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? [Read more…]