Inspiration struck about ten years ago, when I went to Cal-State Humboldt to see if that college was the right fit for me. (It was not.) Redwood forests grew just a few miles from the campus, and I was in awe of the giant trees that shot up to the misty sky, intrigued by the maze of roots which scattered the ground, overjoyed by a hollowed stump I crouched into. The image painted itself in my mind and, a couple years later, as I began to write my fantasy novel, the first scene was set in the redwood forests.
My dad, whose always been my biggest fan, liked that scene so much, he decided to take me up to the redwood forest to recapture that inspiration. It didn't quite work out. After an exhuasting 18-hour car trip, we found ourselves camping, but the only thing I noted this time was a profusion of bright yellow banana slugs and ferns. My dad asked me how I liked the trees. I replied that I was having trouble seeing them, because they were "too tall." He never let me live that one down.
The trouble for me is that having inspiration and using inspiration are two different things. I may be inspired by a wonderful new place, but I can't figure out how to use it in a story until years have passed and the impression is as fuzzy as a Monet painting. Or, maybe I seek inspiration for a story and find myself not quite as uplifted as I imagine. Inspiration is a fickle, fleeting thing. How do you bottle it and save it for a rainy day? Here are my suggestions.
1. Be in the Moment
This is the easiest thing to do. When you feel inspiration seize you, just go with it. Don't try so hard to capture every detail that you loose sight of the whole. Don't get so caught up recording the experience that you forget to experience it. We write what moves us, so first, we must be moved.
2. Take Note of Odd Things
The first time I studied abroad in Japan, I tried to take note of absolutely everything. I ended up exhausted, my notes unreadable. Since then, I've found out that one or two interesting details can make all the difference. Rather than describe the blue vending machines with the Suntory adds near the chainlink fence half choked by dark green Camilla bushes whose flowers had bright red petals and yellow centers, and the prices ranging from 120 to 150 yen, hot and cold options, cans of coffee, cafe au lait, Bickle, Pocari Sweat, green tea in bottles, tea whose name I can't read....etc, etc.... I could just note that I got a fermented yogurt drink called Bickle at a vending machine and drank it near the only living plants in the Japanese winter, gaudy red Camilla flowers.
3. Write Down Impressions, Names
Of course, there's no harm in writing down everything you can and sorting out the details later. But I would particularily pay attention to non-visual senses and feelings. If you forget how something looks, you can find a photograph. But the photograph isn't going to remind you of the way moss felt springy under your feet or the slight butterscotch smell of a ponderosa pine. And its certainly not going to tell you how, after chugging along the forest for an enternity, suddenly the trees stopped and your heart leapt as you found yourself staring at the rolling waves of the ocean. Taking note of names is for practical purposes--if you forget certain facts, you can google them later on.
4. Photos are Good, too
I like taking pictures. It's all part of the experience, for me, and it helps to serve as a visual aid. o long as it doesn't interfere with your experience, it's all good.
So you were good, and in the heat of the moment, you took abundant pictures and notes. But they will lie there forgotten unless you do something with them. When I was a kid, I used to scrapbook. When I got older, I found I preferred setting up photo albums on facebook and writing ridiculously long email "newsletters" to my family and friends. Not only does it make it easier to go back to later on, it also helps me review and crystalize my memories. For smaller bursts of inspiration, I simply write impressions down in my idea notebook. I title the entry for future reference and move on.
6. Let it Rest
Ideas are like cookies. You eat them up and let them digest. Rarely do I ever use my bouts of inspiration immediately. They need time to bubble up to my subconscious in new and interesting forms. If you feel you must write now, then by all means write But don't be frustrated if you gathered all this inspiration and have nothing to do with it. That will come in time.
By the way, it should be known that I rarely have time to do more than half the steps. Most of the time, I end up doing Step 1, 2, and 6, which is fine for small, spontaneous ideas. But if you are actively seeking out inspiration--say, going on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Europe--I would put in a lot of planning for capturing and recording what I find. It will eventually pay off.