For some writers it’s an image: A grief-broken man cradling his dead son. For other writers it’s a sentence or a title: “The Time Traveler’s Wife.” For yet others it’s a character, or characters, who pop into your head all at once. They’re all the sparks that ignite the creative process of writing a novel, and what they share is persistence, the feeling that these sparks will keep burning until they’re allowed to roar to life.
George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, published in February, was inspired by a story Saunders heard 20-plus years ago about Abraham Lincoln and his son Willie, who died in 1862 at age 11. The story (reported in some newspapers but never verified), said that after the funeral Lincoln repeatedly went back to his son’s crypt in Oak Hill cemetery. An image of Lincoln holding his dead child emerged in Mr. Saunders’s mind and stayed—until it became a novel.
The title The Time Traveler’s Wife came to Audrey Niffenegger one day while she was drawing. She wrote it down and “began to turn it over in my head. The title contained two characters, the time traveler and his wife. It seemed that it might be rather trying to be the wife. I imagined her waiting. Then I had an image of an old woman in a bright room, waiting, and I knew that was the end of the story. After that it was a matter of figuring out who these people were, and how that woman got to that room.” (From a 2009 interview with She Knows )
And then there’s Joanne Rowling, who was sitting on a delayed train from Manchester to King’s Cross station in London when Harry Potter, Ronald Weasley and Hermione Granger appeared “fully formed” in her mind.
As writers, we all know those images or words or characters that inspire a story. The thing is, how do we know which of those have the staying power to fuel an entire novel?
The answer, I believe, is the ones that carry an emotional truth, something you may know in your bones well before it’s present in your conscious mind.
Saunders wasn’t sure if his “idea” was a novel or a play or a short story. But as he wrote, the book materialized—a world of wraiths reluctant to move on, a grieving father and a boy who can’t tear himself away, bits of history stolen from newspapers and diaries—and turned into a mediation on grief and compassion. Over the course of the book, as Lincoln’s grief threatens to unhinge him, he comes to realize that “though on the surface it seemed every person was different, this was not true… Whatever way one took in this world, one must try to remember that all were suffering (none content; all wronged, neglected, overlooked, misunderstood), and therefore one must do what one could to lighten the load of those with whom one came into contact.”
JK Rowling’s greatest fear is of someone she loves dying, she told The Telegraph in 2006. “My books are largely about death. They open with the death of Harry’s parents. There is Voldemort’s obsession with conquering death and his quest for immortality at any price, the goal of anyone with magic…I so understand why Voldemort wants to conquer death. We’re all frightened of it.”
And that’s the thing to feel for when that image, phrase, character pops into your head—what is this telling me? Why is it important? What is the thing here that says something about human nature? For Saunders it was the universal experience of wrestling with grief, and the ways in which loss can lead to greater compassion. For Rowling it was facing the fear of death head on. And just as those images, titles, characters appear unbidden, the emotional truth or theme or whatever you want to call it that makes that story compelling will unfold as you tell the story.
My third novel began in an offhand remark my agent made to me, about what if a woman gave birth to a baby and then left it behind in the hospital. As a parent who adored my babies, this was inconceivable to me, but I couldn’t let it go. What if she was a woman like me who truly wanted and loved her baby? What would make her leave it behind? And as I followed that image and that story and those “what ifs” my book unfolded, and the emotional truth behind it turned out to be what it means to have integrity, not just being honest and moral but also in being whole. What makes someone feel whole? What makes people betray their own morals? That was worth exploring.
So welcome those images, those random phrases, those characters that arrive. Sometimes they come in droves; sometimes sparingly. Some you’ll set aside; some you’ll discard; and some won’t let you go until you follow them down to the raw truth beneath.
What was the spark that inspired your latest story? What’s the emotional truth that keeps that spark alive?
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