Paying Attention: A Secret Behind Inspiration

iStock_000006201684XLarge “How do you get all those ideas?”

I rank this question up along with “How do you learn all those lines?” when I was the actor. It was a question actors dreaded, but I rarely think we were asked it when we had a “Meet & Greet” with the audience. It’s a fair enough question, though; and since I never got it when I was an actor, I’ll answer it here. “Rehearsal and repetition.” That’s the key in learning your lines, be it for a play, a presentation, or for a very important one-on-one you have on your books.

Now, as a writer, the ideas question tends to be the one that earns an eye-roll, but I don’t think it’s fair. People are genuinely curious how authors come up with what they put down on paper. Maybe it’s because they wonder how someone can think up Victorian secret agents investigating the unknown, or a dwarf-detective solving crimes in the Prohibition Era; and it’s a sincere question. I know that when I’ve read books I love, or enjoyed an episode of Almost Human or True Detective, I marvel at the air tight dialogue or incredible situations these talented writers come up with and wonder what drives them. It’s good to know where ideas come from and what makes them happen because inspiration keep you busy as a writer.

If there was a magic bullet in finding great ideas, it actually ties back to a trick I had with acting: Pay attention. The world around you is teeming with ideas, and inspiration can happen at any time. With technology, jotting ideas down has been made insanely easy, so now instead of carrying around the writer’s notebook, journal—or ledger as The Taxman does—you can whip out the smartphone and take notes. What’s key though in finding inspiration is paying attention to what’s around you. Many times, that’s all you need to get an idea going. 

Case in point, today the third season of Tales from the Archives launched; and I’m particularly proud of this story that Pip and I put together as it came from the unlikeliest of places: church. Now church is probably not the place where I should be in “Writer’s Mode” but Trinity Episcopal of Manassas prides itself on being a different kind of church. This particular day, Dennis Reid, was giving a sermon on Judas Iscariot; but not the kind of sermon you would think. He said something that struck me hard:

“You know, I think Judas got a bum rap.”

Something about that observation clicked, and I found myself  quickly tapping out a few notes on my iPhone…

  • What would drive one of Jesus’ confidants to betray him?
  • What kind of guilt drives someone to suicide?
  • What happened to the silver after Judas committed suicide?

Typing out all this was pretty amazing as I was getting nudged (repeatedly) by Pip during all this, but type it out I did.

But here’s the thing about ideas — ideas are cheap. Ideas are not books. Ideas are not short stories. Ideas are not scripts. Ideas are the starting point. The first step. From here, you have to move on the idea, make time for it, and get to work. With the notes I managed to get down in church, I pitched the idea to Pip and then we got to work.

And here you are — the result of that unassuming sermon at Trinity Episcopal Church which inspired the opening short story to the thirds season of Tales from the Archives.


So where do these ideas come from? Just about anywhere, provided you pay attention. What you do with that inspiration, though, all resides with what you do next. What your next step?

As for me, I need to sit down with PJ Schnyder and have a serious talk about beef jerky and bullets…


  1. The answer to the Actor’s question and the Writer’s question are the same: Practice. Memorization and creativity are both skills that must be practiced. I see you’ve been practicing!



  2. Great post. I love “what if” scenarios. Writing a few years into the future, I love to take what I’ve learned about technology, social interaction, global markets, corporate culture, etc., and try to take things in a direction that might not exist yet. Definitely only happens if you pay attention. Good on ya, Tee!


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