There is the classic image of the novelist, hunkered down in a coffee-shop, scribbling details on a piece of paper, followed by long protracted pauses to observe the world go by. Rain lashes the window as soft swirls of steam escape their mug of black coffee. In my head, this is accompanied by the smell of cigarette smoke and a film noir ambience, but I digress. The misconception is that inspiration happens on its own time, in its own mysterious way.
Yet, there are prolific authors who consistently write high quality books and never seem to run out of ideas. What is the secret to their inspirational success? Allegedly, American novelist, Orson Scott Card (@orsonscottcard), said “Everybody walks past a thousand story ideas every day. The good writers are the ones who see five or six of them. Most people don’t see any.”
Is he right? Do most of us ignore the inspiration right under our noses? Is it possible to be inspired when we aren’t even trying? Can inspiration be conjured on demand? Or even better, what if you could build a habit of collecting ideas that inspire and keep them ready for when you need them.
This week at Authicist, I thought we’d dive into the inspiration process of popular authors, and perhaps a couple of super-obscure ones because that’s the way I roll.
I love Ransom Riggs’ (@ransomriggs) advice to start a collection. As a child his grandmother would take him to vintage stores, and to relieve the boredom he’d collect old snapshots. Black and white obscure images, slightly gothic in nature. Siblings staring at the camera with a steely gaze, an edited photograph of a horse with two legs. As an adult, his debut novel, “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” was inspired by the collection. While I’m reasonably confident that keyring collection I started in the eighties isn’t the clincher to a book and film deal, you never know what inspiration may come from things you already own.
The collections don’t even need to be yours. Take a walk around your local library, museum, art school, or vintage stores. There could be a black and white photograph of three female friends on the beach in the 40s that makes you want to write a historical fiction… or a lamp that makes you wonder what would happen if the genie emerged from the lantern in your 700 square foot Brooklyn sub-let. Make it a fun exercise for your writing group to take a field trip, pick an item, and see who can come up with the best story idea on the fly.
(Source: New York Times)
Tomi Adeyemi’s (@tomi_adeyemi) best-selling young adult fantasy novel, Children of Blood and Bone, was partially inspired by travel to Brazil. Already a student of West African mythology, it was a simple moment in a gift shop that planted a seed a thought. As she said in an interview with The Guardian, “I was in a gift shop there and the African gods and goddesses were depicted in such a beautiful and sacred way … it really made me think about all the beautiful images we never see featuring black people.” For Tomi, this led to the creation of a novel that draws on West African mythology and the Black Lives Matter movement.
While experiencing a place in person is always helpful so you can get a sense of sounds and smells, thanks to the internet, you don’t even have to travel. Google maps can help you walk around places you’ve never visited, and with so many YouTubers and Instagrammers, you can often watch videos. Over coffee tomorrow morning, why not take a walk around a city in Demark, or a village in Peru. Who knows when a kernel of travel-inspired inspiration might find you?
(Source: The Guardian)
For The Children Act, Ian McEwan tapped into the most accessible source of inspiration, his friends. Seated around a table with three or four judges, he found inspiration for both characters and plot based on their stories. As he said to Vogue Magazine, “Judges don’t feature so much in literature, though they’re the ones who finally settle fates.” It’s easy to assume we don’t know people as interesting as Ian McEwan does, but the chances are we do. That mom at school pick-up? She’s a leading criminal barrister. The guy in your fitness class? He’s a police officer. Why not strike up a conversation with one of them. Listening to their experiences and picking their brains could lead you to write the next great novel.
4. Historical Record
The Handmaid’s Tale is arguably the most famous of Margaret Atwood’s (@MargaretAtwood) books. Millions of copies sold, a successful TV series. She bounded the realms of her novels by not including “anything that human beings had not already done in some other place to time, or for which technology did not already exist.” In other words, she looked to historical record. If you have watched her Masterclass (which I highly recommend), she talks at length about the Christian doctrines, traditions, dictatorships, and elements of science that inspired her. One of the tenets of great writing is to read what you write. In other words, the genre you are writing in. It is impossible to know what good looks like unless you do. But reading outside of it can be hugely beneficial too. As can podcasts. Some of our favorites are Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History series, Alie Ward’s Ologies, and Stuff You Missed in History Class. The plus side of podcasts are that they are portable. Perhaps tomorrow on the commute you could try a new one.
My book, The Strongest Steel was inspired by a newspaper article. I was on vacation in Miami with a girlfriend. While sipping on something cool and fruity, I read an article about a tattoo artist who tattooed over scars. All day I pondered on the article. Who would want scars tattooed over? Why would they want them made invisible? Who would put the time in to figure out how to tattoo over them? Why would it be important to them/ By the time I was on the airplane home, I had a four-book series in my head. Eighteen months later, I had a book deal for the series.
The news is a great source of inspiration, because that prince who abdicated for the love of his life, the prisoner who stopped an assault on the day of his release, and the legal battle to prevent a child’s life support from being turned off could all be the seed of your next story. When you next read the news, why not pick three articles and see if you can come up with three new plot ideas from them.
(Source: Umm… me!)
“Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?” Published in 1995, Nick Hornby’s (@nickhornby) High Fidelity spoke to every child who grew up in the ‘80s making mixed tapes in their bedroom. Top 5 songs to make out to, Top 5 songs that remind me of you, Top 5 songs for the guy who doesn’t love you back (I can’t tell you how many times I listened to A-Ha’s And You Tell Me for that one!) Hornby’s capacity to tell the story of record store owner, Rob, through a series of Top Five lists that ultimately change the way he sees himself and the world is sheer genius. I admire musicians because it takes me anywhere between 75~90,000 words for me to tell a story, and they can tell one in a fraction of that. Three minutes of inspiration right there, my friends. As you listen to music while driving to work, working out, or cleaning the kitchen, why not pick three songs and see if you can make up the backstory behind them?
Joanne Harris’ (@Joannechocolat) critically acclaimed novel, Chocolat draws on those around her, most notably family. Drawing on her own childhood, surround by strong story-telling matriarchs, she was able to create a foundation for the cast of characters. Actual events in their lives became the threads from which the story was stitched. And on her website, she writes, “My daughter was three when I wrote Chocolat. She is one of the main characters in the story, as is her imaginary rabbit, Pantoufle.” If the old adage ‘write what you know’ is true, then writing family has to be a no-brainer. And Harris’ does it perfectly in what still remains one of my favorite books of all time. Family can also offer a wealth of both fiction and non-fiction stories. Heroic Grandpa who fought in the war, Uncle John who volunteers on the lifeboats, Cousin Jean who runs a foster home. They all have careers and stories just waiting to inspire. Why not interview one of your relatives? First, it’s good interviewing/research practice. Second, who doesn’t love a good family history for future generations. And third, you never know what ideas it might generate.
Whatever your main source of inspiration, it is important to make a note of it. I’m half old school and half tech-solutions… I have a Moleskine notebook that I jot things down in. It’s filled with scribbles… a line from a song, a conversation I overheard at the coffee shop, a contestant from a reality TV show that would make the perfect antagonist for a book idea I haven’t come up with. For my non-fiction, I keep a list of fascinating people and their stories in WorkFlowy. You can store your inspiration anywhere… the important thing is that you come back to it.
Read through all your prompts before coming up with your next project, you never know which of those precious gems you’ve collected you can weave into your next masterpiece.
P.S. Wondering where you’re going to get all the time? Allow Authicist to track your book rankings for you to give you time to sit and enjoy finding your inspiration!