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?