Serendipity for Fiction Writers: Non-Fiction

The Shirelles: Fresh-faced, 1960s pop singers or THE BRINGERS OF THE APOCALYPSE??? Find out below.

The Shirelles: Fresh-faced, 1960s pop singers or THE BRINGERS OF THE APOCALYPSE??? Can you afford to not read this post and find out?

Writers look everywhere for inspiration. History. Dreams. Family and friends. Our own faces reflecting back, toothpaste dripping from our chins, as an intriguing snippet of dialog or captivating phrase chooses that random but specific moment to gel in our consciousness.

Of course, it’s no revelation that non-fiction inspires fiction. If you do historical romance, you probably read about the time period that interests you. Sci-fi authors surely devour the latest popular-science books to stay current on new discoveries and speculations. But what about those happy accidents? Not when you’re conducting research for a novel or checking maps in a quest for geographic accuracy but when you’re reading a non-fiction book simply because the cover looked cool when you saw it in the library. Or it was a birthday gift from Bill, your brother-in-law who’s a marine biologist, though that has nothing to do with anything.  Or because you had 11 bucks left on an Amazon gift card and were feeling whimsical that night. This hypothetical non-fiction book has nothing to do with your novel’s setting, genre, or time period, but just as you flip from page 19 to page 20, the epiphany strikes. “Son of a gun,” you say, “There’s my theme!”

You don’t actually say “gun,” but you remember that your blog can be read by your employer, so you decide to clean up the language a bit.

This has occurred twice for me recently. That is, a non-fiction book serendipitously provided me with a story core in one instance and the impetus for an unusual scenario and setting in another. These stories of mine are early works in progress, so they are too naked and raw to discuss in detail, but I’ll tell you how they were informed and will, ultimately I hope, be strengthened by unrelated works of non-fiction.

Project Two is a survival story about three preteen girls fighting to stay alive after a global catastrophe. I had most of the elements in place: A setting, a scenario, characters with motivation, and a plot (sort of…  I avoid outlining). What I didn’t have was a core. Once you have the mechanics of writing down, you can write a competent novel if you have a concept, a setting, characters, a threat, and a plot. You can write a good novel if your story as a core. A theme. A heartbeat.

Enter Girl Groups, Girl Culture by Jacqueline Warwick, a music professor at a university in Canada (as of the book’s publication a few years ago). I was reading it because I am a fan of 1960s pop and soul music and because I am a civil-rights advocate, and this non-fiction work promised to discuss the former against the back drop of the latter. What I got was that and a fascinating examination of how these performers bonded as sisters (or didn’t) while touring relentlessly and being totally removed from a normal lifestyle. Say, it’s almost a metaphor for what’s happening to the young women in… my…


To quote Christoph Waltz in the film Inglourious Basterds, “Ooh! That’s a Bingo!” And, as a dumb-old boy trying to write about girls, I need all the bingo I can get.

angela smithProject One is a reveal/twist kind of thing that will be ruined if explained, but I can say it’s dark science fiction/ tech horror (you choose the label). This time I had the plot, characters, threat, setting, scenario, and core, but I needed a “why” that was less of a contrivance than “because.”

My question was answered last month when I read Angela M. Smith’s Hideous Progeny: Disability, Eugenics, and Classic Horror Cinema, the title of which is so long it took up all the space I had for explaining what it’s about. Suffice to say, the discussion of the early 20th century Eugenics movement (in part, a philosophy on genetic and racial superiority that advocated for sterilization of disabled and chronically ill people) lit the proverbial light bulb over my head. Why did I bother bringing this up since I’m not explaining what the novel is about?

My contrived answer: Because. Because it still cements my point, which is that writing inspiration can come from unexpected places, especially when you aren’t looking for it.

I don’t know if I’ll finish either of these projects. I put #1 on hold to work on #2, which I put on hold to work on a short story collection, so who knows? But won’t it be cool if I do finish them, and they are published, and you read them, and you track down this post, and read it again, and say, “Son of a gun!”

Only you don’t actually say “gun.”

So tell me about your serendipitous inspiration. That thing that improved or inspired your fiction when you least expected it…

18 responses to “Serendipity for Fiction Writers: Non-Fiction

  • Kevin Brennan

    I once had a germ of a novel in mind but needed something to really anchor it — specifically a sense of place. Then I read a book called something like “Walking the California Desert.”

    You said it: “Ooh! That’s a bingo!”

    That book became my first published novel.

    PS — I like how Project Two came first…

  • dederants

    The greatest thing about writing is what’s said in the fourth-to-last paragraph: writing can come from unexpected places, especially when you aren’t looking for it. Inspiration usually comes to me right after seeing a movie, an episode of a TV show, or a song that leaves an impression on me, which is why I write fan fiction LOL

  • nrhatch


    It’s all very cool . . . and encourages us to keep our eyes and ears and mind WIDE OPEN.

  • B.L.W. Myers

    A line from a cartoon my kids used to watch, which we still quote around my house: “Once upon a time there was a princess, the end, go to sleep.” That silly sentence helped me figure out WHY I’m writing my novel, which was a very helpful revelation halfway through the first draft.

  • mobewan

    Very rarely do I get those ‘Guns of a bingo caller!’ moments (was that it?). Usually I get a slow burn where various bits and pieces I’ve read, heard, seen all come together and gently stroke my face rather than slap it. If I’m honest it’s more of an ‘ahhhhh’ moment. Usually in the shower. When I can’t write it down.

    A couple of my short stories have come from news stories on the radio on the way home from work when I’m zonked out. My subconscious seems to put them together with the things I’m already working on or thinking about and seems to need the inclusion of warm water to make anything of them. I wrote a short story about a lab break in a while back. A group of brothers as the protagonists, but I didn’t have the why, just a few lines of snippy dialogue and a setting. Then I heard a news story about experimentation on rats and one on a kidnapping and ransom somewhere I decided never to visit. I didn’t really take notice of them at the time, and then later (yep, trickling water was involved) I figured it out.

    Makes me fret about originality if I’m honest (I fret a lot), but that’s a whole different topic. Great post as always.

    • ericjbaker

      I tend to get the bits and pieces thing after I’ve already started a project, but sometimes before. I might see or experience something a 100 times without truly noticing, and on the 101st occasion, I’ll go, “Duh.” I’ve got a story in my short story collection (that I really swear that I’m going to finish someday) inspired by such an experience.

      Thanks so much for the comment and the insights. Shower ideas seem to happen to a lot of people. I wonder why? Maybe people should try writing in the nude. Nah, maybe not.

  • Janna G. Noelle

    ,,,toothpaste dripping from our chins, as an intriguing snippet of dialog or captivating phrase chooses that random but specific moment to gel in our consciousness.

    Son of a gun! I see what you did there.

    I’ve been wracking my brain, trying to recall what other serendipitous inspirations I’ve had for my WIP. Unfortunately, I’m having a hard time coming up with any, which is frustrating, because I know it’s happened. It happens all the time, and I love it when it does.

    That why I’m always floored by people who insist upon not reading books (fiction or nonfiction) while they’re writing, for that’s a powerful wellspring of potential eureka moments they’re stopping down.

    • ericjbaker

      maybe those folks are afraid of being inspired in a new direction. The need to maintain control can be overpowering. I know, because it frequently keeps me off public transport and away from places that restrict access to doors. Or I’m just crazy.

  • Jill Weatherholt

    We can’t read them if you don’t finish them…get to work, Eric! When I sit down and try to think of a story idea, they never come, but when I keep my eyes and ears open while out in the world, they’re everywhere.

    • ericjbaker

      And hardly ever when you have a notepad handy I’ll bet.

      I really must get to work, if only for the sake of finishing what I started. I do have my short story collection in the hands of an editor, so hopefully I’m up soon in the queue.

  • shelleyhazen83

    I’m always amazed at what little bits from daily life seep into my writing. Often, I don’t even know they’re there until I’m writing and pop – there they are! I can’t think of what inspired my current WIPs… One short story was inspired by painful high school memories; one by the Hunger Games; another by the Adirondack hamlet where my father grew up. The idea machine is a mysterious mechanism – and it must be fed!

  • livelytwist

    I like happy accidents. They give me a rush. I drop what I’m reading, and start writing, writing, writing. Non-fiction, my life, the lives of friends and family, and the lives of the people I read about in the paper, helps me answer the why of my characters.

    Yeah, … as a dumb-old boy trying to write about girls, you need all the bingo you can get 🙂 All the best with your short story collection and project one and two.

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