If you write, and especially if you’re an author who visits book groups, you’ve likely been asked that question more than once. I think the question has more than one level, as does the answer. Like me, you may not even recognize all of your inspirations until after you’ve finished a draft, but taking the time to consider them may help you produce a deeper and more clarified work.
What am I talking about? Bear with me.
Skimming the Surface
Writers can be inspired by any number of things as they begin and continue to work on a manuscript: music heard or imagined, art found in a museum or seen on a billboard, a snippet of dialogue overheard in an elevator, a piece of perfect fruit (sure, why not?). Take a vacation and spend a good deal of time watching people? Read a good book and find yourself enchanted with an author’s turn or phrase or their voice? That sort of inspiration fits here, too.
Inspirations like these are simple and abundant, and while they don’t exactly find their way into your work they can help to keep you engaged with life and excited to write about life in general.
Under the Skin
Sometimes a writer latches to a simple Skimming-the-Surface type of inspiration and promotes it to something more, allowing it to take on a recurring role in fueling the act of writing. For example, while I was working on the rewrite of The Last Will of Moira Leahy, I stumbled on a song that I felt perfectly complemented the tale I was trying to tell; it was Roberto Cacciapaglia’s Atlantico . Whenever I felt blocked or otherwise needed a dose of inspiration, I listened to that song and it reminded me why I had to write my protagonist’s story.
Down to the Bone
Some inspirations nourish more than the writer; they feed a work-in-progress by becoming a part of the story in some way, helping it to grow from germ-of-an-idea to scene, from scene to chapter, from chapter to finished manuscript. They lend a book texture and authenticity. For The Last Will of Moira Leahy, research into Javanese culture, twin phenomena, and post-traumatic-stress disorder provided me with this inspiration. Just as inspiring was a trip to Castine, Maine, where conversations with locals and a trip in a lobster boat on the Penobscot Bay influenced the direction of–and inspired me to change critical elements within–my manuscript.
It’s been my experience that down-to-the-bone inspirations sometimes take a while to affect a story. They sit inside of you as possibilities, and when and if the time comes to weave them into the fabric of a tale, they rise to the surface and remind you they exist. This may or may not even be conscious. Would a twin have ever appeared in my book in the first place if I hadn’t read about familial hauntings through my research into Javanese culture? Possibly not; I don’t recall the chicken-and-egg of that choice, though I definitely didn’t start writing with a twin sister on the canvas.
By the way, this phenomenon is why I’m a fan of casting a big net during the first draft. Research works hand in hand with imagination to build a story, if you let it seep into the bone.
Coursing through the Marrow
This is less easy and obvious than the others, but possibly the most important form of inspiration. It’s worth the work to try to understand it.
After I finished the first draft of Last Will, I took a class on rejuvenation led by our own Barbara O’Neal. At one point she posed a question to us that had something to do with who we were really writing about, or what was truly behind it all. I remember thinking at the time that this was a little strange. My story was clearly fiction. I was not a twin or raised in Maine, and I’d learned what I had about Javanese culture through research. I made it all up. (Insert mental shrug.)
“Think about it and let me know,” Barbara said.
I did, for days. And then it hit me. The protagonist in my book was sixteen when she lost her twin. My sister was sixteen when our father died. The sixteen year old in my book closed down, changed dramatically, became isolated. Like my sister. They both craved resolution from beyond the grave. Last Will was the story of one sister trying to help another–the way I’d tried to help my sister. I’d never seen these similarities because they were buried in the marrow of the story–and in my subconscious. But there it was: Family issues that had been weighing on me had found their way into my novel and heavily inspired its emotional angles.
Huh. Enlightenment. And realizing what thrummed under the surface of my work helped me to clarify the story’s most important messages during revisions.
This is why Barbara O’Neal is so wise. This is also why I think writing like a pantser can be a lot like undergoing personal therapy! But that’s another blog post…
What inspires the many levels of your work?
Photo used with permission courtesy Flickr’s ana.gr