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The Spark of a Novel: Five Ways to Light That Spark

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Where did you get the idea for your book?

I’ve been asked that question about Queen of the Owls, my own novel, and I’ve responded in various ways. Mostly, I say that it was a combination of things. Some had been simmering below the surface for a long time, others were new, and they all came together in one of those convergences that was both magical and the product of intense work.

In fact, the very first spark—the story’s true moment of origin—was one that I didn’t recognize until years later, in the midst of a live Facebook interview. In other words, even I hadn’t realized what it was! More about that at the end of this essay.

I was curious about what the birth of a story was like for other authors, so I posed the question on several writers groups that I belong to: What sparked your novel? I didn’t care if the novel was published or not-yet-published; I just wanted to know what made them write it. More than fifty people responded. Obviously this wasn’t a comprehensive survey, but their replies offer insight into the first stage of the writing process.

Their responses fell into five categories.

A “what if …” moment

Many people described the idle musings—in the shower, while walking, in the early hours of the morning—that sparked a sudden idea, a random thought, a leap of imagination. “My neighbor’s kid was always putting up drawings and sayings on their door. One day, a piece of paper said, ‘I’m poisoned!’ I thought, gee, what if it were true?” Others wondered what would have happened if they (or someone they knew) had taken a different path earlier in life.

“What if” is the quintessentially creative utterance, setting the imagination in motion as unlikely elements are juxtaposed or predictable sequences are interrupted. The “what-if” moment for my own novel, Queen of the Owls, came when I was pondering the issue of sexual coercion, a topic high in the public consciousness. It struck me that coercion can take many forms, depending on context. I thought of academia, where I had spent many years. What if someone in power at a university suggested to an eager graduate student that the way to distinguish herself—to attain true mastery of her topic—was by doing something she never would have been willing to do, were it not couched in pseudo-academic language? And what if that “something” was the perfect trigger for her own secret yearning?

A specific image—something from a dream or an actual object, seen or remembered.

Dreams were a source of inspiration for many people. They described waking up from a dream with a clear and compelling image. These images had a special urgency— a character “showing up one day and refusing to leave,” a real or imaginary place, a snippet of conversation.

The image might also appear during waking hours, but with the same dream-like quality, “as if from nowhere.” Two women sitting together, talking; a pair of  boots; a leaf blowing down the street; a “beautiful prosthetic arm;” a woman sitting in the dark, twisting her rings and waiting for her husband to come home; a man in a trench coat reclining on the deck of a cruise ship in the fog.

The image that appeared, and then stayed with me, while I was writing Queen of the Owls was O’Keeffe’s masterpiece, Black Iris. In an earlier, now-abandoned novel, I’d written a backstory scene in which the protagonist came upon the painting and had a profoundly transformative experience. The scene served no real purpose in the story, so it (and, eventually, the entire manuscript) was discarded, yet the image continued to haunt me.

A real event in the writer’s life. 

The spark might come from a recent event in the author’s life or from a memory—the need to work through unresolved autobiographical material, or the wish to “re-story” an event in order to give it a happier ending. A real-life tragedy prompted one person’s novel “about my friend who lost her granddaughter to a brain tumor. There was so much pain and loss, and they could do nothing. And I could barely stand it. So I wrote a book and created a surgical procedure to effectively remove the tumor.”

For another person, it was a conversation on the ride home from the funeral of a man who had committed suicide. Others spoke about events that “got me thinking.” Three cheating priests and a good friend who cheated with one of them. A widower in my neighborhood who married his teenage babysitter. Having a KKK grand wizard as a family ancestor. A former patient who was a retired call girl.

For Queen of the Owls, it was my lifelong experience—I could say my lifelong struggle—with the dichotomy between foxy girls and smart girls. I can remember the day in junior high school, when I convinced my best friend to ask heart-throb Bill Kingery what he thought of me. Bill’s answer was devastating. “Barbara? Oh, she’s a brain.” That seminal moment—placing me squarely among the “brains”—defined my experience for decades. Later, after my own journey and the healing of that split, I was able to create Elizabeth.

An event in the news.

A news story can also be the spark for a novel. For one person, it was “the U.S. Women’s National Hockey Team winning the Olympic Gold Medal last year. It made me remember how much I love women’s hockey and how there needed to be more female athlete romances, as well as more female/female romances. Hence, my hockey coach and player queer romance was born.”

Although Queen of the Owls is not “about” sexual abuse, as a former therapist I was intrigued by stories in the news about prominent men who created strange narratives to justify their behavior. Some claimed that the acts were consensual and thus that no “abuse” took place; this seemed (to me) to be a self-serving delusion. But the storyteller in me began to wonder: what if nothing overtly sexual happened but, rather, something that felt sexual to one of them, but not to the other? Could the detached person really be that unaware? What if he was aware? How might he justify his participation?

An inspiring historical event.

A real event in the distant past might spark a fictional idea. “I was researching a sixteenth century Scottish preacher and learned that his English wife met him in 1549 but they did not marry until 1554. As a Protestant he had to flee the country, and she joined him in exile. Her father disowned her. So I wrote a novel to express her love and courage.”

For Queen of the Owls, the early encounters between Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz—in particular, the photographs he took of her in the early 1920s, nearly a century before the events in my novel—were an essential influence. I read everything I could about that period of time, from their actual correspondence and newspaper reviews to biographies written much later. Elizabeth’s behavior (and motivation) in Queen of the Owls would make no sense without the backdrop of these events.

Many people said that the “story spark” was the interplay among several factors, unfolding over time or converging in an unforeseen way.

“It’s hard to point to one spark. Many of my stories developed from multiple sparks—a fact I read here, a song I heard there, a paragraph in a book, a daydream, a family story—all plopped into my creative cauldron.”

“If I could point to one spark, it would be a video I watched with footage of a political event in the recent past with the iconic song that represented the event for me playing in the background. But obviously that was just the tip of the iceberg. The story was the result of my processing of that event. And then, years later, the story expanded … each stage was sparked by a deeper dive into that event and processing of the impact it had on me.”

This was true for Queen of the Owls as well. The memory of a painful adolescent moment, the power of events in the news, a simmering “what if … ?”

In retrospect, the connection among these elements seems obvious, yet I didn’t consciously sift through memories and news stories and imaginative riffs, and then pluck the ones that could work together to shape a novel. The process—for me—was far more subconscious.  Call it, luck, an inner relaxation, the intelligence of the intuitive mind. Trying really, really hard to come up with an idea for a novel just doesn’t seem to work—not for me, anyway. I’ve never responded to writing prompts, suggestions from others, or techniques designed to ignite that spark.

But here’s the amazing discovery I made. It happened after the book was written, revised, printed, and waiting in the warehouse for distribution.

In response to the cancellation of author events due to COVID-19, the kind and generous hosts of many Facebook groups for readers offered to do “live online” interviews with debut authors. I gratefully accepted their invitation. As I prepared for the second of these interviews, it struck me that it would be fun to sit with my Georgia O’Keeffe poster on the wall as background. It’s a poster I’ve had for years, her glorious 1927 masterpiece Red Poppy.

I spoke about all sorts of things during the interview, including the story, mentioned above, about my seventh-grade crush and his dismissal of me as a “brain.” Later in the hour, as often happens, someone asked about the seed of the novel. Where did Queen of the Owls come from?

And suddenly, like that cliché bolt of lightning, I knew.

When my ex-husband and I split up, I let him have the giant flat-screen that he’d mounted over the fireplace. I never watched TV; besides, it reminded me too much of him—an adult version of Bill Kingery, although it took me a long time to understand that. I wanted to fill the empty spot over the fireplace with something that represented who I wanted to be now. So the very first thing I did after he left was to go to an art store and buy a huge print of Red Poppy. It was a declaration, a flag, my way to fill the new void.

I was a doctoral student in clinical social work, a therapist and adjunct instructor. Not a fiction writer.  I didn’t write Queen of the Owls for another decade. And I didn’t put it all together until that afternoon, two weeks before the book’s publication, when I was being interviewed on a laptop.

Maybe that’s the way it happens. It’s only by giving your novel to the world that you can really understand its source.

Where did I get the idea for Queen of the Owls?

It might be truer to say that the idea got me. 

What about you?  What sparked your story idea? Do you respond to prompts, dreams, exercises, memories?

About Barbara Linn Probst [1]

Barbara Linn Probst is a writer, blogger, former teacher and therapist, and “serious amateur” pianist living on an historic dirt road in New York’s Hudson Valley. Her debut novel QUEEN OF THE OWLS launched in April 2020 from She Writes Press--the story of a woman’s search for wholeness framed around the art and life of Georgia O’Keeffe. QUEEN OF THE OWLS has garnered stellar advance praise and will be the May 2020 selection for the Pulpwood Queens, a network of nearly 800 book clubs across the U.S. It was also named one of the most anticipated books of 2020 by Working Mother [2]. Her second novel is slated for publication in April 2021. Before switching to fiction, Barbara published two nonfiction books and more scholarly articles than she cares to remember. She’s proudest of WHEN THE LABELS DON’T FIT (Random House, 2008), a book to help parents raise, understand, and nurture out-of-the-box children. An out-of-the-box child herself, Barbara has a PhD in Clinical Social Work and worked for many years counseling, teaching, doing qualitative research, and advocating for people with mental and emotional challenges.

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