Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Mad Science of Inspiration

Famous authors seem to get tired of being asked, "Where do you get your inspiration?" Maybe I'll be famous enough to be tired of that question one day. I get the feeling that authors don't like it because they don't know the answer or it's too complicated to quantify.

Pish. How hard can it be to say where you got your inspiration from? It's an easy answer: EVERYWHERE.

What a writer's brain looks like:
(kind of like a serial killer's obsession
board, eh?)
Authors are like Dr. Frankenstein. They dig up inspiration in graveyards. They steal it from hanged corpses. They pay off shady characters to steal it from the morgue. Sometimes its donated freely. Hell, sometimes it drops from the sky to land at their feet.

Shall we look at how a writer becomes Dr. Frankenstein when it comes to writing? I'm going to use my own books as examples because I can speak best from my own experience. Your mileage may vary.

Bazaar Dreams

The Bazaar is the first book I've published but not the first I wrote by a long shot. It started as a dream that was so vivid it stuck with me and nagged at me until I was forced to write it down. Of course, I had this great idea: a magical bazaar, a woman in desperate need of help, a giant spider bursting from the head of what looked like an ordinary human but I didn't have any framework for it. Sometimes ideas come to you that don't have any anchors. This one didn't have an anchor. Who was the main character, anyway? The lady who needed help? My character in the dream who wanted to help? What was the point of the story, beyond having the epic visual of a spider splitting a person open and crawling free? When the dream came to me, I knew it would have to be a book. I let it percolate, knowing that eventually, my Dr. Frankenstein imagination would cobble together a whole monster from the pieces.

Dreams are great fodder for stories. Sometimes the dream IS the book. Another story I'm writing, Hell Wrecker, came to me as a fully formed story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Of course, it wasn't until I started writing it that I realized there was more to the characters than I could ever hope to fit into the story the way I'd dreamed it. In dreams, you just know that the character had a bad childhood and you hold that story in your head. In books, you have to work in the back story in a way that won't clog up the main story. For this book, it meant accepting that what I thought was a complete story arc was actually the middle and last part of a book that actually started many years earlier. 

So, from tiny bits of ideas to fully-fleshed stories, dreams are a tremendous resource for ideas. If you have trouble remembering your dreams, start making it a habit to write down the last things you remember the minute you wake up. It will get you in the habit of remembering and will greatly enhance your ability to catch your dreams. 

So, besides dreams, where else have I found ideas?

Creeptastic Conversations

I am revising and editing Bug Queen right now. The idea for it came to me in a conversation with M. A. Ray, one of my fellow epic authors here on the Scriptorium Blog. I don't remember how the conversation got started, but I remember jokingly saying, "Wouldn't it be cool to have a lady who could control bugs? I see her with this giant tornado of bugs behind her and her in control of them all." It was a fun conversation but the idea stuck and soon I was writing about Vedalia and Sabra and an alien bug called the Calx and an insidious alien fungus come to take over Earth. From a silly conversation to a book. How's that for awesome?

Sometimes you're in public or sitting with friends and someone says something that catches your imagination. Once, long ago when I was riding on a bus (ugh), I overheard a woman say, "My husband told me his contribution to our marriage was his paycheck" That has stuck with me through the years because it's so evocative. Someday I'll write that story. Until then, it sits in my memory banks, waiting for the right moment to come along. 

Just like dreams, some of the ideas that come from conversations won't have an anchor. They aren't a story in and of themselves. They need cobbled together with other ideas from other places. This is where the Dr. Frankenstein method of creation comes in. Take a dream idea and sew it to a conversation idea and see what happens. It may work great or it might destroy the city in a rage. You just never know until you strap it to the table and crank it up onto the roof to get struck by lightning.

Singing Past the Graveyard

Graveyards are great for inspiration too
Music is often an inspiration to me. From powerful lyrics to a sexy beat, from the mood of the piece to the place where I first heard it, songs often spur ideas. Sting writes songs that spark pictures in my head. It's one reason I love listening to his music. It's like dreaming when I listen, and I love to dream. Sometimes songs help me write scenes and sometimes they are the impetus for a book. 

Lovers on the Sun by David Guetta and featuring Sam Martin is a song that is a book to me. I just haven't written it yet. It's a song that paints all sorts of epic scenes for me, I just have to find the anchor and get them on paper. I don't have any stories I've written solely from a piece of music because more often, songs act as the filler for my stories rather than the inspiration for them. They help me find pieces of scenes that weren't there before, and they help me find the emotional depth that wouldn't have been there without that music. 

Truth is Stranger than Fiction

We have inspiration all around us if we're open to it. A news story might spark the idea for a book, the way an article about teenagers dying mysteriously led to the Nightmare on Elm Street movies. I'm often inspired by books I've read, either because the book was so good, I want to write like that too, or the book was so bad, I know I could write better. Sometimes, a book almost works but some element really disappointed me. In that case, I try to figure out how I could write a story that gives me what that book failed to do. I have a story in progress tentatively called Endless Winter, that comes from that space. By the time I'm done with it, I doubt anyone will ever know where the inspiration came from, but it will be my answer to the book that royally screwed up (in my mind) what could have been a great story.

Other places to find inspiration would be non-fiction books. If you're hurting for ideas, go visit the non-fiction section of your local library. There are a million ideas waiting for you there. Or pieces of ideas, anyway. You might take out a book on serial killers, on Abraham Lincoln, and on myth and come up with a great story. (Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. Maybe that's how the author came up with his book, eh?) You might pick up a book on knitting, a book on hunting, and a book on the American Revolution and end up with Betsy Ross, Bounty Hunter. Who knows? The point is to keep your mind open. Ideas can't get in if you don't welcome them.

Inscribed in Blood

A vampire! Now with more nipple,
Another great place to find ideas is in your own writing. I've gotten lots of story ideas from my books. Perhaps there's a character who's a bit player in your novel who you think would make a great main character in your next book. Maybe you mention a town in a short story that you realize would be the perfect setting in the werewolf book you're writing next. The cool thing about writing is that you're using your imagination as you do it and when you exercise that muscle, it grows bigger and stronger. Imagination atrophies if you don't use it. 

One of the books I wrote, Blood Curse, came from a what if idea: what if the Renfields were a family who served vampires through the ages and considered it an honor but one of the daughters hated vampires? I played around with the idea for a long while but didn't get anywhere until I anchored it to writing I'd done in high school. I had characters from pirate stories I wrote then that needed new life. I took those characters and folded them into this idea. Voila, I suddenly had people with backgrounds and personalities ready and willing to play out their parts in my story. 

It's Alive! It's ALIVE!

I think people ask the question, "Where do you get your ideas?" because they think that the author must lead an amazing, fascinating life full of adventure. Writers, though, understand that everything is story fodder. The plain room with the dull white walls and the nasally bureaucrat behind bullet-proof glass IS story as much as the high-speed chase that ends in a shoot out. Writers borrow from EVERYTHING, which is why they probably have a hard time saying where their ideas come from. It's not just one place but many, and they don't usually arrive whole, those ideas. They are in pieces like a serial killer's victims and the author has to pick up the bloody bits of flesh and stitch them together in a way that makes sense. Then they have to breathe life into the creature and hope that the creature doesn't fall apart upon scrutiny.

Writing is all about using what you have to create new, wonderful things. Don't think that just because you live in Nowhere, USA or Boring, China that you have nothing to write about. Of course you do. Take bits and pieces from everywhere you go, everyone you talk to, every song you listen to, and every conversation you hear and put those things together to make something amazing. Hit that shit with lightning and raise your hands high with exultation as you scream, "It's alive! It's ALIVE!!"

1 comment:

  1. This is so interesting -- especially your inspiration for Bug Queen!