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?

Leap Day as Writing Inspiration

For this unique event, here are some unique suggestions for using leap day as writing inspiration.

Speculative fiction

Such an unusual day seems ready-made for inspiring speculative fiction. In the thirteen-book series, The Notebook of Doom by Troy Cummings, Alexander Bopp’s leap year birthday proves pivotal to the plot as he and his elementary school friends battle monsters in their hometown. The first book starts with Alexander moving to Stermont right around his birthday. The importance of his birthday isn’t revealed until the last book. Mr.Cummings uses this plot point cleverly and brings a cohesion to his series that I don’t always find in middle-grade books. The Notebook of Doom is a lot of fun for second and third-grade readers.

The rarity of leap year should signal something rare for the characters and plots of speculative fiction. Perhaps a character discovers her special power on February 29th and is at her most powerful on that day. A particular magical phenomenon only occurs on February 29 or during the leap year, and various parties try to take control of it.

To give a story an Indian-Jones flavor, two groups, one good and one evil, are attempting to discover some powerful object that is only accessible on February 29th. Once they find it, they must use it during the leap year. After the year is finished, the object becomes dormant.

Mystery

I’ve encountered two stories in which leap day was a crucial clue. In one short story, of which I can’t recall the title, an old diary is proved to be a fraud because the person who supposedly kept it had an entry for February 29th, 1900. Leap day occurs at the turn of the century every 400 years. 1600 and 2000 had leap days, but not 1700, 1800, and 1900,

In a radio episode of “The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” from the 1940’s, a Scottish nobleman waits for his inheritance, which will happen on his twenty-first birthday. Because he was born on leap day, he is 84 years old but has only had twenty actual birthdays. A key plot point, again, is the fact that 1900 did not have February 29th. The nobleman must wait until 1904 to celebrate his twenty-first birthday.

Here’s another approach: greedy relatives contest the will of a wealthy woman because she instructs her lawyers not to make its contents known until the next leap day. Why the condition? A relative plays detective to uncover the answer.

Or a small town had a notorious murder committed on February 29th. Legend has it that the ghost returns every four years. The town’s tiny police force is strained to the limit dealing with an invasion of ghost hunters. When one ghost hunter turns up dead, the cops have to figure out if there’s a connection between the old murder and the new one.

Other Genres

In a romance, a couple meets on leap day. Events and their own flaws tear them apart, but on the next February 29th, they have a chance to reunite. Another idea is for a couple who met on leap day to hold a special celebration every four years, and the story charts the development of their relationship on those days.

For a family drama, a tragedy on leap day still haunts the survivors years later. On another leap day, a character somehow brings peace to the family so they can move on with their lives. Perhaps the family had a misconception about the tragedy.

For more ideas on how to February can inspire your writing, check out this post.

How can leap day as writing inspiration ignite your writing?

Writing Tip — Writing in Time: Winter Weather as Writing Inspiration

The weather is the villain any writer can take advantage of. It’s even better that a human one. It doesn’t have to have a logical motivation for its nastiness. It can betray a hero at any time, and the author doesn’t have to devise an explanation. If the hero can survive or outwit the weather, he looks even more heroic. Here this puny human has triumphed over all the power nature itself could dish out.

Winter conditions bringer their own unique stamp to villainous weather. I am writing from my experience of living through winters in the Buckeye State. If you decided to write about winters based on your location, be sure to take advantage of any features peculiar to your area.

Treacherous driving conditions — It doesn’t have to be a blizzard to be dangerous. A storm that dumps a lot more snow than predicted can catch your protagonist off guard, challenging her nerves and skills. When my husband and I were dating, he was driving home from a date and got caught on the highway after a layer of ice coated the road. As car after car spun out around him, he realized if he kept a slow pace, 25 mph, and didn’t touch his brakes, he would make it.

That setting would be ideal for a character wrestling with some problem. The experience of driving under those difficult conditions and getting home safely makes her see that she can overcome the problem with steady persistence. In such a story the weather is both a villain and if not a friend, at least an assistant.

Snowstorms —  Stranding a character in a storm can lead to revelations about himself, like the treacherous driving conditions, but how about snowstorm as a humorous villain?

A few weeks before Christmas, my family attended a party hosted by a good friend. It was so icy when we left that night, that I joked my friend might have to let people stay over if they didn’t leave soon. What if that happened?

A couple host a business Christmas party at their house in the country. Some colleagues they like, and others they cannot stand. When icy road conditions force everyone to stay the night, everyone in attendance must learn to tolerate each other. Or not, depending on what humor the author wants to use.

Snow days — This is another situation in which the weather is both villain and friend. As a parent, I love days off from school as much as my kids. That’s one less day to race around. Since I work from home, it’s not as stressful as for two parents who both work outside the home. A humorous story could be written about the juggling two parents do to get to work and take care of their kids on a snow day.

A snow day is a wonderful setting for a middle grade mystery. Because both parents work, the oldest child, a teen, is responsible for watching her siblings on a snow day. The younger brother and sister meet with friends in the neighborhood and solve a mystery by the end of the day.

What other stories have you read or would like to write using winter weather as writing inspiration?

 

Writing Tip — Writing in Time: Winter Solstice as Writing Inspiration

summer-solstice-1474745_1280With all the frantic activity associated with Christmas in the U.S., we Americans tend to overlook all other significant dates and holidays in December. Yet the winter solstice is the reason we celebrate Christmas in this month. Both the history and nature of the winter solstice makes for a rich vein of writing inspiration.

Many ancient cultures, according to The Christmas Encyclopedia by William D. Crump, figured out which day in the northern hemisphere had the shortest amount of daylight, all without the help of computers.

Babylonians, Syrians, Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, and pre-Christian Celtic and Germanic tribes celebrated this time of year. Egyptians commemorated the birth of Ra, the sun god. Babylonians and Syrians saw the solstice as a symbol of returning fertility to the land. During the Celtic and Germanic holiday of Yule, noisy celebrations warded off evil spirits that roamed in the darkness.

In a brilliant move of counter-programming, the Catholic Church decided to celebrate Jesus’ birth in December and compete against pagan holidays. We still use some of the pagan traditions and have given them new meanings based on Christianity, like lighting candles and decorating with evergreens.

The juxtaposition of the most hours of darkness and the happiest holiday on the Christian calendar makes a great symbol for the journey of a character. As December grows darker, the character experiences more and more adversity, hitting bottom on the day of the solstice. Then on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, hope is restored.

For speculative fiction, a villain reaches her most powerful state during the winter solstice. The hero, whose powers are at their weakest, must come up with a way to stop the villain from taking advantage of the solstice.

How can you use the winter solstice as writing inspiration?

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