone to the North Carolina coast to visit my in-laws for years now. But the beach is relaxing, a giant sandbox for people of any age to enjoy. I’ve discovered I need settings that add tension to my writing, and the beach doesn’t do it for me.

But the sea … since I was twelve and went sailing with my cousin and her husband on their sailboat in Chesapeake Bay, I’ve been in love with ships and the sea. The might and the mystery of the sea fires my imagination. Below is inspiration for using the sea in speculative fiction, mysteries, and adventures.

Speculative Fiction

I’ve only visited the beaches on the east coast of the U.S. where European settlers first arrived, leaving behind four hundred years of recorded history. That history infuses the area, making it perfect for a tale of time travel.

In North Carolina, my family and I stay at Emerald Isle, a barrier island near a maritime archaeology site. Experts believe they are excavating the ship Queen Anne’s Revenge, Blackbeard’s flagship. In a speculative story, an archaeologist finds a way to Blackbeard’s time—a portal or some item salvaged from the wreck. Blackbeard discovers the way and travels to our time. The archaeologist has to get Blackbeard back to the 18thcentury.

A monster story works so well in the sea because, unlike stories of lake monsters, the unexplored depths of the oceans gives a hint of reality to the idea of giant, undiscovered forms of sea life. A fantastic story based on some fact has always appealed to me. “The Foghorn”, a short story by Ray Bradbury, comes to mind.

Mysteries

The possibilities for this genre are nearly limitless. How many middle grade mysteries have centered around an old lighthouse or sunken treasure? Tons, but that doesn’t mean current authors can’t put a new spin on classic settings.

For adult stories, the episode “Shark Mountain” from the PBS show Nature inspired me. It featured Howard and Michele Hall, a couple who run Howard Hall Productions. They produce and direct underwater films. Michele is also an underwater photographer and logistics coordinator for their expeditions around the world as they travel for their films.

I would love to invent a couple like the Halls. In a foreign country, the couple record or photograph something dealing with a crime but don’t know it. Their boat is searched, a colleague is attacked. When the local police seem unconcerned or corrupt, the couple conduct their own investigation.

To give a mystery an eerie atmosphere, nothing beats a deserted boat. The crew of a fishing boat finds a deserted ship. They can bring it in to harbor and then mysterious events start occurring, like someone following the captain or the fishing boat is vandalized. Or after the crew finds that abandoned boat, another ship begins to chase them and it’s a battle of wits for the fishing crew to reach port safely. That storyline combines mystery and adventure, which leads me to my next genre …

Adventure

When a writer sets a story in nature, she can count on using that element for all kinds of plot twists and tension.

Two of my favorite nonfiction books are The Boy Who Sailed Around the World Alone and Dove, both by Robin Lee Graham. The first is a children’s books, stuffed with photos and the latter is for adults. Both recount the adventure of the author who became the youngest person to solo around the world starting when he was sixteen in 1965 and ending in 1970.

Those books alone provide a host of story elements from falling into the sea while working on the ship, to losing the main mast, to experiencing star-spangled nights on a still sea.

I could incorporate or adapt those real world experiences into a story involving a teen trying to sail around the world in the 21stcentury.

For more ideas about how to use August as writing inspiration, click on my 2019 post and my 2018 post.

How can you use the beach and the sea as writing inspiration?

Summer Weather as Writing Inspiration

Summer weather with its high temperatures, higher humidity, and long days of full sun has settled into the Buckeye State, so my post for July’s Writing in Time is summer weather as writing inspiration.

Heat + Humidity = Crime

Most people will agree that when humans get too hot, we get irritable. That tendency has inspired many mystery writers to set stories during heat waves. Or to put it another way:

“Did you know … more people are murdered at ninety-two degrees Fahrenheit than any other temperature? I read an article once — lower temperatures, people are easy-going. Over ninety -two, it’s too hot to move. But just ninety-two, people get irritable.”

from It Came from Outer Space

In The Lady from Shanghai, a film noir from 1948, a married couple and the husband’s law partner are sailing along the coast of Mexico, heading for San Francisco. They stop for a picnic, and in the sweltering heat, fire barb after barb at one another, revealing more and more of their natures. The sailor they’ve hired to pilot their ship tells a story of how he witnessed a feeding frenzy among sharks. He’d never seen anything more awful until this picnic.

I can use the rising temperatures and humidity to mirror escalating tensions between characters. The ultimate confrontation could take place on a sultry night when not even darkness relieves the heat.

Thunderstorms

Or I can have a sudden thunderstorm appear at the climax as characters clash. In temperate climates, summer thunderstorms usually appear in the afternoon and evening as the heat builds through the day. They are usually brief and violent, a perfect setting and symbol for characters battling each other.

In Watership Down, a fantasy about the lives of wild rabbits in England, a turning point in the story comes when the heroes engineer the escape of several does from a tyrannical warren. The good-guy rabbits have installed one of their own in the warren as a double-agent to help the does escape. As this buck plots to leave the warren with the does, the threat of a thunderstorm builds in scene after scene, so that when the buck and the does make a break for it, so does the thunderstorm, with the tyrant of the warren and his officers in hot pursuit.

Long Summer Evenings

My family recently had the opportunity to stay in a cabin at Shawnee State Park. On the first evening we were there, the sky held white clouds and the sunlight lingered until after 9 p.m. Those kinds of evenings draw me into them. I want to linger too in the soft light.

Summer evenings can be a relaxing way to conclude a story, especially if the main characters have suffered through a lot of trauma and deserve a quiet conclusion. A still summer evening can also provide a contrast to the storyline.

In the mystery short story “Inquest” by Loel Yeo from 1932, an inquest is held in the country home of a wealthy man who has just been found dead. The coroner is trying to establish if the death was suicide or murder. As the August evening grows darker, the verdict seems more and more likely to be one of murder.

For more ideas on how to use July was writing inspiration, click here for my post from 2019.

How can you use the summer weather where you live as writing inspiration? What stories have you read that used summer weather in a memorable way?

Fishing as Writing Inspiration

With the warmer months here in the Buckeye State, my youngest, the Fishing Fanatic, begins watching the weather for chances to enjoy his favorite sport, pastime, and hobby. Funny how a parent can become interested in a subject just because her kids are. Not that I’ve taken up fishing. But I’ve gone out enough with the Fanatic to tell you about how to use fishing as writing inspiration.

Humor

Wouldn’t a book about a mom who has no interest in fishing and has one misadventure after another as she tries to support her kid and his love of the sport be hysterical?

I could write about the mom diving into murky waters to rescue a runaway rod, wading a river to unhook a snag, wrestling catfish, and crossing to a far shore through freezing water in October.

Now that you know what my life has been like for the past two years, take what inspiration you can from it. When I mix nature, animals, and weather into a story, I have the freedom to create all sorts of funny disasters.

Suspense

The last paragraph above can also apply to adding suspense and tension to a story. The unpredictable quality of nature provides many different kinds of problems for my characters to face.

Fishing as writing inspiration for suspense has another great advantage. It gives my characters an excuse to break out of their normal routines as they head out on a fishing trip. Then I can dump them into unfamiliar settings peopled with hostile characters.

I love film noir, a style of movie making that flourished in Hollywood from 1940-1960. Several movies land their characters in trouble because they are going on a fishing trip. In The Hitch-Hiker, two men are taken hostage by a homicidal maniac. In 5 Steps to Danger, the main character’s car breaks down, and he accepts a ride from a woman with a complicated past and bad guys on her trail. In Act of Violence, a WWII veteran suspects his less-than-heroic act in a prisoner of war camp is catching up with him when he goes on a fishing trip and spots a man in a boat who isn’t dressed for fishing.

Another great thing about using the fishing trip is that I don’t have to know much about fishing. All the trouble can occur on the way to the fishing destination before my characters ever make one cast. Although it would be fun to include the fishing aspect somehow. Such as a criminal, who is on the FBI’s most wanted list, purses two fishing buddies, who stumbled across his hideout in the mountains. With the criminal after them, the buddies have only the contents of their tackle boxes to use as some kind of defense.

Family or Friendship

The bond that can occur during fishing is a wonderful way to explore family relationships or friendships of characters.

A grandfather, who loves fishing, can’t interest any of his grandchildren until the most unlikely one falls in love with it. Two very disparate characters chance upon each other at a secluded fishing spot and begin a friendship.

For more ideas on how to use June as writing inspiration, read my post from two years ago.

Could you use fishing as writing inspiration? What other summer sport might inspire your writing?

Last Day of School as Writing Inspiration

This year, in the U.S., the last day of school for kids was in March or April. Yes, we have online learning, but I think the parents are looking forward to the end of it more than the kids are. Spending two hours on assignments at home is so much easier than spending six and a half hours in a school, not including drive time. The last day of school as writing inspiration can kick off all kinds of stories, whether I write about a traditional last day or how it appears in 2020.

Humor

By the last week of school, everyone involved, parents, teachers, students, and administrators, are done. Now they all mark time until the final day. A story about all these different kinds of characters, straining to hold it together until the final bell on the final day has a lot of comic possibilities.

My kids’s school system offers a lot of fun activities during the last days, such as camp, field day, and egg drops. Any outdoor activity with kids is ripe for a story of misadventures. When I helped with my oldest’s field day in kindergarten, one boy began screaming when he received a bloody nose during a game. I walked him up to the nurse’s office. When I reminded him that his class was now probably at the bounce house, he pulled himself together and rejoined his class, bouncing with the best of them.

If you aren’t familiar with an egg drop, it’s usually a challenge issued in junior high or high school. Teams are instructed to build a contraption that will prevent an egg from breaking as the contraption is dropped from greater and greater heights. Eggs, kids, and heights. I don’t really need to say more.

Nostalgia

When I was in junior high and high school, I noticed a change during the last few days or even weeks. Everyone relaxes, at least a bit. The teachers know they can’t teach any more. The kids know the teacher have lowered their expectations concerning learning. My mom would ease up on our night time routine.

As the evenings in May grew long and golden, I could sense the finality of what was happening. I didn’t want to repeat the school year. I came to hate school from the time I was in eighth grade. But it did seem like a time for reflection, looking back and looking ahead.

This thoughtful time is suitable for a story about a student who has regrets or maybe wants to accomplish something before the year ends, a teacher facing retirement, or a parent whose youngest child is finishing high school.

Beginnings and Endings

As I write this post, I realize that the last day of school can start a story or end it, but I don’t see how it could come in the middle. It just doesn’t feel right.

As a story starter, it can set the tone for a summer of misadventures, mysteries, adventures, or self-discovery. As an ending, it can wrap up a story that began with the first day of school or highlight how characters have changed during the course of the story.

For more ideas on how to use May as writing inspiration, visit my posts on graduation and other May holidays.

How would you use the last day of school as writing inspiration?

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