Seven Ways Writers Can Play ‘What If?’ To Get Inspired

Fine Art of Listening by Jann Alexander © 2014
I’ve been known to eavesdrop: Fine Art of Listening ©2014

Inspiration comes at us in many ways and at many times, until it doesn’t. And there I am, at my desk, ready to write, but . . . nothing comes. Or what does come, doesn’t feel right.

That’s my signal to play the What If? game.

I know I’m not unique in asking, What If? It’s the basis of all stories we tell.

It’s the way we arrive at the stories that makes them unique. We can only play What If? when we have something to work with. Here are seven of the sneaky methods I employ, none of them costing a dime, and without ever having to leave my ergonomic chair.

1. Research.

The libraries of the world are at my fingertips. I might have a specific era, topic or place in mind, but if I Google it, I’ll only get the tip of the iceberg. When I research at the Digital Public Library of America, I’ve got 11,665,680 items from libraries, museums and archives to sift through; I can filter by a timeline, a place or an exhibition. Inspiration starts to flow.

Some Exhibitions at Digital Public Library of America
Some of the Exhibitions at Digital Public Library of America

2. Listen.

Did you know there are thousands of podcasts out there? Thanks to PRX’s Radiotopia network, I’m both entertained and inspired by shows like

  • The Memory Palace,
  • Fugitive Waves,
  • Criminal,
  • Snap Judgment,
  • Mortified,
  • Radio Diaries

On Radio Diaries a recent podcast, The Ski Troops of WWII, inspired a character for the book I’m working on now. Who knew there were skiing soldiers?

3. Eavesdrop.

There are a million stories in the Naked City, or so they say. Thousands of them are recorded as interviews by regular folks like us, on StoryCorps, and grouped by themes. Do I want to tell a story about memory loss, struggle, growing up or any of its dozens of themes? When I listen in on a frank interview of an ordinary person by a loved one, it inspires ideas that are laced with authenticity.

Countless Real-Life Stories To Hear:
Countless Real-Life Stories To Hear:

4. Mourn.

People are always dying. It’s sad, and a fact of life. And the facts of those lives are all collected in obituaries—which I scan in the morning paper for ideas. They’re also in online newspapers across the world, and in tribute sites like, where the ordinary lives mix with the extraordinary lives for some imaginative What If? scenarios. The unlikely deaths listed in the Thrill Seekers category provide material for a lifetime (pun unintended).

Mix ordinary lives with the extraordinary for imaginative ‘What If?’ scenarios. Tweet:

5. Spy.

It’s all right there, on Facebook, that constant stream of the most personal details shared by my friends, family and strangers alike, complete with  photographs from all stages of their lives—the pretty parts they care to share. But that’s okay. I can flip those around, can’t I, and imagine other endings?

I can spy on strangers, or live dangerously and reimagine the lives of high school friends (not that I would). Whatever happened to so-and-so? Who were they then, who are they now? Who did they marry, but who should they have married? What if . . . ?

6. Watch.

Ever seen the relationship takedowns masterminded by Dr. Phil?  I could get my psych degree watching couples and families go at it on The Dr. Phil Show on YouTube. (Pro Tip: It’s easier to take if you turn on the closed captioning and mute the volume.)

For a dose of reality, I get my history kicks with the PBS series American Experience, where I did a deep dive into 1930s youth riding the rails for my current novel. And at, one of the 57,000 videos from 1890-1990 inspired the dramatic opening sequence in my work in progress. Real stuff, people, you can’t make it up!

Archival Footage and Photographs at
Archival Footage and Photographs at

7. Observe.

How many billions of photographs are online? Just looking gives me shivers. And ideas when trolling here:
So Many Images at

And then there’s my own photo library to scan through, maybe 15,000 online and countless more in slides, prints and albums.

If none of this works, I am better educated and satisfied that I have laid the groundwork for what’s to come tomorrow, which is another day. Besides, it’s time for wine now.  ♣

Care to share some of your inspirational sources?

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8 thoughts on “Seven Ways Writers Can Play ‘What If?’ To Get Inspired

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  1. Thank you for these helpful links. I am unfamiliar with most of them and that starts my day by learning something new. I love days like this.

    FYI: I noticed that your link to goes to the PBS link.


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