Good writers are big readers. They just are.
To paraphrase a friend of mine, fiction is a language, and to become fluent in it, you must study it a lot and regularly.
Read your genre of interest. Read classics. Read your market. Read outside your genre. Reread old favorites. Read bumper stickers and cereal boxes. Read everything.
Even if a book doesn't seem, at the outset, to be something that would benefit your work, consider cracking it open anyway. Be open for books (and other media) to feed your creative self in ways you wouldn't have come up with on your own.
Many times, non-fiction books I've read on topics that have nothing whatsoever to do with my current work in progress have later become great resources.
For example, A year or two ago I went on a Deborah Tannen kick. Tannen is a socio-linguist who studies conversational styles, and her books are fascinating. After reading several of them, I understood my own language style better, my family's style, and even my husband's.
But there were a couple of additional side benefits:
- I had a better grasp on how to write good, realistic dialogue that could have underlying meanings.
- I got smacked with a great idea for future characters and a storyline (that I'm now in the middle of)
I recently finished a book about body language, which I originally began just because I was curious (writers tend to be a curious lot). But as I read it, I couldn't help noticing gestures and behaviors described in it I could use to create perfect showing moments in my writing.
Maybe I could show this particular facial expression or gesture (ones I hadn't thought of before). New possibilities for showing instead of telling opened up for me.
Books on seemingly unrelated topics are always a great source for material, but I've also gotten all kinds of great ideas from random sources, including:
- A character that evolved from an Ann Landers column.
- Another character born after reading a scholarly paper from a university.
- The ability to accurately describe a fire in one book after my research for another one about police procedures (the police book happened to have a section on arson).
- An entire book concept that came to me while listening to a radio talk show.
- A key element in one book that struck me between the eyes after watching a TV drama.
I could go on, and I'm sure a lot of writers can look into things they've read, watched, or listened to and pinpoint where an idea came from.
Those ideas can't come to you unless you open the door for them.
Read. Watch. Listen. Always. The seemingly random things you're exposing yourself to are likely to be the things that fill up your creative well when you least expect it.