How to Seize Unexpected Story Inspiration Before It Slips Away

The muse loves to come when you least expect it.

Photo by Bobby Johnson on Unsplash

A few years ago, I was shopping at Trader Joe’s when I saw every parent’s nightmare unfold in front of me. A woman was gathering fruit from the bin while her toddler stood in the large part of the grocery cart. Without warning, the cart tipped and the toddler fell to the ground. The mother immediately swooped up her screaming child, consoling him while shoppers moved around them. Some people stared, and some were completely oblivious to what happened. I placed myself in her shoes, feeling her shame from any judgment over letting her son be in that part of the cart in the first place, and her worry over her son who could have been hurt much worse from the fall.

Then the questions began forming in my mind. What if it was much worse? What if her son didn’t survive? As a mother, what would her identity be if her only child passed away?

That scene inspired a book I wrote about a mother who loses her son to this very accident, which then led to a book series. All from a moment at a grocery store.

I pull inspiration for my stories from many different places. It can be found in something I witness, leading me to scenarios and characters. It can be found in an overheard conversation. Sometimes it’s from moments from my life that I need to work out in fiction. And sometimes the story comes from a dream.

My first published book was based on a dream/nightmare I had while I was planning my wedding. My greatest fear at that time was that something would happen to me before I got to marry the love of my life. Because of this, I dreamed I’d died in a car crash. But instead of waking up as soon as I died, the dream continued, showing how all the people I loved were moving on after my death, including my fiancé who met and fell in love with another woman. As I witnessed this, I experienced a small bit of wistfulness. But mostly, I felt this immense rush of peace because he was happy and I knew he was going to be okay. I woke up crying, and the whole book began flowing through me. I couldn’t outline it fast enough.

Inspiration can some from anywhere, you just have to pay attention and be ready to receive it when it comes calling.

In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott shares how she carries index cards everywhere, ready to write down conversations, moments, anything that comes to her while she’s out and about because inspiration rarely comes when it’s convenient.

Nowadays, you don’t even need index cards if you have a smartphone, because it’s just as easy to jot it down in your phone’s notes or even record it as a voice memo. Inspiration likes to hit me while I’m driving, which is an awful time for it to arrive. I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve lost because I didn’t pull over immediately and get it down. By the time I reach a convenient moment, all or most of the story has already gone.

One of my favorite stories about the way inspiration works is how Liz Gilbert shared in her Ted talk about the late American poet, Ruth Stone, and how a poem would come barreling at her over the landscape. Ruth Stone’s job at that point was to drop everything and race for a pencil because if she didn’t, the poem would flow in and then out of her, searching for another poet who was ready to receive it. Watch it below (it’s less than 2 minutes long).

Have you ever had a moment when inspiration struck you when you least expected it? What did you do to make sure you didn’t lose it?

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I’m all over the place, but I try to be honest in all of it. Find my books and musings at crissilangwell.com.

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