As any writer who has ever given a talk will know all too well, there is one question which is invariably asked. Where do you get your inspiration? Or, where do you get your ideas?
I wonder why this always comes up. The second favourite question is: Do you write by hand or on a computer?
I suppose it is part of a pattern in the mind of both readers and would-be writers. How do you start? Then, how do you work?
The second question is much the easier to answer. Some authors write in longhand, then type up on the computer, editing as they go. Some write directly on the computer, either editing as part of the writing process or getting a first draft down quickly and editing afterwards. For myself, I tend to plan on paper, because it is easier to draw diagrams, insert arrows and circles, or use coloured pencils, until the rough shape of the story falls into place.
I say ‘rough’ advisedly, because I only want a brief outline in advance. A detailed outline kills an idea for me, since I want to explore the new possibilities which arise as I write.
Once the planning stage is over, however, I write straight on to the computer. Each day I read through what I wrote the previous day (and only this), doing some minor editing. This leads me gently and painlessly into the new day’s writing. Only when the entire first draft is finished do I go back and do a ‘proper’ edit.
One thing I am sure all writers are agreed on is that the advent of word-processing on a computer had made the editing phase of writing much, much easier!
So that second question is quick and straightforward to answer. What about the first one: Where do you get your inspiration?
Oh, sometimes that is so difficult to pin down! And sometimes the general idea for a story may float bout in the back of one’s mind for months, even years, before it finally crystallises.
Pondering the question of inspiration as I lay awake in bed (the dog was snoring rather loudly) I thought I could break some of it down into several headings, so let’s think about them.
Inspiration from an image. Inspiration from a character. Inspiration from a place. Inspiration from a situation. Inspiration from a factual event.
I’ll look at each of these from my own experience, and from that of other writers, if I know of any examples.
Inspiration from an image
A good example of this is provided by another writer. John Fowles has said that the idea for The French Lieutenant’s Woman came to him when he saw, in his mind’s eye, a woman in Victorian dress standing on the Cobb at Lyme Regis, looking out to sea. He did not know who she was, what her story might be, or why she was staring out to sea. He wrote the book to find out. Perhaps that is also the reason for the ambiguous ending.
I’ve recently had this kind of inspiration myself. I already had the main characters in my Oxford Medieval Mystery series, but when I saw this original medieval image, I knew I had to write the third one, The Huntsman’s Tale.
Inspiration from a character
This is probably one of the most common forms of inspiration. Think of all those historical novels about the Tudor royal family! Many writers have taken a real historical person and made him or her the central character in a novel. Anne Boleyn is a favourite, but – due to recent discoveries – Richard III has taken on a flurry of starring roles. Royalty are not the only people so honoured. There has been a recent novel about St Hilda, foundress of Whitby Abbey, for instance. Then there are the great mythical figures like King Arthur and Robin Hood, who have attracted many writers.
For myself, I prefer ordinary people, and some characters have simple appeared to me, asking for their stories to be told. I cannot really tell you where they come from, but when they appear, you are blessed, for they are fully formed, living and breathing people, who talk to you. Mariam, in The Testament of Mariam, was one. I was wondering what it would have been like to be a member of Jesus’s flesh and blood family. How would you feel if you were his sister, had grown up knowing him simply as your elder brother? How would you react when he suddenly undertook his mission? Mariam simply walked into my head and told me.
Another such character is Nicholas Elyot, central character in my Oxford series. I had been thinking of writing a series about medieval Oxford in only the vaguest of terms, when he suddenly appeared, widowed in the Black Death, with two small children, running a bookshop on the High Street. Margaret and Jordain also stepped up without my having to think about them. How does it happen? It is one of the mysteries of writing. It is as though these people are already there, just on the other side of a thin veil. You have only to draw it aside and they come forth.
Inspiration from a place
Some authors are firmly rooted in a particular place, either because their origins are there or because they have come to love it in later life. The Lake District, Ireland, Northern England, the West Country – all have inspired writers who find a particular place and its people, with their local speech, history, and way of life, a rich vein of inspiration. The same is true in every country. American writers have explored distinctive regions, as have writers in every part of the world. Such regional writing has a strong appeal.
I suppose one could say that both my medieval Oxford books and my Fenland series owe much of their inspiration to a sense of place, since both locations are very distinctive – the lovely city of early scholars on the one hand and the mysterious landscape of marshes and wide skies on the other. And this, of course, illustrates the fact that inspiration may have several sources, not just one.
Inspiration from a situation
This is a rather general term, for a situation which offers inspiration may vary from an emotional situation within a family (think of many of Anne Tyler’s books) to a major political upheaval. Sometimes it may start with a writer thinking, ‘What if . . .’ For some reason, I was reminded just now of the film Hunted, when a child accidentally witnesses a murder. The same situation arises in Witness, set in the Amish community. The inspirational situation might be French Resistance fighters betrayed. Sometimes a writer will take a point in history and turn the situation upside down. There have been several novels (including one by Robert Harris) which take as their starting point the assumption that Hitler succeeded in invading Britain in World War II. What might have happened then?
An example of a situation which provided an inspiration for me was the starting point of my Fenland books. While researching the seventeenth century for my novel This Rough Ocean (based on the situation of the Swinfen family in the 1640s), I came across the exploitation of the East Anglian fens by ruthless land grabbers, and the courageous resistance put up by the local people. This idea lurked in the back of my mind for some time. I was particularly intrigued by the fact that the women had fought alongside their men. Some were wounded in their encounters with the ‘adventurers’. Some even died. And at the same time the local area suffered the wicked exploits of Matthew Hopkins, Witchfinder General. Once I had my central character, Mercy Bennington, everything came together. Another case of more than one inspiration.
Inspiration from a factual event
This is similar to the previous source of inspiration, and I am not sure it is easy to separate them. I’m thinking of how a piece of modern news may trigger a related idea for an author, though at the same time it may involve a particular situation. One that came to mind was the reporting of more than one recent case of women being kept as virtual sex slaves, often in a windowless basement, and sometimes by their own fathers, for years at a time. These were real and horrifying cases, which clearly served as inspiration for The Room. Many crime novels, too, owe their inspiration to real life cases reported in the news. I’m not sure I have ever drawn inspiration from such a source, though perhaps I have, without realising it!
I am sure there are other ways in which authors could answer that oft-repeated question: Where do you get your inspiration? But these are a few which have occurred to me in trying to analyse the process. The whole, wonderful, magical process is, of course, much more mysterious than this. If it were not, we could tap into it at will, but then we would lose much of the joy of discovery when we write.
My time lately has been frantically busy. As you will know, the unabridged audiobook of Bartholomew Fair is now available, recorded again by the lovely Jan Cramer.
During this month, Philip Battley and I have been working on the unabridged audiobook of The Novice’s Tale, now just completed and submitted to ACX for quality assurance. It should be available within the next couple of weeks.
And at last (!), delayed by all this audio work, The Huntsman’s Tale will be published very shortly as both a paperback and a Kindle. Philip will record that book soon. I’ll keep you posted here.
If you live in the UK and are reading this before midnight on April 30th, The Bookseller’s Tale is a Kindle Daily Deal for 99p., but you’ll need to be quick!
Till next time,