Finding Inspiration On Your Bookshelf

What to write?

You want to write a story but don’t know where to start. Here is one of my personal tips for finding inspiration.

I often find myself wanting to write something and not being sure what to write. This post attests to that as I wanted to write a new post for my blog, but didn’t know what it was to be about. So I wrote about that. What to write?

Novels or short stories?

Finding inspirationI am not a short story writer. No matter how often I see it on advice blogs or sites, ‘writing short stories is the best way to get your name known. Enter your story in a competition…’ etc. I am too wordy to write short stories. It’s a discipline just like writing a novel, where wordiness is also a drawback. Less is more, blah-do-blah, you’ve heard it all before. But short stories are a good way to hone your skills and develop ideas, on a small scale and, if they are for you, then fine. I prefer the larger challenge of novel writing and find short stories too restrictive, but competitions are a good thing to get involved in. Some of them ask for only 1,000 or 2,000 words – not my style. I often have to edit out over 10,000 words of any novel, so telling a story in fewer is not so much pulling teeth for me as having the whole lot ripped out. I admire short story writers; I’m just not one myself.

But you decide and, if you decide, ‘Toady I will write a short story’, or ‘Today I will start a new novel’, you are still left with, ‘What to write?’

Write about what you know


Lonely House, James Collins
Lonely House, James Collins

This is what they all say, and I don’t necessarily agree. I wrote a book, ‘Lonely House’, about two young guys accidently killing a man in a house where, seconds after the shooting, the victim’s family turned up for a party. It later transpires that… Well, I won’t give away the twists, but there are many. I’ve never shot anyone or found myself in a house in the woods where a monster lives, faced by a family starving their child so that she will… But that’s another twist. The point is, I didn’t know anything about the situation and so had to use my imagination. Okay, so write about things you know about, but don’t limit it. Let your imagination soar and see what comes out.


Write about what you don’t know

I was interested in writing a story that centred around a winter solstice festival, ‘The Saddling’ (due out in May 2017). I knew very little about winter solstice apart from the date of it, and so research was the way to go. Make research a fun part of your work and not only will you find unexpected inspiration but you’ll also learn something along the way.

But, where to start?

One day I wanted to write… something. Short story, novel, screenplay, musical? I’ve done them all – even the short story thing – but I had no idea what to write about. This is where I invented one of my ‘inspiration techniques.’ This involved thinking of a number between one and six, then a number between one and 15, a number between one and 300, a number between one and 30 and a final one between one and eleven. Why? What do the numbers (and here I do this at random) three, seven, 167, 15 and six, have to do with anything? Simply this:

Finding inspiration

The lair of the White Worm
The lair of the White Worm

I have a bookcase with six shelves, roughly 15 books per shelf, each book being approximately 300 pages (these numbers will vary) and each page having on average 30 lines. The last number is a word on a line, and you can drop this one if you want. So, I am now going to find the 7th book on shelf three, find page 167 and line 15. If word number six turns out to be and, if, but, etc. then I’ll simply find the nearest adjective or noun. I’m going to the shelf now…

I’ve chosen ‘Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable’, as it was the seventh book on shelf three. It has 1,480 pages so I can, if I want, be flexible on the number 167 and think of another one, but I won’t. Page 167, line 15, word number six turns out to be: Dutch. So, how about writing something about Holland, or the Dutch, or, after reading the rest of the line, Richard the Lionheart? It’s an idea, and at least I have a setting. Actually, the title of the entry in this book is ‘Bogie’ which Brewer talks about as a scarecrow or goblin. So, that’s probably more useful. Already I am forming ideas for a creepy story about scarecrows. Perhaps I should check out some ‘Dr Syn’ and make sure I don’t replicate those famous scarecrow stories. Maybe I could think of something else? Something to connect a scarecrow and a Dutchman, the Flying Dutchman perhaps? That’s a neat legend.

the saddling, James Collins
The inspiration for this novel came in a dream

Not everyone has a shelf of reference books, but a novel will work as well, or even a magazine. My top shelf, number one, has novels on it and book number 15 happens to be ‘The Lair of the White Worm’, by Bram Stoker. Not my most favourite story of his, but page 167, line 15, word six turns out to be: ‘Will’. In this case, it’s talking about a will – a perfect idea for a story. I want to write a comedy spoof about a haunted mansion and the family gathered for the reading of the will. Perhaps this is Stoker giving me some inspiration from beyond the grave.

So, you see, I have this one little system, which is entirely random, of finding inspiration. As long as you are open to it, you can find a single word sparks off a whole story, short or otherwise, and all you have to do is cross over to the bookcase apply your random numbers. If it doesn’t work, I have other techniques that I will write about another day but, if you are stuck for an idea, try it and see what you come up with. Meanwhile, I am off to write about a Dutch scarecrow connected to a will. Anything could happen.