|Dorothy's ruby slippers|
For instance, Charlotte's Web by E.B. White was famously inspired by an actual spider web in the writer's house. George Orwell saw a young boy steering a cart horse along a path and wondered what would happen if animals realized their own strength. That idea became the high school fave, Animal House. Anna Karenina started out as a simple elbow Tolstoy was thinking about lounging on a sofa after dinner.
Of course, writers can be struck by less concrete things too: dreams, dialogue, sudden insights. But I was thinking about actual things. Because I was really inspired by a pair of shoes for one of my characters. In fact, it's the first thing we see about her.
The main character Grace Walker has come to see a beautiful apartment at a landmark building in New York. One of those creepy ones overlooking Central Park. Not as creepy as the Dakota in Rosemary's Baby. But grand and established like that. Grace wanders around the empty place, taking everything in, falling in love - when suddenly, she sees something she missed. A pair of women's high heels in the hall by the front door. They're white with a bright floral pattern. One of them is knocked over so she can see the red sole. These aren't just any shoes, they're Christian Louboutins (i.e. very expensive!).
Then suddenly, Delia - the landlady - comes down the hall. You hear her before you see her: "Holaaaah!" Delia is very glamorous and sexy and rich. She's also a Latina, so think Sofia Vergara by way of Eva Mendes (hot!!). We don't even have to see her to know she's glam/sexy/rich. Floral high heels by Christian Louboutin? What could be more glamorous, sexy or expensive than that? Using items like this to help set up a character is very helpful because it makes you stick to the first rule of writing: don't tell us the story. Show us. And these shoes do that for Delia's character.
btw these Louboutins weren't just some magic image that popped into my head. These were actual shoes that I saw in someone's office a few years ago. It's a pretty interesting story - and it's actually related to publishing, too. But more about these shoes - and the woman who owned them - next time. Because she was actually a very powerful New York editor.
To see how helpful mundane items can be, try it for yourself. Think of a character in your latest book or story. If you're not creating something like that yet, take a stab anyway. Get the fiction pathways open. ;) Say your character is a male teacher. Think back on your experience with teachers who were important to you. What do you remember about them? A tie? A briefcase? A beard? What did it say about them?
Is your main character a cop? You've got dozens - no hundreds - of famous fictional cops out there to inspire you. And you could meet a few real ones too. Whether you're writing about a big city lawyer or a small town cleaning lady, use subtle details to bring them to life. It's a fun, effective shortcut to help you - and your reader - understand who your character is.
btw, that image at the top of the post is of Dorothy's ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz. In the original story, the shoes were actually silver. Frank L. Baum collected silver, so he was always surrounded by it. He must've got the inspiration that way ...
Here's an article about the images that inspired famous books from Writer's Digest.
And more about that New York editor and those floral Louboutins another time. Great story!