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Ideas, the muse and the writing life

When I tell people I’m a writer they usually ask me where I get my ideas from. I guess every writer gets asked this question and the answer varies, but most of us would agree that the answer is – from life.

If you aren’t an avid observer of life you’ll have little to write about.

I enjoy watching people’s body language and the gauntlet of emotions that can be run in any given situation.

Watch a child opening a present. Are they smiling? Are their eyes wide-open in awe? Do they giggle? Maybe they even cry.

Once you’ve viewed all this then think about a ‘what if’. What if this was the only gift the child had ever received? What if the present was from a father killed during a war a month ago but the parcel had only just arrived? (See where I’m going with this.) You could create a fabulous story just from a simple observation that you’ve added a ‘what if’ to.

I’ll often watch people at the surf club that I moonlight at (isn’t every struggling writer, at least at one point in their life, a waitress?).

Sometimes a couple will come in and argue about what to order off the menu. I notice the flashy wedding ring on her finger. They then sit as far apart as possible and stare out at the view of the surf instead of talking to each other. I imagine different scenarios. Have they had a big fight before they left to go out? Did one tell the other it’s over? Or perhaps they are on the brink of financial ruin and therefore spending money on a meal out leads to tension.

If I really let my imagination run wild I could assume she has just told him that she isn’t who he thinks she is and that she is leading a double life. She is being chased by someone sinister and he is looking out at the ocean, concerned that someone could climb over the balcony to attack her. Someone does and the surf club becomes the scene of an action movie. (That’d liven things up.)

Other times I’ve watched families. The father ignores the kids, eats his meal and drinks too much rum and coke. The mother looks frazzled and keeps asking the kids to be quiet, drinks water and barely picks at her meal. The kids are being typical excited children on a night out. What’s going on there?

I particularly like watching lovers and how they react to each other. If they gaze deeply into each other’s eyes and smile I’d assume they are in love. Just a little reach to touch each other’s fingertips is another sign.  Avoiding eye contact and standing apart could be a sign the love is waning or that they’ve had a fight. What signs have you seen?

Then there’s the weird and wonderful. One night the staff were discussing whether a patron was drunk (he could barely order his meal because he seemed confused and a little over the top). As we hadn’t actually seen him drink anything, we were concerned that he was mentally incapacitated in some other way. What if he’d had a brain injury? What if he was just odd?

Also, watch how people run, walk, talk, listen, sneeze, yell etc., so that you can describe different versions in your stories. Readers get sick of reading the same old take on something as simple as running. ‘He ran in long strides to get away’ could be ‘his lean legs were giraffe-like as he put a quick distance between him and his chaser’. Find something new and your stories will come alive.

Don’t forget to observe all the senses: see, touch, smell, taste and hear.

Just in case you can’t find anything interesting in life (I doubt it) here are some writing prompts:

  • Did you notice anyone in the car beside you as you were driving to work? Imagine where they were going. Write a story about their day.
  • There is a crack in your coffee cup. How did it get there? (Now don’t be boring.)
  • What was your first pet and how did you feel about it?
  • Think up a perfect book title including the word about. Write a short blurb.
  • Stick a pin in a map of the world. Write about the area the pin lands on.
  • When you pass a stranger note all their characteristics, mannerisms, dress sense, odour and anything else you notice. Imagine their life and write about it.
  • The next time you are happy try to remember exactly how you felt. Did your throat hurt from the laughter? Did your eyes run? Did you feel excited with a sense of wellbeing?
  • What are you really passionate about? (This should be easy to write an article about.)

I hope this helps get your muse back to work.

This blog has been inspired by my cousin Rik (also a writer) whose muse recently went walkabout and hasn’t returned.

Appeared first at


Donna Munro is the author of The Zanzibar Moon, Kendwa's Secret and Elephant Creek, freelance writer, blogger, graphic designer, content writer, book marketer, administrator, web editor and book reader. She's been published in Take Five, The Australian Woman's Weekly, For Me, She, That's Life, Woman's Day and Club Life and other smaller publications. She is a proud member of Romance Writers of Australia and the current Administrative Assistant. Donna lives in Queensland and is addicted to beaches, reading, Peanut Butter, elephants, koalas, Sydney Roosters and Home & Away. You'll often find her digging her toes in the sand with a book in her hand.

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