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I am a firm believer that the seeds of stories and characters can come from absolutely anywhere. One of my novels, for instance, was sparked during a memorial service for a good friend. Another was sparked when I came home to find that my roommate had left our house in an odd state of disarray. Yet another was sparked in the first five minutes of a movie I was watching. I speculated on where the movie was going. I was completely off-base, but that was only to my benefit, because I was left with my own unique story idea to pursue.
When I speak to other writers, one of the first questions I ask is, “Where do you get your best story ideas?” Time and time again, my mind is opened to new avenues, like the man who was inspired by war stories at his grandfather’s deathbed, or the young girl who never met an animal whose story she didn’t want to tell.
Wherever I went, I started asking myself, “What if I had to come up with a story or character idea from my surroundings? What would it be?” These so-called “forced” ideas have ended up being some of my most inspiring. I think our creative minds flourish more when they are pushed than they do when we sit back waiting for ideas to flood our minds.
If we rush through our lives without paying attention, we may miss these opportunities. I have taken the time to build my observational muscles. I am the perfect person to write about observation because I was not born with this natural ability. I truly have had to learn it. You know during political elections when political parties flood streets and lawns with signs and posters and buttons for their candidates? Yes, well, more than once my husband has asked me who I plan to vote for, and I’ve replied, “Oh, is there an election coming up?”
That’s how blind I can be to the world around me if I don’t actively practice the skill of observation. Being a good observer and learning how to catalog the ideas around you is a little like becoming a collector — but not in order to fill up your house with useless knickknacks. You become a collector of characters, settings, motives, and obstacles.
To train yourself to be more observant, find something to open your mind to every day. Foster curiosity. Read something every day, whether it’s a newspaper ad, a poem, a short story, or anything. And actively watch people every day. Write down what you see, what interests you about people or places, and what questions roam in your mind after spending time observing people.
When you observe, consider the following ideas and questions:
• Practice really seeing the details around you. Set your watch for a minute or five minutes, look around yourself with purpose, and then when the time is up, close your eyes. How much can you remember?
• Do this with a buddy. One person keeps his or her eyes open and asks the other questions about your surroundings. Practice seeing, noticing, and remembering the little details.
• Go somewhere different regularly. Don’t just stick to the same routines. Purposefully visit a different coffee shop, restaurant, or gas station. Drive home from work using a different route and sit in a different chair in your home or office. How does this change your perspective or open your eyes to new details?
Finally, during your observations, or immediately after, make detailed notes. I encourage you to jot down everything, and circle anything that immediately resonates as something you think you’ll one day want to come back to. Take photos of interesting places, or, if you’re sneaky enough, of interesting people.
Resolve to take the time to be open-minded about the world around you. Ask questions, notice problems, and be curious. By building up your observation muscles, you’ll never again be stuck for new story ideas.
Denise Jaden is the author of the new book for writers, Story Sparks: Finding Your Best Story Ideas and Turning Them into Compelling Fiction, as well as the NaNoWriMo-popular guide, Fast Fiction, and several popular fiction titles. She is a sought-after speaker, motivating writers to find their own best story ideas, and then stirring up the drive to write them. She lives just outside Vancouver, BC with her husband and son. Find out more at DeniseJaden.com