Jumpstarting Fiction: How to Find Unique, Timely Ideas to Energize Your Creativity

We have a big announcement: Ruth Harris has started her own blog!

No, she’s not going to abandon us over here. Her new blog is a whole 'nother kettle of fish links. She will be posting a daily collection of links to articles she finds intriguing, unique, or just plain wacky. Fun stuff to use as writing prompts to jumpstart your own ideas.

I can tell you from experience how well the random newspaper article works as a writing prompt. Camilla Randall, the ultra-polite sleuth who stars in my comic mystery series, was inspired by an article I read in the New York Times that poked vicious fun at a young woman who had been named “debutante of the year.”  

It was so condescending and mean-spirited, I wanted to stick up for the well-heeled teenager in question. So I sat down and rewrote the piece from her point of view. The result became the opening scene of my first Camilla book, The Best Revenge. One five-paragraph article jumpstarted three novels (with a fourth on the way.) 

So check out Ruth’s blog. She links to fun, newsy ideas you can use to add punch to your fiction, as Ruth explains below.

But exercise caution, they can be addictive. Bet you can’t click on just one!


by Ruth Harris

For quite a while, I’ve been thinking about starting a blog. Problem was, I couldn’t figure out what to blog about. I knew I wanted to create something for readers and writers. I wanted it to be unique, helpful and entertaining. But what, exactly, would that be--and how would I do it?

For years (decades) I was an editor during what is now called the “golden age” of publishing.  In mass market paperback, we worked on a monthly publication schedule with ferocious demands for content. I couldn’t afford to wait for inspiration, I had to go out looking for it.

I haunted bookstores, inhaled the bestseller lists, got chummy with the sales department—they were mostly male, some very bright and college-educated. Others with practical on-the-ground experience had moved to the publishing side from distribution.

Plus one guy I suspected was a “made” man, a "dese" and "dems" guy straight out of The Godfather. How exactly he sold books I had no idea but there he was, stopping by my office with the newest jokes, the latest in industry gossip and accurate info on current sales trends.

All of this info gave me a good sense of what turned readers on (and what turned them off). The next step was working with writers to turn the raw material into books which meant I needed ideas and plenty of them.

I read books, of course—the ones I edited, plus books other editors enthused over and other publishers launched. Fiction and non-fiction, cookbooks, bios, history and how-to’s came through my office and, at minimum, I glanced at each one. In addition to books, I read magazines and newspapers—everything from Cosmopolitan, Scientific American and Playboy to The New York Times and the tabloids, the New York Post (cheeky and fun even in those days) and the Daily News which had—and has—terrific sports writers.

I went to the big international newsstands around the city in those days and bought foreign magazines in a search for the headline or the article or the picture that would trigger an idea. A friend supported herself writing for movie magazines and true confessions magazines. Another edited Confidential, sleazy but wildly popular. Through them, I kept up on pop culture.

I had lunch and dinner with writers and other editors. Impromptu phone conversations and office drop-by visits. Writers and colleagues suggested ideas and plots; so did I. My magpie reading added up. Bits of this and that, fragments half remembered or partially digested, a shocking or moving news article, wars and weddings all contributed.

As I was thinking about what kind of blog I would enjoy writing, I thought about those days and realized that out of that messy high-low stew, ideas bubbled and bloomed.

*ideas that led to a book, a plot, a title or a series
*ideas that solved plot problems
*ideas that sparked new ideas

I also learned not to dismiss or pre-judge anything because we—literally—never knew where out next terrific idea would come from.

Realizing in retrospect that it was that oddball potpourri that caused ideas to flow, I began to think about how I could recreate that creative energy in blog form.  Why not share all the interesting, offbeat, repellent, lurid, provocative and enlightening content that rushes past in a torrent every day? With the huge plus that the internet adds a vital new dimension: the ability to link.

Writers are constantly being advised to read, read, read but not very many advisers are specific about exactly what writers should read and how their reading can help them. What I’ve decided to do is employ my editor’s eye and offer links to content that grabbed my attention with the thought that what got me thinking might also trigger ideas in others.

I want to make it clear that you should almost never take anything literally.

*Consider a link through the filter of your own interests, your genre or a genre you’re interested in trying.
*Whether you need a plot, a scene, a character, a setting or even a word, don’t wait around waiting for inspiration to strike. Instead, actively seek out inspiration.
*Be assertive but not impatient.
*Make allowances for the delayed reaction.
*Give yourself and your creativity time and space to process your reactions to what you’ve read, skimmed and/or experienced.

Here are a few examples of how reading something you never thought would interest you can increase your creativity:

*A link to an article about clothes/fashion/design might seem to be about the clothes--but look deeper. What about the designer him/herself? Or the man or woman wearing those clothes?  Could a model in haute couture or a geek in a hoodie, a socialite in a fur or a club kid in shredded jeans suggest a new character, bring an existing character into clearer focus or even spark a brand new idea?

*A link to a review of a book about spies in New York might suggest a setting, a double cross, a killing or a ghost. What happens if a chick lit heroine moves into an apartment where Nazi secrets were once traded? Or what if a present-day spy learns from history and avoids a fatal mistake?

*The link to a story about butt lifts & millionaire mixers might suggest a character (or a few), a setting (for a crime or a romance), or how the millionaire at a mixer is really a billionaire. Or a complete con man. Or woman.

I love slang, lingo and shoptalk—so whenever I come across lively examples, I’ll share them because slang and shoptalk can jazz up the most workmanlike but necessary scene. For example:

*piaffes and gassers. (Translation for people as uninformed as Ruth’s blog partner: piaffes are steps in dressage and gassers are a sprints by football players. See what you’ll learn on Ruth’s blog?)

*And that gem, BOHICA. Military slang for: Bend Over, Here It Comes Again.

I hope you will think of this new blog as a springboard, a tool box or a bank, one from which you can borrow interest-free and keep going back for more. I hope it will spark new ideas or refurbish old ideas in a new way, and that the comments will be used to bounce ideas off me and other readers.

Last and most important of all, remember that you’re not looking for an idea. You’re looking for ideas that will generate other ideas—and lots of them.

What about you, scriveners? Have you found inspiration for your characters and plots in unlikely places?  Do you have a favorite place to go to jumpstart your ideas?

WINNER! The WINNER of the Terence Stamp CD contest is Rose Zurkan! Congratulations Rose, Alicia will be in touch with you!

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