Creative sparks. Not only is the mental picture gorgeous, you’re probably familiar with the sensation of an idea sparking up, only to feel it disappear in smoke a moment later. Gone. Rats.
Your imagination fires up more often than you realize. In fact, I bet today you’ve already had a couple half-snippets of story or art flash past your consciousness. But what did you do with the ideas? It might seem easiest to just ignore them or hope they’ll come back later, but what if you learned to bottle that inspiration for fuel?
Anybody who has ever attempted making a fire without matches or a lighter knows that an extremely important part of the process is a pile of tiny burnable items for the sparks to latch onto. A spark has to catch onto something else that is roughly its own size, or it won’t last. And that needs two more bits of hair-thin twigs to crawl to, and that needs more and more until you gradually begin to make the fire large enough to handle something really big — like a stick. (This metaphor brought to you by a survival-oriented dad, a snowy January, and a smug magnesium stick.)
In the same way, ideas need other ideas to grab onto. One idea is just that. An idea. Two ideas begin a story. So let me give you two new concepts to play with and add to your arsenal. One is the “Idea Bank,” or if we want to keep the metaphors going, a virtual tinder pile for your creative work.
Put Another Thought on the Fire
An Idea Bank is a document or notebook where you store all your ideas as they strike you. Yes, all of them. The randomest, tiniest snippets. The interesting title. A quick character sketch. An inspiring concept such as “gems are djinns turned into stone.” Some notes on favorite writing techniques. Anything, no matter how foolish it sounds. This does two things — first, it gets the idea out of your head and away from your memory, and second, it allows you to get back to the story you’re “supposed” to be working on.
Once you’ve started to amass these ideas you might notice some of them meshing. Little bits will begin to niggle at your creative side. You may question your sanity at that point, but whatever way you look at it, you’ll have a pretty impressive pile of tinder: small ideas that can combine with themselves or new ideas and start a fire. And where do these ideas come from? I don’t think you’ll have any problem finding ideas to add on your own, but there is one way of looking for them that is important. And that brings us to the second concept.
Dot your “i”s and Cross your Genres
The second concept is cross-genre idea gleaning. And I don’t just mean book genres. I mean any story genre ever. If you’re paying attention, you’ll learn to catch creative sparks in almost everything that is going on around you, and most of those sparks can be converted from one mode of storytelling to another. Life. Movies. Music. Artwork. Novels. Hobbies and Crafts. Comics. Homework. Anywhere that life is happening or being told about, you will find ideas that can transfer over to your works-in-progress, and when you combine this concept with the Idea Bank, you might find yourself with a small powerhouse on your hands.
A piece of music might inspire a feeling that inspires a character or story-image. A snippet of history can evoke plot and setting. I’ve even been inspired by a bus stop. (The simple question of “what would a fairy bus stop look like?” turned into a short story that is currently turning into a novel.) And don’t forget actions, like baking cookies or mowing the lawn. Life and experience breeds story no matter where you find it. And when you find it, jot it down for later use. Live with a sense of wonder. Or, if you do not subscribe to my particular brand of sparkles and magic, live with a sense of practical usefulness and logical deductions based on your surroundings that can applied—clearly and concisely—to your current project. But I digress.
Do Attempt This At Home
And how do these concepts—Idea Banks and Cross-Genre—look in action? Well, I’ve been keeping an Idea Bank for roughly a year now. Back in March I ran across a piece of music that totally grabbed my attention. I knew the music wanted to become a story, but I wasn’t sure what exactly, so I scooted over to my Idea Bank and found this line item notation. “So. . . pirate novel, sometime? Ice pirates (Captain gets scarf)? Classic?”
BAM. The spark triggered by the music latched onto that odd string of text and suddenly I had this amazing ghost ship made from resurrected wrecks and held together with ice and mist. But that wasn’t quite enough to go on, so I delved into (of all things) my recent homework on Eastern Medicine and found a page of teachings on my favorite “archtypes” system. (The Five Rhythms, if you’re curious. A system that divides personalities and health types into five different categories and offers a lot of insight on what they might struggle with emotionally and physically.)
I came away from that page with a clear knowledge of what my main character wanted out of life, and just how to avoid giving it to him until the end of the novel. That knowledge brought its own slew of questions, and between my imagination, a session on Pinterest, and who knows what all, by the next morning I had the main character and his story arc, two supporting characters, the villainess, the feel of the world, and the general direction of the story all planned out. And I proceeded to write the entire thing in six weeks.
All from a single spark that caught on a stored idea, and combined with concepts from the world around me. So what do you think? Have you used either of these methods before? I’d love to hear about your experience.
*I ran across the concept of an idea bank while on safari in. . . I mean, while reading “The Busy Writer’s One Hour Plot” by Marg McAlister.
Rebekah Shafer is a twenty-something living in southeastern USA. When she isn’t zooming around the country visiting friends, she spends most of her time writing, cooking, reading, and discussing life with whoever wants to talk. Story is her passion and she writes to share story with others, and to open the windows of imagination. You can keep tabs on her activity on her blog, Lantern Leaf Press. Her first novella “A Twist of Fae” is scheduled for release in Fall of 2014.
The Spark File by Stephen Johnson is a good article about the importance of keeping and regularly reading through a journal of ideas.