Hi. Barb here.
This month I wrote a short story. I won’t give it away, but the central idea of it, the “thing” if you will, is so macabre and weird that people in my writers group asked, “How in the world did you come up with this?” My answer was, “I don’t know. Where does any of this stuff come from?”
In this case, the inspiration was a still image that appeared in my brain from, I honestly don’t know where. I wasn’t even sure the thing I pictured existed. Thanks to the web, I found that it does, thus reinforcing my belief that anything human beings can do, or even think of, has a society, a website, a blog, a conference, a newsletter and a listserv where people argue entrenched positions over the most esoteric of details.
For me, ideas come from still images as in this case, little flashes of action, throw away lines in conversation. These can be things I’ve observed or felt or done, or only speculated about. Unfortunately, I never imagine endings or twists as my starting point, which would frankly make my writing life a lot easier. I hold out the hope that it will happen some day.
I describe some of my inspirations below. Is this how it works for other authors? I’d honestly love to know.
The “thing” that inspired my novel, The Death of an Ambitious Woman, was a casual comment from a friend about cell phones. “Wouldn’t it be horrible,” he asked, “if you heard somebody die?” I’m not giving anything away here, because this happens on page 2. Of course, once you have this idea, you still have to figure out how you would kill someone this way, and who would do it and why. That’s where the perspiration comes in.
Sometimes, (and this always annoys me) the inspiration doesn’t make it into the final story. The inspiration for my short story “Key West,” in Thin Ice: Crime Stories by New England Writers, was a little movie that ran in my head of a woman on the bow of a sailboat in the tropics. It’s winter and the sun has set early, and the woman stops and notices this. She’s grown up in the north, and for her, at a visceral level, despite years in the tropics, short days mean cold weather. I realized this woman was in the wrong place, and I wrote the story to figure out how she got there. The little scene on the sailboat stayed in the story for draft after draft (after draft), but in the end, I couldn’t make it fit.
The same thing happened with my story “Winter Rental,” in Seasmoke: Crime Stories by New England Writers. The inspiration for that story was another little movie in my head of a group of school teachers waiting for the first ferry in Falmouth, to take them to Martha’s Vineyard.This isn’t anything I’d ever witnessed, just something I’d heard about. As in a lot of resort areas, many municipal employees can’t afford to live on the island and commute from the mainland. In the image in my head, it’s dark and snow is piled in the parking lot. A woman drives up and parks her car. She’s also taking the ferry as a walk-on. But why is she there, so early in the morning, in winter? I wrote the story to find out, but again, couldn’t save the scene. The story got moved to Nantucket for plot reasons, anyway, and that was the end of that.
At times, my inspirations are much more cerebral and “theme-y.” My story “In the Rip,” in Best New England Crime Stories: Dead Calm, is really about how when you experience something like a break up or firing, there’s a period of time before it happens, when you’re living your life with one set of assumptions and someone else is living with completely different ones. So afterwards, you not only have to deal with the death of your dreams, you also tend to question your entire understanding of reality. And in some ways, that’s the most hurtful part. Anyway, this story, which is actually quite comic, initially started with a treatise on the nature of reality that obviously wasn’t going to fly. (And again, when I say obviously, I mean to everyone but the author, who had to work it out, laboriously, on her own.)
Sometimes the inspiration is something I’ve seen. Years ago, I was shopping in Sears before Christmas. A young woman was there with a baby who was barely walking. I watched as the woman took a red velvet Christmas dress off the rack and put it on the toddler. Then they got in line to have the baby’s picture taken with Santa. Afterwards, the woman, obviously reluctantly, took the beautiful dress off her child and returned to the rack. I was shopping for my own small children at the time, and this action broke my heart. I wondered who this woman was, who cared so much about creating this Christmas momento for a baby who was too young to remember the holiday. The young mother and her baby became characters in my first published short story, “New Derby, New Year’s Eve,” which was originally published in Riptide: Crime Stories by New England Authors and is now available for free download here.
So what about it writers? How does your inspiration come?
More than once it has been a title that popped into my head first. Then I had to come up with characters and a plot to go with it. In fact, this is how two of my series were launched, first with Face Down in the Marrow-Bone Pie and then with Kilt Dead.
Titles have come to me first very occasionally, but usually it’s the opposite, they are a struggle.
A chance comment this summer inspired what will be the fourth Darby Farr, DEADLY OFFER (revising it today!) and I’ve had ideas from dreams work into books as well. For me, the biggest gift of all came back in 2003 in the real estate sales agent class when the idea for the series hit me. I think the instructor’s determination to drum into us every single little horrible thing that could go wrong was what did it!
I like your distinction Barb, about what inspirations you can use and what you can’t. You are so right — that is where the real work comes in.
I tend to get visual inspiration – either something I’ve seen (that story of the mother and the baby dress is heartbreaking!) or, as happens with you, an image pops into my head. Also like you, a lot of times the initial image doesn’t make the final cut into the story. I wonder if those images are kind of like the geographical markers archeologists can use to find the location of a site. You know – unusually depressed or built-up land, aberrant water or plant-growth patterns. Those things aren’t the archeological find waiting to be revealed, but they show where to dig.
I think that’s a good analogy, Julia. It’s a starting point, or a sign, and if I worry it enough as I’m doing mundane things, a voice will come, a character, a couple of scenes.
That last vignette, about the mother and the little girl, brings tears to my eyes, Barb. I can already see it as the beginning of so many stories … but it’s yours! When I was heavily involved with abused childrem, and then in adoption, as a parent, as head of a large adoptive parent organization, and as a lobbyist, I knew so many stories … sometimes those sorts of vignettes, and sometimes more complicated stories. I never wanted to use any of them, because so many were private, and I was afraid someone would recognize even disguised people. I did invent families in my book Shadows at the Spring Show that were based on many of the families I knew — but were none of them. But, still, some of those other children and parents I knew so well literally haunt my dreams.
Lea, I always struggle with how much of people’s lives I can use. Sometimes it’s very conscious, but other times completely un. The mother in Key West has three girls born within 11 months. When I finally gave it to my friend who had been in that situation, she found the story very moving and said, “You know, that could have been me.” But her kids were by then grown up and quite successful, so maybe it was easier for her to be moved by the story and not freaked out by it.
Fascinating to read about other people’s inspiration. My short stories are always about someone getting revenge, including the one I just finished to submit to this year’s Level Best anthology. Who knows why? Maybe because in real life I’m known as a sunny “nice” person? And who of us can ever really get revenge (and get away with it), anyway? It sure is fun to write it, though.
I’m glad you confine your revenge fantasies to fiction. Edith. Otherwise you’d be “that nice Quaker woman who keeps killing people,” which wouldn’t work at all!