Many writers will tell you not to wait for inspiration — what really makes a writer is discipline. You need to wake up at a certain time each day and commit that pen to paper.
But even though a novel is a slow journey that you complete only by dedicating yourself to the task, there is definitely a little bit of magic involved.
For me, inspiration comes in several forms. I’ve talked about how listening to strangers on a podcast can plant an idea for a story. Or how a song from my childhood could have a lasting impression.
When I was writing They Could Have Named Her Anything, a lot of what inspired me was wandering around the streets of New York City, and writing down what I saw and felt. I wrote long, long passages when I was stuck on crowded subway trains because that’s where I often felt the most compelled to write. For a book that revolves so much around place, it’s not surprising that sometimes walking down a particular street would suddenly take my breath away and make me recommit to my novel again just as I was becoming sure that it that I’d be better off giving up.
Now, inspiration comes from different places. My second novel–or what I think is my second novel!–isn’t set in New York, and so I don’t get the same sort of inspiration from just walking down a city street. This time, inspiration comes at very peculiar and unexpected moments. For example, while watching Aquaman, I suddenly was able to see a major flaw in my new book. Or, several hours after reading Scarlett Thomas’ Patreon newsletter, I finally figured out how to approach a tricky subplot. Or, after reading a very funny statement from a politician in Buffalo, I was able to draft an entire conversation between two characters that delighted me, and I hope will delight a reader, too.
While writing my first book, I don’t think I paid as much attention to what inspired me, but now, I actively seek it out. This may sound bizarre, but I find myself sometimes indulging in habits that I think my protagonist would do. I buy things I think she’d be interested in, I try to learn things that she would likely already know, and I furiously Google Maps her hometown as if that will give me a clue as to what it’s really like to be her. It feels a little bizarre, not unlike I’m some sort of stalker.
But really, I think what I’ve described above is just research. And research is different from inspiration. Inspiration usually comes not when you’re at your computer, but when you’re at a formal dinner party or a half hour before you have a report due at work. What I do when I’m inspired but can’t set aside the time to fully write out a scene is take quick, explosive notes. I use my phone, mostly, because it’s just so convenient, but anything works. The goal is just to hold onto the idea.
And sometimes, the idea isn’t very good after all. When I finally have the time to look back at my notes, sometimes I find that the idea I thought was so brilliant was not quite right. I’ve found that the best ones actually always seem to stick with me; I don’t even really have to look back at my notes to recall them.
I suggest that if you’re looking for inspiration, what you should do is let your Work In Progress be very, very messy. In addition to my phone notes, I have all kinds of wild things pasted directly into my WIP that will eventually be scrubbed. It’s where I put anything I find fun and inspirational–links to interesting videos or images or articles; the half-baked ideas from my phone; or even a rough, forever morphing outline. And when I’m stuck, I consult this list, and eventually find something to be inspired about again.