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Surrealistic Planet

Where does a writer's inspiration come from?

I'm writing this post following a fascinating discussion with writer friends on Mastodon. (Michael Kazarnowicz, Wendy Parciak, BranwenOShea and Strange Seawolf). We talked about how we found inspiration for our writing - and its unpredictability especially. Michael shared his theory that inspiration was a combination of curiosity and action, an idea we found to have real merit. By coincidence over the next couple of days, I found other writers talking about the same topic. As a result I thought it would be worth finding out more about inspiration and how other writers react to this erratic and inconsistent muse. So, here goes - where does a writer's inspiration come from?

In general terms, it's possible to be inspired by anything and everything. Here is a list of potential sources. They list nature, people, hobbies, history, love, teaching other people or expressing your own ideas. Nothing new here perhaps but it's a good starting point. Inspiration can strike anywhere, at any time. As writers it pays to be open-minded, observant, a good listener. In this way, inspiration is like lightning, it can strike when you least expect it. (Yeah, OK, you need clouds but you know what I mean!) But let's look at some more specific triggers.

Curiosity and Departed Felines

I've always thought the old adage about curiosity killing the cat to be an unfortunate slight on a wonderful quality. Curiosity is a good thing. We need to ask questions, it's how we learn. It's what makes us think. As a writer of speculative fiction, it fuels answers to the Ultimate Question: What If? Writers are often those people who like to challenge the status quo. Why are things like that? Can they be different - if so, how?

For example, Jose Saramago’s novel Death at Intervals was inspired by the question, What would happen if death took a holiday?” It was a question he asked a variety of people before putting pen to paper. David Mitchell structured Cloud Atlas after an idea he had had since age 18 or 19, asking himself, What would it actually look like if a mirror were placed at the end of the book, and you continued into a second half that took you back to the beginning?” Stavros Halvatzis, a science fiction author, talks of the questions he asks himself after encountering something he's read. His book, Scarab, arose out of a visit to The Hall of Records. His inspiration for his latest book The Land Below came from a picture he found on Google of a huge crater in South Africa. He asked himself what might have happened to the people who'd been living in that location at the time. I love what Katelyn Detweiler says about her writing inspiration, "I have always been a proponent of hypothetical questions. It’s these questions that drive my writing interests - walking characters through the moments where they’re faced with these sorts of crazy, monumental dilemmas. Take Immaculate, for example. The very first seed for this story was planted in my subconscious sometime during my teenage years, when during a long car ride with my mom, I asked: “Would you believe me if I said I was a pregnant virgin?” My mom looked at me, cocked her head, and smiled. And then she said yes.”

Another SF author, Kev Heritage, reads science and technology news every day to ponder what impact new developments might have on humans in the future. The what ifs. The important issue here appears to centre on asking questions and finding answers. These examples have included Google (an obvious source of enquiry!)as well as photographs, visits to interesting locations and talking to people. Ian McEwan wrote Atonement after asking his father questions about his experiences in World War Two.

The Writer's Takeaway: Curiosity isn't just about asking questions. It's also about the answer. The answer doesn't have to be right, complete or entirely factual. It is the process of exploring possibilities and finding the one that fits the story best. It's about pursuit too. Following a line of thought through to its ultimate conclusion. Beyond that, curiosity is also about experimentation. It's trying out ideas, not just one, several. Evaluating which works best. In each of my novels, there is at least one chapter which has seen several iterations for this reason. It's what Richard talked about in our discussion, Curiosity + Action - where action takes the form of seeking answers, developing ideas, experimenting with the outcomes.

The Writer's Brain and the Coffee Maker

In case this title confuses you, my metaphor defines the brain as a filtering system in which ideas percolate. Like a coffee maker, you grind the beans, pour in the water and the resulting drip, drip, drip process delivers what you want, inspiration. This method works for me frequently. My current WIP started life when the opening chapter arrived in my brain in the middle of the night and woke me up. Over subsequent nights, more of the story developed. It meant the next day getting the story written down before it evaporated.

A famous example is JK Rowling. During a four-hour delay on her train journey, the idea of a boy wizard struck her. By the end of the journey, depsite not having to write with, she'd mentally planned the story. Novelist Fiona Robyn says, "My novels are inspired by the protagonists ‘turning up in my head’ – I get to know them slowly and then try and tell their story. I’m just the typist!" - I wonder how many of us would say the same thing. Miranda July’s idea for The First Bad Man came to her “pretty fully-formed” on a car ride. She says the basic plot and two main characters appeared “in a flash!” and she wrote it down hastily before the ideas faded. Secondary characters and everything else came while she was writing. Hilary Mantel is another author who found her brain was the instigator. "The title arrived before a word was written: Wolf Hall, besides being the home of the Seymour family, seemed an apt name for wherever Henry's court resided. But I had no idea what the book would be like, how it would sound. I could see it, rather than hear it: a slow swirling backdrop of jewelled black and gold, a dark glitter at the corner of my eye. I woke one morning with some words in my head: "So now get up." It took a while to work out that this was not an order to get the day under way. It was the first sentence of my novel." Let's not forget Stephen King, whose plot for Misery occurred to him in a dream on board a plane. Admittedly, his protagonist murdered the author, fed his body to pigs and wore his skin! He decided to tone down the horror in the final version. Can you imagine Kathy Bates doing that in the film?? Still with Mr King, he dreamed The Shining while staying as the only guest in an enormous hotel. In his nightmare, his 3 year old son ran along the corridors screaming.

The idea that the brain is busy working away while you're unconscious, or doing other things, is a common source of inspiration for numerous authors but I'm going to leave it to Alexandra Sokoloff to address what to do with this source. "I get a lot of ideas from my dreams. My supernatural thriller The Price and several of my screenplays came from ideas I dreamed. I keep a dream journal, which I find is key to remembering dreams, which you may have to coax out at first. I think any writer who isn’t keeping a dream journal is working too hard! Our subconscious minds love to work on story problems when we’re asleep."

The Writer's Takeaway: As my post Neuroscience and the Writer shows, a writer's brain is an amazing thing. It processes information via, what psychologists call, the Automatic Unconscious. This is what I mean by filtration - putting coffee and water into your coffee maker - i.e. uploaded interesting information. Next time you're tempted to click on an article while you're surfing the 'net, don't ignore that urge. It may not be a waste of time. You might discover something useful that your brain grabs hold of and goes to work on when you're asleep. At the other end of the process, what comes out of your brain, needs to be recorded. I like the idea of a dream journal. It's worth having a notepad by the side of your bed too. Basically - don't ignore the brain!

Getting some Perspective

The source of inspiration can sometimes be all about angles. Your view of the story depends on the perspective you're using. Finding the right angle is critical. To use a personal example, my very first novel, The Bastard from Fairyland, had been six years in 'development hell' - the term Hollywood moguls use for projects which take a long time to reach the audience. My protagonists, twin brothers, had featured in every version and yet they couldn't hold the story together. It was while re-reading those versions, in a mood of despair, that I read - and then read again - a chapter where I included the character of Robin Goodfellow, Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream. In that version he was an old man, a drunk. Long-lived and bitter. A flash of inspiration made me wonder what his life had been like to make him that way. In comparison to him, human beings lives would have been as short-lived as fruit flies. The setting of the story didn't need to change all that much, I even kept the twins. But Robin was the one who told the story, it was his world-weariness and cynicism that gave the story its edge.

Kazuo Ishiguro came up with the idea for The Remains of the Day when his wife joked about his upcoming meeting with a journalist and said, "Wouldn't it be funny if you pretended to be the butler?" It prompted him to approach his story from that perspective rather than the one he'd planned. EG White wrote Charlotte's Web after seeing a spider give birth. He said it helped him understand why she would want to help a pig that was due to be slaughtered. An idea which initially horrified his publisher! Bill Clegg’s inspiration for his novel Did You Ever Have a Family came while he was writing his memoir and started taking a harder look at his hometown. He says, “I just really started looking at this place where I grew up with different eyes and I became interested in it, and during that time I felt this compulsion to write down stuff that would come to me about the place.” John Green was driven to write The Fault In Our Stars after meeting Esther Earl, a teen cancer sufferer whose YouTube videos and blogs inspired millions before her death, aged 16: "I could never have written this if I hadn't known Esther. She introduced me to a lot of the ideas in the book, especially hope in a world that is indifferent to individuals, and empathy. She redefined the process of dying young for me." George Orwell wrote Animal Farm after watching a boy whip a horse, "It struck me that if only such animals became aware of their strength we should have no power over them, and that men exploit animals in much the same way as the rich exploit the worker."

Writer's Takeaway: Inspiration can strike us by showing us the right perspective for the story. Whose story does the narrative belong to? Why? For me, I think this idea has a lot to do with the emotional intelligence, the amount of empathy, a writer possesses. I've written more about this topic here. It is this quality, above all others, which enables us to look at the world and our experiences, from a different angle. Remember that famous line Atticus says to Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird? "“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb in his skin and walk around in it.” It's worth asking yourself - whose story are you telling? How will you tell it? Then work from there.

Art for Art's Sake

I've been surprised, as I've read so many author interviews, how they've talked about inspiration coming from other art forms. Music is the most common, followed by other books/writers, along with paintings. The writer becomes a conduit in this respect. The cultural source enters the author's mind, to appear later as the inspiration.

Ransom Riggs developed his novel, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, out of his personal collection of photographs which had a "Victorian creepiness" to them. Colson Whitehead, for his book Zone One, watched a ton of zombie movies and decided he wanted to translate the mostly-thought-of-as-a-film-genre of post-apocalyptic zombie horror into a novel. Khaled Hosseini saw a news story on TV in 1999 about the Taliban, who had banned kite flying, which Hosseini had done many times as a boy in Kabul. He wrote a 25-page short story, and left it for two years before turning it into The Kite Runner. I've read several interviews where authors find inspiration via the same method as Richard Siken, “When I read work I hate, I get motivated to make something in opposition to it.” Though I think this might be a rather negative, perhaps even destructive, methodology. I've read other interviews where writers indulge in other cultural forms - W.B. Yeats used to paint watercolors, Sylvia Plath once drew an impressive self-portrait, and Mark Twain was an incorrigible doodler. It's likely another version of the Automatic Subconscious again, generating ideas when your brain is engaged doing other things.

Writer's Takeaway: Distraction appears to be a factor here. Authors talk of music, art etc. as a means to provoke ideas but I think what they're really doing is distracting themselves. I've just mentioned the Automatic Subconscious for that reason. Our conscious mind is busy doing other things while the other half is busy whirring away doing the creative stuff. It's not new is it? We do this all the time, we distract ourselves when we're in pain, when we're bored. I like to listen to music but I select the music according to what I need to write. I play Two Steps From Hell when I'm writing battle sequences ! They've received quite a lot of praise - which I suppose is testimony to Thomas Bergersen and Nick Phoenix as much as me!


The reality is that inspiration is all about our individuality. It's whatever works for us. Knowing what that is, that's half the battle. I think it can change with the weather, the pressure we're facing (such as deadlines). There are a couple of other tips which are generic. Firstly, several authors believe it's a good idea to have several projects on the go at the same time. You can switch when ideas dry up. There are psychological factors that reinforce this thinking. Secondly, there is the need to step away from the problem when inspiration won't come. Go for a walk. Read a book. Talk to people. Watch a film. Don't force what won't come willingly.

I'm going to finish with this final comment as another cause of inspration - Hard Reality. It's from the writer and comedian Jenny Eclair, "I can't do anything else and too old to waitress. I also like the idea of my oldEnglish teachers spinning in their graves. So- spite really."

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