Monday, February 22, 2010

Found Inspiration

Ideas for stories and characters often come from unexpected and unusual places. We fiction writers have a habit of jotting down overheard conversations, collecting interesting articles, and maintaining family history in the hope of somehow using these unique details in our writing. But there's another type of object that can be used for inspiration for a story or character. The found object.

What's a found object? Literally something you recover that someone has discarded or lost. Found objects can be a grocery list left in a shopping cart, a crumpled note tossed from a park bench, or a love letter in the glove box of your rental car. Let's face it: this stuff has been permanently separated from its owners. It's now public property, and if you find it, you are its happy new owner. It's a safe way to be a voyer. If this all sounds a little skeezy, well consider that there is a legitimate subculture of folks coveting lost/discarded items, giving them a second life as curios and conversation starters.

For example, take this dashing young man in the above photo, found in a book from a library book sale. He could be a character in my next story. He's fashionably dressed, and has topped off his outfit with a bandanna tied around his head. He seems like a brother or a boyfriend, a co-worker or stranger on the street. It's up to you to shade in his backstory and make him fit into your fictive dream. Some writers use photographs of people to help them describe a character's physical appearance.

Other sources of found inspiration can come from notes, cards, and letters. They don't have to be full of detail for you to get an idea or feeling for a character, or to picture a situation that could start a story or give an idea for a scene you've been having trouble getting right.

The note to the left was also found in a used book.
There's a lot going on here. First, it's obvious the writer is young, just a kid. The recipient sent this kid a Christmas card. But the last sentence is the killer. The kid is the go-between, the beard. Who is Harry? The kid's father? Grandma's second husband or boyfriend? A fiction writer could unfold this family drama any number of ways. Was the note tucked inside Harry's book? Was it a note written and never sent? It's up to you. Do what you will.  
The note on the right is a found class schedule. Upon first reading, it doesn't seem that special. But take another look: this student is well-organized, and needs to know just what time she will be home. But why? For dinner? To pick up her kid? So she can allot enough time to do her homework? This schedule could hold the key to one of your characters, that final personality trait puzzle piece.

Here's another note, an apology. From a student to a teacher? From one neighbor to another? The son of a family friend? This note brings to mind a kid who's a little wild, out of control. I'm not sure sorry's going to cut it. What could have prompted this situation and how did the apology come about? Angry parents insisting? Expel the kid unless he plays nice?

Found objects come with hundreds of built-in possibilities. You probably have a few found objects around your house whether you know it or not. The next time you're in a used book store, make sure to pay attention to those lost treasures between the pages. The next time you see a photograph dropped on the ground, pick it up. It might hold the key to your next scene, a new character.

I leave you with two last finds. Who know? Maybe they'll give you some found inspiration. (Click them to see them larger.)


Liz's Mom said...

This post is splendid.

Absolutely perfect

It is also fascinating and remarkable.

Laurie Smith Murphy said...

This was really interesting, Dell! Great topic. I will now keep my eyes open for any found inspiration.

Cynthia Sherrick said...

I love these found notes. They offer a unique peek into the hearts and minds of the writer at a particular moment in time.
Let's hope the internet and email doesn't take away the hand-written word completely.

Dell Smith said...

After you recognize that there are found objects all over, they're easy to find. I doubt these personal little tokens will ever become obsolete. Unless we get to the point of texting grocery lists to ourselves.