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.


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