We’ve all heard that, as writers, we need to read outside of our genre. This helps us learn and expand–adopt and adapt devices that we may never have considered otherwise. Toss elements of a thriller into high fantasy, for instance. Stir scraps of mystery into a romance. Freshen up dusty old tropes with a dash of the unexpected. You’ll be surprised at what may spring from new seeds sown in old soil.
Diversifying is a fantastic way to sustain the old standbys we love while keeping them alive and vital. The same goes for our creative brains. Reading outside of one’s genre is a good place to start, but how about taking it one step further? Or several?
Writers work almost exclusively with the intangible. It’s all in our heads. Even after we scribble or type it all out, a story is still, more or less, an ephemeral thing. No matter how immersive your fictional world, a good portion of it will remain in your mind’s eye, and later, that of the reader.
This elusive quality can be frustrating, but it’s also incredibly freeing. Part of this freedom is our ability to draw inspiration from almost anywhere, anyone, or anything. Fragments of our everyday, hoarded and assembled into something entirely new. And yet, so often, we return, again and again, to the same sources. We read the same books, watch the same shows, eat the same foods, and wonder why our words feel recycled.
What if we diversified our inspiration the same way we might vary the stack of books on our nightstand? What if we learned from mediums other than our own, as we might learn from writers of another genre?
For instance, music. Many authors already use playlists to help them get in the headspace for writing. But music can do much more than set a mood. Have you ever examined the lyrics of a well-crafted song? In a few words, they can tell a story–one it would take many writers an entire novel to reveal. Even though the two mediums are very different, there is something valuable to be drawn from that.
The same can be said of poetry. Or a painting. Or sculpture. Stories are being told everywhere, in countless ways, and writers can learn from all of them. Learn to shape characters like a handful of clay, showing who they are with posture and pose; sample poems to understand how one careful line can tell more than a whole paragraph; explore how song lyrics twist words to craft surprising metaphors and similes; examine visual art, like paintings, for clues on setting a dynamic scene.
Watching a variety of films and shows can also be helpful–screenwriters often have less room to tell a story, so their work is a lesson in pacing and efficient character development. Likewise, directors and set designers seed visual clues about plot, character and theme into a scene. These techniques can be applied to novel and short story writing, teaching us how to utilize settings and props in our writing as more than a simple backdrop.
Training ourselves to not only see, but observe, isn’t always easy–but as a skill, it is invaluable. Writers are bound by words (And, one hopes, basic grammar. Let’s not get too airy-faerie here…), but imagination is infinite, and so is the potential for inspiration. Simply scrolling through Pinterest can yield dozens of ideas. A stroll through an art gallery, museum, or festival? Even better. Perhaps add new music to your daily playlist and really listen. Approach everything as something to learn from, to understand, and see how it may be applied. Dabble in the unfamiliar, the unexpected, and see what you find. And of course, beyond other mediums, there is life itself. Culture, nature, history–simple daily existence.
Once you begin to draw inspiration from varied and unconventional sources, it will become a habit. The more we look, the more we see.
So, next time you sit down at your desk with a laptop, or pad and pencil, or quill and roll of parchment–remember. Remember everything you’ve seen–all the bits and pieces of art and life that you have learned from, picked apart and kept.
Then write it down.
Fay Lane | July 15, 2019