I trekked northward for a visit with the family recently. It’s a long, boring drive made particularly arduous by the fact that I suffer motion sickness, which makes it impossible for me to read or write in the car. That means I lose over eighteen hours of productivity to the drone of the highway. I usually pass the time snoozing, chasing plot bunnies, and terrorizing my husband.
This trip started same as usual, but after a couple of hours I realized that I could indulge in my new favorite form of research: mining billboards.
When we made the same trek over the holidays, I realized that highway billboards might be a writer’s greatest untapped resource. I am currently writing a series that is centered in the very area we pass through on our trip. I’ve created a tiny blip-on-the-map town populated with characters I hope will come across as real and memorable. In terms of world-building, I was relying on some personal experience, a good deal of internet research, and more than a few flights of fancy. That was until I discovered the magic of outdoor advertising.
Highway billboards are a goldmine for a writer. Towering tableaus of local flavor, these signs offer up everything from interesting occupations to clever slogans. Not only do they detail the food people in that area like to eat, but also the recreational activities they might enjoy. They tout the natural resources available. They sing the praises of local heroes. The list goes on and on. Trust me. Mine did.
I may not be able to sit and stare at a page for hours whilst zipping down the highway, but I can and do manage to scribble a few notes. Or maybe a few pages of notes….
The real treasure trove is the abundance of names splashed across those boards. Every name we give every character—no matter how fleeting their appearance—helps to set the tone of a story. Surnames can be especially tricky. A character’s last name can speak volumes about who they are, who their people were, and how they came to that particular place. I would argue that billboards may be even better than a phone book when it comes to picking names. The people who are renting these spaces are ambitious, hardworking, and so driven to succeed they will pay to put their name, and in some cases their photograph, out there for the world to see. To my mind, those are the types of characters who will carry a story forward.
It didn’t take long for billboard mining to become a road game. My husband would point out an interesting name and I’d make a note then start dreaming up backstory. We often had to assign alternate occupations. After all, there are only so many car dealers and insurance reps I can use in one tiny town, but you get the idea.
What started out as a writer’s version of the license plate game did far more than pass a few hours. In one boring car ride, I managed to collect enough fodder to fuel the remaining installments of the series and keep the creative juices flowing without losing my lunch.
Where do you find inspiration? Do you subscribe to online prompts or search the dictionary for a random word? Have you been known to troll the telephone book for a name?