The Idea Tree: 38 Seeds of Inspiration

Graphic: lightbulb inside  thought baloon

illustration by Andy Black

Chris Van Allsburg is an illustrator’s illustrator.  Even if you don’t recognize his name, you are probably still familiar with his work.  He has produced a score of luscious children’s books.  Books so captivating that they have been adapted into several very popular full length movies such as Jumanji, its sequel Zathura, and the beloved Christmas story The Polar Express. Other favorites of mine include The Widow’s Broom, The Stranger, and The Wreck of the Zephyr.

In 1984 Van Allsburg released a wonderful book called The Mysteries of Harris BurdickIt was a collection of 14 unconnected and intriguing but oddly haunting pencil illustrations with a short ambiguous title and cryptic caption underneath each one.  I thought at the time they would make great writing prompts for 14 stories—14 jumping off points.  Well, it seems Chris Van Allsburg has beat us to the punch. Just this October, he released The Chronicles of Harris Burdick, a collection of 14 short stories by 14 authors, inspired by the 14 Burdick illustrations.  I have not read it yet but you can rest assured, it will be added to my Christmas wish list.

Before I even knew that Van Allsburg had released Chronicles, I was thinking that I might try a little Harris Burdick experiment myself.  I hope you will join in.  Sometimes inspiration can be spawned by nothing more than a simple word or phrase.  In a JMU drawing class that I took ages ago as a college art student, our professor introduced us to a variation of the technique called “Exquisite Corpse.” You would write down a bunch of random adjectives, nouns and verbs, fold them up and blindly pick two adjectives, two nouns, and a verb.  We were then instructed to arrange them into an adjective-noun-verb-adjective-noun sentence or phrase such as “Fractured Sunsets Produce Limited Symphonies.”  Then we had to illustrate our self-created prompt. In a similar vein, an effective book title can conjure up or help pave the way to a new plot line.  So here’s my idea: I thought I would invent some book titles as jumping off points for anyone in search of ideas.  I encourage you to add titles of your own or provide brief plot line synopses inspired by any of the 38 listed titles.  I’m planting some seeds and hopefully a few ideas will sprout, eventually spreading branches that will bare fruit.  The more ideas the better. Let’s see if we can’t get a whole orchard of idea trees growing.

The List

(Note: These examples are off the top of my head and are presented in no particular order. I did not conduct any kind of search to see if any are actual book titles.  There is no intent on my part to claim anyone’s work as my own idea)

Quantum Bleep

Blood Orange

The Garfield Prospectus

Hand Games

Shadow Boxing

Branching Out

Making Dew (or “Making Do” but not “Making Doo”)

Praising Cain

Van Gogh’s Banjo

The Reluctant Scholar

Looking for Hell

Unturned Stones

Positive ID

November Heat Wave

Partial Disclosure

No Assembly Required

True North

Magnetic South





Spontaneous Rehearsal

Divine Wasteland

The Life and Times of Preston Droodge (or make up your own character’s name)

Punch Line

Side Effects

Ignoring Gravity

The Crush

The Cone of Uncertainty (credit goes to Lucy Merrill. Her blog “Word Crank” is a must-read)

The Structure of Chaos

The Identity Theif

The Dream Forger

Total Job Satisfaction and the Other Benefits of Working at Greene’s Funeral Home

A Bowl of Dust

Fistful of Heartbeats

Norman’s Conquest

Mistaken Memories

Any way, you get the idea, or maybe these gave you some.  Add to the list, propose some plot lines.  Let’s grow some ideas.


7 comments on “The Idea Tree: 38 Seeds of Inspiration

  1. I really love this for generating ideas and creative jumping-off points! I’m an improviser and could totally see using this process as a place to start creating ideas for scenes. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Jill, Thanks for your comments. Sometimes we get stuck and all it takes is a nudge from somewhere else. I hope this technique or any one of the titles listed helps to spark inspiration in someone.

  3. So many people I see develop a title almost as an afterthought – hope it flows from the work they’re already creating. So it’s an interesting twist to build a work entirely from a title – though your list does indeed go a good ways on the inspiration front. Drew particular amusement from “Fistful of Heartbeats” (I can’t but help picturing some sort of 80s action drama) and Mistaken Memories certainly has potential…

  4. I’m with you Chris. I like to have at least a working title from the beginning. I can’t say I have written a story based on a title before but I can see how a title can jog someone’s imagination…

  5. Now this is just plain super fun. I love the antitheticals… ‘the structure of chaos’ is stellar.
    OK, since you got my creative juices going… here’s a few…
    -Blaming Dogs
    -Rapid Sufferer
    -Dining on the Blind
    -Jelly Bones
    -Grace Factory
    -Earning Air

    That. Was. Fun

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: