Ideas for stories can develop anytime and anywhere. This is a truism that most writers I know agree upon, and why many of us have paper and writing instruments strategically placed throughout our homes, in our cars, in our offices, and so forth. One of my favorite stories about J.R.R. Tolkien centers around the first time he wrote the following line: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Tolkien scribbled this on an exam he was grading for one of his students at Oxford. These small notations can eventually develop into short stories, or into one of the most enduring fantasy epics of our time, which is why getting these ideas down on paper (or on the computer/tablet screen) remains important.
Many of these ideas drift into our consciousness when we are not writing; they pop into our heads when we are engaged in other tasks. A lot of my ideas occur when I am working in my garden, washing dishes, or, heaven help me, folding laundry. Rarely will I develop the initial idea for a story while sitting in front of my computer, ready to type. I expound on ideas and draft stories on the computer, but the initial ideas seem to wait for times when my mind is occupied with a mundane task and I have to stop with a dish half-washed, my hands covered in soap suds, to capture on paper a story idea about the level of sentience a cursed, wish-granting monkey’s paw might retain: I make a note about writing a story from the cursed paw’s point of view, and then go back to scrubbing pans.
Interestingly enough, this phenomenon has been studied by researchers from the University of California, Santa Barbara. (They have studied creativity, I mean; as far as I know, they have not researched anything about the possible thought processes of disembodied simian appendages.) In a 2012 study, “Inspired by Distraction: Mind-Wandering Facilitates Creative Incubation,” the researchers determined that “engaging in simple external tasks that allow the mind to wander may facilitate creative problem solving.” (If you are interested, you can read more about it at the following: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22941876) What this basically means is that our creativity flows most freely during any task where it is relatively easy for the mind to wander; the right amount of mundane activity encourages our brains to go forth and think.
So what does this mean for writers? If you are looking for inspiration, do something that allows your mind to wander. Household chores, yoga, gardening –it differs for every person; find something that works for you and that fits into your daily life and schedule. And make sure that you have a way to record these inspirations; an undocumented idea is generally an idea lost.
Oh—and you may not want to share this particular writing trick with your families, who may then feel they are “helping you” with your writing career by leaving you all of the dishes to wash and the laundry to fold . . .