Inspiration in writing – where does it come from?

Creativity and inspiration
Is inspiration a spark from a match or a slow-warming, energy efficient lightbulb?
Creativity (noun): the ability to make new things or think of new ideas.

But what if you aren’t feeling creative?

Inspiration (noun): something that makes someone want to do something or that gives someone an idea about what to do or create.

So where can you find this elusive elixir?

According to a quote often attributed to 19th century novelist Jack London, “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club”. Is this true for everyone? Is this true for you, or me? Or is it better to sit and wait for a story to pop into your head fully formed, like J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter?

My inspiration

While I am quoting other people, there is a well-known adage that you should only bother writing a story if you have a tale that you simply cannot keep inside your brain. It hasn’t really happened like that for me. I have pretty much always known that I wanted to write a book (or, hopefully, books) someday. It was the subject matter of that book that was hazy. About a year and a half ago I decided that today was the day my fledgling writing career would begin and that I probably ought to think of something to write about.

Fortunately for me, characters have been spawning inside my brain (not literally, obviously) ever since I was a child. My head seems to occupy itself by making up fiction, whether about me or these make-believe characters. (On a separate note, does this mean I’m crazy?) So I knew it wouldn’t take me too long to come up with something that felt “right”.

How Mamacona was born

My thought process was as follows:

  1. I still have no idea why, but a few minutes after opening a Word document and calling it “Book”, I realised I had a desire to write about a fortune teller. Perhaps I thought it would be fun to research or easy to maintain a sense of…
  2. Eeriness and the unknown – I have an affinity for such atmospheres and I wanted my book to have a similar tone. First I thought “Transylvania” then decided that, as much as I love Dracula, I didn’t want to go down this well-trodden route. Next I turned to the Inca Empire – it was certainly unknown to me at the time and I could imagine a young woman from Victorian London (our fortune teller) feeling similarly.
  3. I wanted the story to feel dark, and I wanted to use elements of Inca ideology, not just the empire’s geographical location. I decided my fortune teller would become obsessed with a woman from the past, and that their lives would become inextricably linked.
  4. As I started to research the Incas more thoroughly, I realised that I wanted to ACTUALLY be among them (well, in the story at least). What started out as a bit of fable-telling around the circus campfire turned into a separate story arc with its own characters and sub-plots.
  5. As the plot began to take shape, I decided that my intended ending (where the Victorian and Inca elements tie together) would be stronger if we saw what led Sadie the fortune teller to join a travelling circus in real time, rather than just hearing it from her second hand. So a third story arc came into being – Sadie’s past.

I tell you the above so you can see what works for me. I am relatively early on in my writing career, but coming up with story ideas is something I have been doing from a young age – it’s just the actual writing them down that has taken me a while to get to. I have a natural love for making up stories and find they do just tend to pop into my head (albeit not quite fully formed a la J.K.). There are, though, things I can do to put me in a more receptive frame of mind should I find the ideas aren’t flowing quite as quickly as I’d like…

When inspiration doesn’t strike

  • Figure out what IS a receptive frame of mind for you. I know some people take inspiration from despair and anger and the bad things that have happened to them. I am not one of these people. I don’t feel able to write unless my life is going swimmingly and I don’t have any niggles worrying at my brain. If I do, then I’ll do something else.
  • If you already have an idea forming (a setting, a time period or even just a person), then commence the research! I found that a lot of my plotting and character ideas developed at this point. Something you hadn’t previously known about (like the Inca penchant for child sacrifice in my case) might spark further ideas in the back of your mind…
  • If you don’t have any ideas yet, perhaps you can try something I like to call “cross-creativity”. Do you like singing, or sketching, or moulding dinosaurs from Plasticine? If you have another interest that engages the creative side of your brain, then use it. I find this helps me in much the same way as using the elliptical machine has helped me to run faster.
  • Conversely, I sometimes find inspiration in relatively dull tasks that DON’T require any creativity at all. I hate cleaning (just ask my husband or parents) but one advantage washing dishes does have is that your hands are busy but your mind is free to wander (or maybe that’s why I’m so bad at washing up). If I have a writing project on the go, then I find my idle mind keeps returning to it.
  • Travelling somewhere new can be very inspiring, but assuming you aren’t willing to hop onto a plane just to come up with a story idea, then maps and photos are the next best thing. Think about somewhere you have been or somewhere you would like to go. Who might have lived here? In the past? In the future? In a parallel universe? Photographs and stories often go hand in hand, as in the case of Erin Morgenstern’s flax-golden tales. I also love looking at creepy works of art like these ones…
  • Use writing prompts. Even consider making up your own. Think about what has happened in your life so far. Observe people and places when you are out and about. Even the most mundane could sprout an interesting story.
  • Finally, think about the books and films you like. Figure out whether there are any common threads running through them that particularly interest you. It’s probably no surprise that I’m often drawn in by a creepy setting or a character’s psychological change / madness – think The Skeleton Key or Shutter Island in film, and Rebecca or The Little Stranger in books.

What if that fails?

It won’t. If you REALLY want to write a book, you will get there. Ideas might pop into your head five times a day entirely of their own accord or they might not. The important thing is to enjoy the whole process, from idea generation to last minute fact checks. I certainly have so far. Just heed Jack London’s advice and don’t forget your club.

-Kirsty

Book research: the weird and the wonderful

Weird and wonderful llama
Llama holiday selfie (pixabay.com)
Since I finished the first draft of my book three weeks ago, I have been reading, writing and reading about writing. As much as I love all of those things, I fancied a bit of a change, so I have spent the morning trawling through my book research board on Pinterest. In my first ever blog post, I promised a link or two to some of the weird and wonderful things I have discovered about the Inca Empire, the Victorians and the circus in the course of my research.

I have previously posted on spring-time festivals in both periods covered by my book, but it gets much weirder (and much more wonderful) than that.

Here are some of my favourite things I have discovered so far…

Weird beginnings

Did you know that guinea pig is considered a delicacy (yes, the kind you eat) in Peru? I’m sure you might have if you have been there as it continues to be consumed to this day. As it stands, my book opens with the sentence “Umina bit into the guinea pig”. Umina is the protagonist in the Inca portion of my book, and she was biting into a guinea pig because… well, I won’t spoil the surprise.

Sightseeing llamas

I have included a link to this photo for no reason other than it makes me smile every time I see it. I can’t help but envisage a group of llamas deciding to visit Machu Picchu, getting there and saying “It’s smaller than it looks in pictures”. Not that llamas can talk obviously…

Crossing the bridge when you come to it

…or not. I don’t mind heights, so I would probably be perfectly willing to amble across this traditional, Inca-style rope bridge. Bridges such as this were replaced on a regular basis in the Inca Empire as part of the mit’a (or labour tax) that was expected of all healthy adults, and, perhaps surprisingly, were strong enough to carry battalions of Spaniards on horseback. This particular bridge crosses the Apurimac river in Peru and is still reconstructed by locals every year.

The rope is woven from vegetation, so let’s hope the plants used to construct it don’t get any ideas from the section below…

Killer tomatoes

I had a handwritten shortlist of poisonous plants on my coffee table for about a fortnight so I was really hoping nobody I knew became ill in mysterious circumstances that prompted the police to search my house. And yes, before you ask, it WAS related to the writing of my book.

As well as finding out what I needed for one of my chapters, I read some interesting things about toxic crops more generally. Most people are aware deadly nightshade isn’t the best plant to go near (I mean, the clue’s in the name for a start). Something I didn’t know though was that cows and rabbits can seemingly ingest it with no ill effects. Putting deadly nightshade firmly aside, it turns out that even many of the plants we know and love as foodstuffs have done some very bad things. Kidney beans prepared in a slow cooker can be highly toxic, nutmeg – at very high doses – can have hallucinogenic properties, and at least one person has apparently been killed by an infusion made from tomato leaves.

In this light, my childhood phobia of salad actually seems quite sensible…

Pepper’s Ghost

If you have read any of my previous blog posts, you will probably be aware I am a fan of all things supernatural. Which is great, because – thanks to my research into a Victorian carnival mainstay – I now know how to make my own ghost

A picturesque ending

Victorian photographs are endlessly fascinating, amusing and terrifying. There are numerous examples of clowns, contortionists and fortune tellers on my Pinterest board. One thing you won’t find, despite their prevalence at the time, is commemorative photographs of the dead (don’t make the mistake I just did – Googling this latter while you are at home by yourself). I won’t share a link to the particularly macabre page I just looked at, partly because there is a lot of speculation around the authenticity of most of the images said to be of this type found on the internet, and partly because I don’t want to be responsible for anybody else’s insomnia. Suffice it to say that the pictures aren’t made any less chilling by the fact that most of them are probably just photographs of regular, living people.

Unlike some of the more vital Victorian subjects (including babies), I have never been offered opium or laudanum to encourage me to sit still when having my photo taken (usually a glass of wine or prosecco does me just fine). Then again, my wedding photos weren’t quite as nightmare-inducing as this one, even towards the end of the day when hair was skewiff, eyeliner was smudged and dress was torn.

***

These are just a few of my favourite weird and wonderful facts, but I hope you’ll agree it’s easy to see why I get sidetracked when researching a period or place. The Wikipedia trails and hours of reading can be useful though – aside from the sightseeing llamas, the majority of the above have been incorporated into my book in some way. (I would love to write about sightseeing llamas though – maybe a future children’s book?!) As soon as I am finished editing this book, I plan to start researching the ideas I have for my next. So watch this space for freaky and fantastical facts about ancient Iceland, emotions and mind control…

-Kirsty

Creative writing practice: some examples

creative writing practice
The grave with no name (Image – pixabay.com)
My first draft of Mamacona is “resting” and I am trying my best not to think about it (although brilliant ideas and sudden, horrible realisations pop into my head about 11 times per day). In the meantime, I am absorbing as much as I can about self-editing, continuing my research into the Incas and devouring novels. However, I am also trying to practise my creative writing – at least a little bit – most days.

My main practice has been in the form of exercises from 642 Things to Write About by the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto. If you have ever had a desire to “pen an ode to an onion”, “write ten sayings for fortune cookies” or “write stage directions for an actor that insult him or her personally all along the way”, I would definitely recommend this book. (I’m not working on commission, honestly.)

I thought I would share with you a few bits and pieces I have written using prompts from the book. Disclaimer: these are mostly very silly as I thought it would be fun to write the first thing that came into my head, and I have not meddled with them in any way since.

Zimmer frame soup

Prompt – “Write a recipe for disaster.”

You will need a very large pot (stainless steel recommended). Fill with soup (homemade or shop bought is fine) and simmer gently. Go outside. Take one long, flat stretch of road. Grease with butter, preferably unsalted. Eat a kilo of bananas and scatter the empty skins liberally across the street. Gather up fifteen old-age pensioners – look out for walking sticks and zimmer frames, these are the juiciest specimens. Place each pensioner on a skateboard, and hand him or her an egg. These eggs are precious and need to remain intact. Go back inside. Your soup’s burnt, hasn’t it?

A sad tale of non-friendship

Prompt – “Something you’ve always regretted saying.”

I regret saying nothing, that one time in the playground. I was five. So was she. She skipped up to me with her rope – the new girl with long, brown hair and no friends. “Will you be my friend?” she asked. I wanted to say yes, to lead her – skipping – to the wall where we stood in a line playing something or other. But I was shy. I said nothing and turned the other way.

A ghost story for kids

Prompt – “You are a camp counsellor. Make up a story that will scare the bejeezus out of your eight- to ten-year old campers.”

“Lights out, little campers.” That was the last thing anybody ever said to Ellie Lacey. Ellie was ten years old, like a lot of you are now. She loved ghost stories, especially the ones that take place on a dark, stormy night like tonight. They didn’t bother her usually, but that night she couldn’t sleep. It was their last night at camp, and their counsellor had told them a bedtime story about a little girl. A little girl at camp, ten years old – the same age as Ellie. The little girl had gone to bed in her cabin, just like she had every other night for the past week, except, this time, when she woke up, the cabin was empty. No campers, no counsellor. Ellie couldn’t get the little girl out of her head, even though the counsellor hadn’t mentioned her name. She just couldn’t fall…

Ellie opened her eyes. It was still dark but she could tell it was much later than it had been. She must have fallen asleep in the end. She must have stopped thinking about the girl with no name. Darn it, she was thinking about her again. The little girl in the story had left the cabin, gone into the one next door. Empty. The one next to that. Empty. Empty, empty, empty. No stuff even. Rucksacks. Clothes. All gone. Ellie tried to see the time on the wall clock, but her eyes hadn’t grown used to the darkness yet, so she carried on thinking about the counsellor’s story. The little girl had gone to the camp fire next. There was nobody there either. Nothing but ash and empty marshmallow skewers.

Ellie could see a little better now. She sat up, feeling panicked suddenly. The cabin was unusually quiet. She looked at the bed opposite. Shona wasn’t there, nor Sarah in the bunk above. Ellie jumped from her covers and ran from bed to bed. They were all empty, just like in the story. She ran to the next cabin along and the one after that. Yes, you guessed it. All empty. Ellie didn’t want to visit the camp fire but she couldn’t help herself. She didn’t want to think about the girl in the story anymore but she couldn’t help that either. The girl had left the camp fire and walked into the woods. Who knew why? Ellie had thought that had been an idiotic thing to do. The girl had walked and walked until she reached a clearing. In the clearing, there had been a gravestone. On the gravestone had been a name. The girl’s name.

Ellie shuddered. She told herself it was just a stupid story, that the other campers were playing a stupid joke on her. She had reached the campfire now. The flames had gone out and the stools were empty. She picked up an empty skewer, in case she needed something sharp. Not that she would, of course – it was just an elaborate prank. She looked up. Yes, that’s where they would be – the woods. She took a deep breath and walked into the shadows. She walked and walked, around and around the woods. It was still dark and she couldn’t see another living soul. Eventually she reached a clearing. In the clearing stood a gravestone. Carved into the gravestone was her name, Eleanor Lacey…

Anyway, enough of that. It’s your last night of camp and it’s getting late. Lights out, little campers.

*****

I hope you have enjoyed reading these as I certainly enjoyed putting them together. Look out for more exercises in future blog posts, and let me know if you try any of them yourself! You can also find similar creative writing prompts online.

-Kirsty