PhotobucketI promised to post about what inspires me as a writer. The Shorter Oxford gives several definitions of inspiration, starting with ‘Divine prompting or guidance.’ I’m unsure if there are any deities, major or minor, whispering in my ear, so I’ll go for definition 2: ‘The prompting of the mind to exalted thoughts, to creative activity etc.’ This one neatly sidesteps the issue of who or what is doing the prompting.

Writers have a tendency to talk about ‘the muse’, and sometimes to endow said muse with a personality of his or her own. In the Greek tradition there were nine muses. Calliope (epic poetry), Clio (history), Melpomene (tragedy) and Thalia (comedy) are all relevant to the craft of writing. If I had a personal ‘muse of writing’ she would probably take the form of an owl. She’d be self-contained, clever, and not particularly tolerant of lazy thinking. I’d have a dog as my ‘muse of play’, essential as a balance to the serious, working muse.

Not being of a scientific bent, I won’t attempt a discussion of how inspiration relates to brain function. The fact that some people end up as writers, composers, artists or choreographers, while others become accountants, plumbers or truck drivers is probably as much a matter of nurture as it is nature. And where does creativity start and end, anyway? To be a good teacher, baker, gardener or parent, you must be creative; you need inspiration. You need those sparky ideas, the ones that seem to come from nowhere and enable you to communicate with others in a special way. It would be arrogant for us, as writers, to believe that inspiration visits only a narrow group of creative artists.

So, ‘Everyone has a book in them?’ I don’t think so. Sure, everyone has a life story, and many of those life stories are interesting enough to be worth telling to other people. But not all can write or tell their story well. Very few can write it well enough to produce a book worth publishing. Implying that any fool can write a book completely overlooks the skill, training and just plain hard work required to make a go of things as a writer. And it overlooks inspiration – the spark that lights the fire, the yeast in the mix, the potent ingredient in the alchemist’s brew. Inspiration makes us want to write even when times are tough. It wakes us up at night with a head full of ideas. It alerts us to the special moment of beauty, something we will capture later in words, images or music – the rising of a hazy moon, the singing of frogs in a pond, the odd shadows cast on a city street at nightfall, the utterances of a two-year-old lost in her imaginative world. It draws our attention to the sad, the pitiful, the heroic, the cruel, the paradoxical nature of human existence, and compels us to write about it. We don’t seek it, we don’t invite it, it’s simply there.

When I promised to post on inspiration, readers probably expected me to talk about writers who have inspired me. But my sources of inspiration are far broader than a list of writers I admire. Here they are, in no particular order:

1. Nature: see above. The natural world and humankind’s place in it are integral to my writing.

2. History: Reading history is not just looking back or focusing on the past. It is learning about the human condition, warts and all. A primary source of inspiration for me.

3. Literary classics: Shakespeare, Dickens, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte and many others. Exemplars of that perfect combination: elegance of style + human drama + sheer storytelling ability.

4. Writers who go way outside the square, for example Russell Hoban (Riddley Walker), David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas). I wish I could be this kind of writer.

5. Traditional stories / poems: Scottish Border Ballads, Icelandic sagas, Greek and Roman myths, Celtic legends, fairytales and folklore from everywhere. I’ve been reading them almost all my life and find them compelling and fascinating. They spark off many, many story ideas for me, and constantly remind me why I love reading and writing. They allow me to maintain a sense of wonder.

6. Real life: love it or hate it, we live there, even when all we want to do is huddle over the laptop and escape to the alternative universe we’re busy creating. I try to keep my eyes and ears open, because inspiration may lurk in the checkout chick’s unusual earrings, or an anecdote told in passing, or something I happen to see while putting out the garbage bins. Don’t let real life get you down. Sometimes it can seem an obstacle to creativity, but in fact it is our primary source of inspiration.

Photo credit: © Photographer: Ana Sousa.


About Juliet Marillier

Juliet Marillier has written nineteen novels for adults and young adults as well as a collection of short fiction. Her works of historical fantasy have been published around the world, and have won numerous awards. Juliet's new novel, Tower of Thorns, will be published in October/November 2015. Tower of Thorns is the second book in the Blackthorn & Grim series of historical fantasy/mysteries for adult readers. The first Blackthorn & Grim novel, Dreamer's Pool, is available from Roc US and Pan Macmillan Australia.


  1. says

    Thank you for sharing this Juliet! An eloquent reminder of the broad spectrum of sources that we have to draw on for inspiration. I would add art to my list, particularly historic art, and music. I’ve just finished Foxmask and am looking forward to reading more of your work!

  2. says

    Inspiration to me comes from figuring out what it is I like and what I want — how to get it.

    All creativity starts with emulation, but I don’t think you reach true creativity until you figure out how to get past that. Say you want to be like Stephen King. You struggle for years writing stories with the best qualities you think his stories have.

    Eventually, you might realize (and this is the breakthrough) “What does Steven King not do very well? What can I do to improve upon maybe some of those themes in a way that he never even touches? Is there a different angle?”

    We all have our sources of inspiration. I think what defines our style and creativity is how we interpret and re-interpret those sources. Not just in the qualities we want to replicate from our favorite things, but more importantly, the differences and improvements we could make to the aspects of our favorite work that we don’t like!

    It’s the great, “What if?”

  3. says

    I’m not sure what you mean by “outside the square,” but if there wasn’t writing inside the square, there wouldn’t be any square to write outside of. You are a splendid craftswoman — writing history that seems authentic, dealing honestly with religion, and putting your characters in heart-wrenching dilemmas. You don’t need to be outside anything.

  4. says

    Lovely post, Juliet. I agree with you that inspiration comes from many places–too many sometimes!

    I had a day not too long ago when I told myself I wasn’t sure if I wanted to get back to active writing again anytime soon. I felt burned out. Then–boom–a strong concept seemed to materialize from the ether. I guess the inspiration was the threat of not writing!

  5. says

    I find inspiration in contrasts. The elephant afraid of mice; the blood-splattered warrior undone by a child’s love. That stuff gets me going every time.

    Great post!

  6. Narelle says

    Juliet the inspiration also comes in wanting to read more from your books and the anticipation of further reading to come. Surely anyone living in a square to start with will always find the straight sides confining and difficult to embrace because of the limited potental. Inspiration to write in my opinion comes from the ability to see outside the square and dream where there is an endless possibility of subject matter. The ability to make it worthwile reading comes from an inherit learning of interesting subject matters and motivation to share them as well as your dreams with the readers, for that I thank you.

  7. says

    There are some great comments here, and not just the ones that speak so kindly about my work! Eric, you make an excellent point about imitation gradually morphing into originality. It puts me in mind of the students of Renaissance painters, busily making copies of the master’s work as part of their learning process.

    Narelle, I love your observations about dreams taking us into the realm outside the square.

    Just to clarify, the two novels I mentioned break accepted boundaries in structure (Cloud Atlas is constructed a little like a Babushka doll) and language (Riddley Walker is entirely written in a debased, post-holocaust kind of English, the sort of language that would develop when almost the entire population had lost the skill of reading.) It was the combination of ground-breaking originality with great storytelling that put these two novels in a special category for me.

    Martin’s comment made me think. Would I be happy to stay forever within the square, being a competent craftswoman? Is it sufficient to have readers who want more of the same, or at least something very similar? Should I shut up and be grateful that I can make a living as a writer when so many people are struggling to achieve that? Or should creative artists always want to go one step further, venture down unexplored paths, undertake new challenges? Perhaps the happy medium lies in choosing challenges that not unrealistic! Or should we refuse to accept that we may have limitations? I feel another post coming on …

  8. Michelle says

    Wonderful post Juliet, and I have to agree with Martins comments, as well as add to your list and include loved ones who provide inspiration. Its interesting to read your remark on wishing to be like writers whom you regard to be outside the square. I think your readers would agree that we wish for more writers like yourself. Although you may feel your books are similar, as a reader I find each to have its own uniquness and the fact you incorporate the Historical aspect creates extra interest. For me its not just the content of your books but more your style that keeps me coming back for more. So , rather than even considering limitations, try it if the desire and passion is there, and you may be plesantly surpirsed. By the way you so fit the image of an owl and i absolutely adore the post theme shot, truly magical.

  9. Michelle says

    Juliet, I am half way through “I Capture the Castle” and so far so good(marvelous in fact, however i have a question for you… I find it interesting how Dodie writes in the first person,ie”I have been writing up here..” I wonder how do writes place themselves in such roles and is it harder to express oneself through this form of writing? Although I love to read, I am not familar with general writing skills and what it takes to put expression to paper.How much is the writers emotion, and how much is the creative talent- if that makes sense. When reading such books and having read all your work, I truly admire how much talent goes into expression. Often when at work and trying to sum up concepts, I wish for the skills of writing expression, I think people underestimate how difficult it is to put a point accross and how its presentation has such a varied impact.

  10. says

    Michelle, I guess I could talk about first person writing in a future post. I find it relatively easy, but not every writer is comfortable writing that way, and it certainly doesn’t suit every story.

    As to how much is the writer’s personal feelings and how much is creativity / technique, that is a huge question and is no doubt different for every writer and perhaps for every novel. I’ll think about that one and talk about it later, if that’s OK!

  11. says

    Lovely post, Juliet:-)Isn’t it interesting to read what inspires people? Much as I love nature, it does not inform my writing to any great degree. I am more likely to be inspired by the work of humans: a creepy old building, perhaps, or a painting that suggests a situation. And medieval or Renaissance music evokes emotions that will sometimes turn into bits of story. Being in nature or even a beautiful garden, though, can make me feel relaxed enough to hear the muse’s call and send me to the computer.

    My muse is Hermes himself. I dream of him sometimes, as a tall, well-built man in early mid-life, with a pony tail and an earring:-) He sits at a desk, writing by hand, and while his presence is very comforting he doesn’t directly offer me any assistance, more’s the pity!

  12. Michelle says

    Juliet, no problem. You will be pleased to know i have finished all your books now, as well as I capture the castle. What a wonderful tale of love. I cannot stress enough how as a reader, writers truly are inspiring and have the gift of taking one into a different world. I wish i were able to write in such ways. Anyway looking forward to your next posts.