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Novelists on the Inspiration for Their Stories

Written by Great Books on Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Novelists on the Inspiration for Their Stories

To make a living as a writer, one tends to need more than one good idea, especially if you're a novelist.  Fiction writers often create whole worlds (whether imaginary or historical) out of thin air.  But where do writers get the inspiration for these stories?  Two of our speakers for this summer, novelists James Blaylock and Joanna Hershon shared their own experiences with inspiration.

James Blaylockauthor of 24 books, most recently Zeuglodon:

Some writers claim to have a heap of ideas. They see potential stories in newspapers; they hear potential stories on the news; ideas pop into their minds like popcorn in a hot pan. It doesn’t work that way for me.

I’m inspired by setting and by character. I’ve set a number of novels in southern and northern California because I’ve lived in California all my life, and my mind is full of images of beaches, coastlines, chaparral covered hillsides, redwood groves, suburban tract houses, old neighborhoods like the one I live in, and of a large number of highly interesting people. I’m inspired by the things that I carry around in my memory, in other words.

I know that I have a story to write when a picture comes into my mind – a picture of someone doing something against a particularly evocative backdrop: someone walking through a moonlit avocado grove at night, say. (What’s he doing there?) Or a surfer on a winter beach watching storm surf, and, out of the corner of his eye, nervously watching kids playing in the shore break. (Are they safe? Is something going to go wrong?) Or a guy walking into a dimly lit garage sale operated by a mysterious woman sitting in the shadows. The man has the idea that he’s going to find something special. (What will it be? What will happen when he finds it?).

Here’s a true story regarding inspiration: I was building a lamp in the garage one morning, and it occurred to me that I had an excessive quantity of oak lumber piled up on the floor. Immediately it came into my mind to use it to build my own coffin. I would store carpentry tools in it for my time on earth, and then my family could dump out the tools and put me into it for the rest of eternity. I could picture the box clearly in my mind. It seemed like a stellar idea to me. I went inside looking for a cup of coffee and found my wife working in the kitchen. I told her about my plan with a certain amount of excitement. She didn’t look up from what she was doing; she just said, “No, I don’t think so,” in a flat sort of voice. Turned out she wasn’t happy with the idea of her husband building his own coffin. Imagine that. I wrote a story titled “Small Houses” and let my character build the coffin.

Joanna Hershonauthor of the recently published A Dual Inheritance:

Inspiration is a funny business. I've only written one book (THE GERMAN BRIDE) which arrived as a fully formed inspiration. In that case, I heard a friend say two sentences about his great-great grandmother and I literally said, "Okay, that's my next novel!" In the three other cases, it was a slow build and I would describe it as following my interests and checking in now and then to consciously tell myself a potential story of how these different interests might come together. Little by little it starts to become an idea, or the shell of an idea. My novels really starts as characters. Once I can feel the characters and what they want, a plot begins to take shape.

Ask these questions and more of our guest speakers at this summer's program.  Apply now, click here!

Category : Advice for Writers

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