Sources of inspiration, or, how on earth did you come up with THAT idea?

This workshop was presented to the RWNZ Auckland Chapter at the March 2009 meeting. Please do not copy, reproduce or on-forward without permission from the authors. Thank you.

By Helen Kirkman and Maree Anderson

Intro – Where do we find ideas?

HK:In my own experience, when I first started writing, ideas seemed to come out of the air, no problem at all. But after a while, I had to work harder for them and this is when we come to the interesting part.

Becoming Observant

HK:How did I find the ideas? Something Julia Cameron said in her book “The Artist’s Way” really struck me and that was her advice on becoming more observant. I really started looking at things, partly as a book plotter – is there a story in this? And partly really looking at things to get at the deeper layer of what they are and what they mean.

MA:Absolutely! I got my start in writing by reading—no surprises there! I read a series I’d already read before, only this time, I flicked to the back of the book and read the author’s afterword. Normally I wouldn’t have bothered, being too eager to get on to reading the next in the series.

The author, Stephen Donaldson, talked about another well-known writer’s process, how he begins with an idea about something “familiar” and impacts it with something “exotic”, usually some SciFi setting. Whereas Donaldson does the exact opposite. He starts with the “exotic” idea and impacts it with the “familiar”. For some reason, that statement just clicked with me and, don’t ask me how, spawned a fantasy trilogy about a blind Seer.

So be observant, open your mind and perhaps read something you normally wouldn’t. Who knows, there could even be an entire trilogy waiting to pounce!

Cultivating a Sense of Fun and Adventurousness

HK: The other thing that helps inspiration is keeping a sense of fun and adventurousness in your thinking, allowing a sense of unlimited possibilities. It’s easier to find inspiration if you let your mind explore initial possibilities without censoring them. We’re at the stage of discovering an idea and asking the “what if” questions.

My best inspirations have come when I have not thought whether an idea fits the expected mould. At the initial stage of a story, I try to allow myself to think of any possibility which can be put forward without fear of its being criticised or rejected.

I can be critical later. Sure, not all these initial ideas are going to work, or be suitable. Or if they are suitable, they will probably need modifying, but this is a different part of the creative process I can save for later.

My story is a work of imagination. My characters are not me. They can do anything and be anything and to explore those possibilities, I need my sense of adventure.

If inspiration has not magically appeared at exactly the moment I’ve wanted or needed it, I’ve sometimes descended into despair, desperation or teeth gritting. This does not help. Trying to force an inspiration does not work with me.

Yes, if I need that inspiration now for my deadline, I can grit my teeth and use determination and fortitude, but I try not to let the subconscious, creative part of my mind know that I am doing this. This is a feat that requires double think. Everyone is different, but my creative self does not work well if it is harassed by business considerations. It wants its adventurousness to be supported by an underlying sense of safety.

MA: I like that analogy: my creative self going into hiding if it’s being harassed by “real life” concerns. Boy, can I relate!

And I’ve never been able to censor my ideas to “fit” a mould…which is probably why I’m not yet published in full-length fiction! But let’s go there, coz this isn’t a workshop about getting published, it’s about ideas and inspiration. And for me, writing is all about the idea and the characters running round in my head, keeping me awake and night and demanding to have their story written. Or maybe it’s about getting it down on paper before I go nuts!

Anyway I don’t censor myself and wonder whether anyone’s going to like my idea. I just write it and hope it’ll eventually find a home. As Helen said, I can be critical later. I can cut it to bits and tighten it, play round with the pacing, tweak it to make it more appealing to a particular publisher later. What’s important for me at the beginning of the process, is the “fun” bit. Having that initial inspiration, writing like a mad-person and seeing where the story takes me.

And often, I have my “exotic” idea, I have my beginning and my ending…and no freaking idea what’s gonna happen in between. How much fun is that?

You get that I’m a pantser, huh? I generally write the story and then struggle with summarising it into a coherent synopsis. But going with the flow is not to say I can’t plot if I get stuck and inspiration has ground to a halt. If—when—that happens, I find it useful to quit struggling with the manuscript and write the damned synopsis. Having that done, knowing the story is plotted and I can fall back on it if I need to, tends to coax my inspiration from the hole it’s crawled into and give it wings again.

Places to look

HK: So, becoming more observant and seeking inspiration means I no longer look at the newspaper or the TV news and documentaries just to know what was going on, I look for the human interest angle, the angle that gives a good, gripping, emotional story, because that’s what our stories are about, especially romances—the emotional experience.

This has been a journey of new experience for me, as I’d never been a great reader of human interest stories. But, different things started to trigger different responses than what I was used to. Sometimes this was serendipity, just luck. I’d be browsing the local paper, for example, and there was a story about a young lad with muscular dystrophy who has a “mobility dog” that can pick up items he drops, tug slipping blankets back onto his bed and press the TV remote for him.

I’d never have read that story three years ago and it’s not the first thing I would have thought of for a historical, but now it was triggering the “what if” questions. Suppose I had a heroine with some kind of disability and a mystical, almost witch-like affinity for animals? I haven’t written that story yet, but I have the idea, and the newspaper cutting.

I’ve learned to broaden my interests. Watching sport bores me to sobs, whereas other family members love it. So there’s always sport in the house and a couple of seasons ago when they interviewed one of the rugby players, I was more interested than my husband. Why? Because this person leapt off the TV screen to me as an example of a boy who started from a hard background and became a success—and that’s one of the archetypes for a romance hero. Little bits of his experience inspired a different creation in my imagination—the hero of “Captured”.

Objects and images can be good, too. It might be a beautiful image you like to look at. For example, the hunt for the sceptre in “A Fragile Trust” was inspired by a real Anglo-Saxon sceptre I saw at the British Museum.

Or it might be a place and its romantic atmosphere.

Maybe it’s some aspect of love/life, some particular emotion you feel you want to explore.

MA: Ooooh, where to find ideas! Let me count the ways. It can be a phrase which speaks to me. An article in a magazine. A non-fiction book. A fiction book. TV programs. Movies. A snippet of conversation overheard. An object.

Okay so I’ve told you about how the first book in my fantasy trilogy got started, the whole blind seer thing. The second book was inspired by a saying:

“Power corrupts. And absolute power, corrupts absolutely.”

What if my Seer’s daughter hasn’t inherited her mother’s powers? What if she craves power so terribly she gets everything she wished for…and it’s a curse, not a blessing?

The 3rd book was inspired by a phrase I found while surfing the Net.

“From every human being there rises a light that reaches straight to heaven. And when two souls that are destined to be together find each other, their streams of light flow together and a single brighter light goes forth from their united being.”

That triggered the whole concept of “soul-mates” and a hero who has to choose between the love of his life and the lives of his people.

My Crystal Warriors were inspired by a book called The Crystal Bible. Some of the crystals had such wonderful masculine-sounding names—wulfenite, kyanite, malachite—I thought it’d be fun to write about warriors named for their crystals and imprisoned in them.

When Lightning Strikes: I read one of those travel articles in a weekend paper about slick-rock bike tours in Utah. It mentioned Utah has the second highest incidence of lightning strikes in America. Yeeha! Aliens who ride lightning and prolong their lives by healing the bodies of people who’ve just died in a lightning strike, and merging with their departing soul. What would happen if the victim didn’t die and the alien was stuck sharing a body with the victim?

Scent Of A Man: a photo of a woman in a magazine, cuddled up to a guy and blissed out on his scent. The article is about men’s fragrances and its by-line is: “In a world of equal opportunities, men are smelling as good as women—well, nearly.” So I ended up with a hero who exudes pheromones which make him irresistible to women. All women. Even his mother and sisters. Which is horrific, to say the least, and not at all what you’d expect.

And of course, the sum of everything I am right now, every experience and emotion and the people I’ve met, are all inspirations for my stories…much to my friends’ amusement when they understand my upcoming Red Sage novella is an erotic romance!

Specifically Historical (and Paranormal/Fantasy) Places

HK: Now, being a historical writer, I can also browse through historical sources, which can be history books, or biographies, perhaps letters from the time period. I know Sophia James has been inspired by a Keats poem for one of her rich emotional stories.

We’re looking on two levels again, looking at events and facts and also looking in a more playful and imaginative way for something dramatic, quirky, romantic or interesting that reeks of story— something I can use straight, or adapt. For example, I’ve used a straight historical event—the siege of Wareham—for the plot of “Untamed”. Whereas for “A Fragile Trust” I’ve used a romantic legend about King Alfred disguising himself to infiltrate the enemy camp and adapted this to spark something my hero does.

Books on historical daily life can be good to browse, because often some quirky difference between the way things were done then and the way things are done now, can inspire ideas. Daily life is interesting because in some ways it’s so different and in other ways it’s remarkably the same, remarkably ‘modern’ because people’s wants and desires and the trials of daily living are something a reader relates to.

It’s much like flipping through newspapers and magazines and watching TV and films for contemporary writers.

MA: Because I mostly write “fantasy” worlds, I’m not obliged to be historically accurate, but I do have to set rules and stick to them, so my readers don’t have to suspend belief. And I sometimes surf the Net and find well established “New Age” ideas which I can make my own. Like my seers being able to “see” auras and tap into life-energy to boost their own powers. Or my Crystal Warriors having personalities and qualities which match their crystals. I often find my first draft contains a veritable info dump, as I struggle to explain my concept. And of course, I eventually have to cut it down and retain the essence of the idea, so I don’t bore my readers to bits and beyond.

But with Scent Of A Man, I sat down and did actual research before I began writing….from a book and everything, LOL. I used Georgette Heyer’s Regency World as a basis for my hero’s world. I love reading Regency novels, so I envisioned my hero as a rich young Regency-period Lord. And I painted his world accordingly. Then I twisted it by having all the females subjected to strict rules about behaviour and dress. They’re forced to dress like Quakers and cover themselves completely. They’re not even allowed to wear perfume.

Do your research to come up with something quirky or a different take on something that might have been done before. Devise your world and the rules and then have fun putting your characters through hoops, testing them and stretching them in ways that your reader can relate to, regardless of the fantastical setting… or the neighbouring werewolf pack.

The right mindset

HK: So to me, it’s about developing the right mindset. Part of the inspiration is conscious. For example, I went out of my way to watch and read President Obama’s inauguration speech because he’s a good orator and I want to write a character who inspires people to follow him.

Part of the process is subconscious. Things that used to pass me by now leap out and hit me at unexpected moments because I’ve become more receptive. Part of me is now subconsciously looking at the world in a different way. I watch events and people in a different way.

MA: I totally agree. Now, even when I’m submersed in a fantastic book, often something will just jump out and smack me right between the eyes. And now, even if I’m in the middle of writing, some little germ of an idea will bite me and niggle away so much I’ll have to scrawl it down on a piece of paper and pin it to my notice-board before it’ll give me any peace and let me get back to my current wip.

In fact, my notice-board is full of little scraps of paper scrawled with sayings and phrases and poems and notes and such. Even a couple of quotes from The Economist are pinned up there. I don’t try to figure out why they caught my attention, I just know they did. And one day, I’ll need them.

What does inspire us individually?

HK: Personally, I’m more of a character based writer, so I usually come up with a character and his/her inner conflict and an opening situation and work out my book from there. Others may be inspired by a plot point. It’s interesting to think about the kinds of things that inspire you and to make sure you have an open mind to them. But nothing is a hard and fast rule. Different things will inspire you at different moments.

MA: Whatever kind of writer you are, don’t sweat it. Just read and watch and listen. Be open to whatever catches your attention. And if you haven’t got a photographic memory and are prone to having “grey moments” like I am, then ALWAYS carry a notebook and a pen so you can jot down your inspirations as they hit you.

HK: We did an exercise with an ‘inspirational item’ when we gave this workshop at the March RWNZ Auckland meeting and we found that the same item triggered different responses in different people because our minds are running on different tracks, depending on what we like to write and how we think. The aim of this workshop was to inspire us to tap into our own individual creativity and nurture it and free it to do its job for us.

MA: So go forth and be inspired!

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