There’s an old joke among writers about where we get our ideas: an idea of the month club, of course! Sadly, such a thing does not exist, at least not in our world. Even if there were, the best ideas are not something we can be given. They are something we make, by filling our brains with as many words, images, and concepts as we can, and letting it all clatter around in there until something new and exciting emerges.

Fortunately, the Internet is full of ingredients for new ideas. Finding the best resources is not always easy, though. I’ve assembled some of my favorite stops online for filling my brain with idea-ingredients. It’s hardly a dent in what’s out there (I didn’t even consider podcasts), but it’s a start. Bookmark what you love, and then be sure to come back and share your own favorite resources in the comments!

  1. Atlas Obscuraatlas obscura logo. This venerable site started out as an actual atlas — an index of interesting and obscure landmarks and roadside attractions from around the world, with tools to help you plan your next trip. It has since grown to encompass all manner of “hidden places, incredible history, scientific marvels, and gastronomical wonders” — all of which is great fodder for the inspiration mill. Amidst the quirky sights like a cement mixer transformed to resemble a space capsule and unbelievable natural wonders ( boiling rivers, anyone?), you’ll find fascinating stories like the Esie Figurines — 1,000 recently uncovered stone statues that just might be the population of a whole town turned to stone! The stories practically write themselves.
  2. Art Stationartstation logo. This portfolio showcase is where professional and aspiring artists show off their creative work. You’ll find every style of traditional and digital illustration, comic, cover and game art represented. If you want visual inspiration, hop on over to the fantasy art gallery to discover magical landscape, character and creature designs. For really mind-bending creations, be sure to visit the concept art channel.
  3. Wikipedi. The grand-daddy of all open-source information sites might have some issues when it comes to “reliable information,” but when you’re looking for fantasy fiction inspiration, is accuracy really critical? Start by repeatedly clicking “Random Link” until something pops up that grabs your interest. Then take a deep dive through in-article links until you discover some interesting nugget that sparks a creative idea. I just went from the Seven Warriors movie to the Warlord Era to the Central Plains War, which involved more than one million soldiers — there’s got to be some interesting plot ideas in there!
  4. Myth & Moormyth and moor logo. Terri Windling is an artist, writer, and editor whose work has been shaping the fantasy genre for decades. On her blog, she takes deep dives into the works of writers, poets, and scholars discussing the nature of storycraft, fantasy literature, myths, and legends, and how art and nature are intertwined. If you’re looking for big ideas to add depth to your story, start here. As a bonus, you’ll find evocative images from famous and not-so-famous fantasy artists accompanying every post, along with Windling’s own photography of the English countryside. If Windling’s blog doesn’t resonate with you, find another deep-thinking blog to tap into, such as The Marginalia (formerly Brain Pickings), Austin Kleon (more about the art of creativity itself), or Longreads (it’s right in the name!).
  5. Fantasy Plot Generatorreedsy logo. I have in no way done an exhaustive search of all the random plot generators out there, but the one offered by Reedsy has some great features, like being able to lock individual elements that you like and spin the wheel again until you get a combination that sparks your interest. The results offer lots of options for adding texture to your story, so you can make it uniquely your own. Check out this first-time prompt:
    MAIN CHARACTER : Character An outlaw, who is past prime.
    SECONDARY CHARACTER: An apprentice, who can be forgetful.
    PLOT: It’s a comic fantasy story about toppling the establishment. It kicks off in a graveyard with a prophecy. (Note that: not all is as it first appears in this story. )
    And there’s a twist! All the characters are animals.
    Reedsy’s Fantasy Book Title Generator is also pretty decent, if an evocative title is all you need to get your creative gears grinding.
  6. Pinterestpinterest logo. For pure visual inspiration, you can’t beat the magical overload Pinterest will provide. Whether you search wide (magical landscapes, fantasy characters) or narrow (evil swords, elvish treehouse), you are sure to find lots of ideas for worldbuilding and story generation. Even better, you can create albums of inspiring images that can help you build a comprehensive aesthetic for your story world.
  7. National Geographicnational geographic logo. Dive into luscious photo essays that explore history, culture, and the natural world. It requires a login to read most articles, but for topics like Argentina’s Land of Fire and the mystery of 500-year-old spines on sticks, it’s worth it!
  8. Mythulumythulu logo. This card-based inspiration system can be downloaded as an app on your phone or played in VR via Steam. Surprisingly robust, the cards let you randomly combine archetypal qualities such as “Torn,” “Water” or “Temple” into something that you can use to spawn story, character and worldbuilding ideas.
  9. Encyclopedia Mythicaencyclopedia mythica logo. This massive index will introduce you to gods, myths and legends from around the world. Whether you’re telling actually telling stories about divine beings or you just want some non-Greco-Roman ideas for your world’s religion, these real-world examples will intrigue you.
  10. Aarne-Thomson-Uther Tale Type Index. The Thompson index is an academic tool used to categorize folk tales. But there’s no reason you can’t use it in reverse. The tale type will give a bare bones description of a type, e.g. “A youth is sent to the land of the ogres by his stepmother who is, herself, an ogress. Youth finds out where lives of ogres are kept (usually in bees) and destroys them. Returns home and destroys stepmother.” There are also some links to the variants of the story that have been collected online. But don’t read those! Take the basic idea and see what your imagination can do! Types 300-749, Tales of Magic, might be of particular interest.

Now that you’ve got your inspiration, it’s time for the hard work to begin. Every idea, no matter how original, takes thought and effort to spin into a captivating story. I can’t wait to see what you come up with!

 

image of castle with the quote "Fantasy takes all those things from deep inside and puts them where you can see them, and then deal with them." Cited from Lev Grossman

Sometimes, I wonder if I read too much fantasy. I seldom dip my literary toes into anything that doesn’t have at least a little magic in it. I’m not even keen on most this-world fantasy (urban fantasy, magical realism, etc.) — I have to be taken out of this world in order to really engage with a story.

It’s very easy to get caught up in the window dressing of fantasy, the swords and wizards and castles and dragons. Basically, everything on this list:

I’m not going to lie — I love most of the things on the list, good, bad and indifferent. I don’t always love the stories they’re used to tell, but a weak story with a good fantasy aesthetic is probably going to hold my attention longer than a good story with a real world aesthetic.

But I don’t love fantasy just because of the aesthetic. It’s not about escaping the real world, either. As Lev Grossman points out in his essay about reading C.S. Lewis, you don’t really escape anything in fantasy.

“…I think fantasy is a powerful tool for coming to an understanding of oneself. The magic trick here, the sleight of hand, is that when you pass through the portal, you re-encounter in the fantasy world the problems you thought you left behind in the real world.”

Lev Grossman, “Confronting Reality by Reading Fantasy”

I think about that a lot, and about what sort of problems I bring with me when I delve into a fantasy world (as a reader or as a writer). According to Lisa Cron , whose work on story structure is rooted in neuroscience, the primary purpose of story is to prepare the reader to survive and prosper.

“Stories let us vicariously try out difficult situations we haven’t yet experience to see what it would really feel like, and what we’d need to learn in order to survive.”

Lisa Cron, Story Genius

Once upon a time, those “difficult situations” were things like how to avoid predators that wanted to eat us. These days, our difficult situations more likely revolve around the complex interactions that we depend on to thrive in society. Things like how to work as a team, or how to recognize love, or how to forgive someone who has hurt you — these questions (and thousands others like them) are why we connect so powerfully with stories in any genre. They help us navigate the maze of social relationships by preparing us for situations we may face as we go about our lives.

But fantasy does a little bit more than that. While fantasy stories still provide guidance in how to interact with other people (if in slightly exaggerated circumstances, e.g. wicked stepmothers), it also opens a portal to explore what is going on in your own head.

As Grossman explains:

“The whole modernist-realist tradition is about the self observing the world around you—sensing how other it is, how alien it is, how different it is to what’s going on inside you. In fantasy, that gets turned inside out. The landscape you inhabit is a mirror of what’s inside you. The stuff inside can get out, and walk around, and take the form of places and people and things and magic. And once it’s outside, then you can get at it. You can wrestle it, make friends with it, kill it, seduce it. Fantasy takes all those things from deep inside and puts them where you can see them, and then deal with them.”

Lev Grossman, “Confronting Reality by Reading Fantasy”

As a very self-reflective person, someone who spends a lot of time thinking about who I am and how I fit into this world (or maybe don’t fit?), I don’t find modern “mundane” fiction very illuminating. I need something more, something that twists the lens and creates a new perspective that I can learn from. What I crave from a story, whether I’m reading or writing one, is that extra layer of meaning where I can explore not just the social landscape, but my internal landscape, as well. If I can be so bold as to quote myself:

“It is only by escaping the bounds of the everyday that certain truths about humanity, the universe, and ourselves may be reached. Fantasy derives from the same realm as myth and dream, a realm that allows us to explore symbolically what is too complicated to make much sense of otherwise. Abstract ideas can take concrete form; black and white are unblurred by the grays of everyday life.”

Stace Dumoski, “The Importance of Fantasy”, Phantastes: The Online Journal of Fantasy Criticism, 1998

Clearly my preoccupation with fantasy literature has lasted a long time. I don’t have a great conclusion for this post — my blogging skills are rusty, but I hope to rev them up again over the next few months. I expect I’ll return to this topic again.

In the meantime, maybe you’ll share your own thoughts on the topic: why do you love reading and writing fantasy? Comment below! If I get enough responses, I’ll do a roundup of answers.