Where do writers get their inspiration? An image, a story or snippet of conversation they’ve heard, or a song or a particular location perhaps?
Rumour has it that George Orwell wrote Animal Farm after seeing a young boy steering a large cart horse along a narrow path. He started to ask himself what would happen if animals realized their own strength, an idea which developed into an allegorical story about animals taking over a farm.
Steven King often gets his inspiration from dreams. He once had one on a plane about a young girl kidnapping a famous author and was so excited about the idea it he ran into the airport when the plane landed, sat down and wrote down the first fifty pages of his novel Misery which went on to become a phenomenal best-seller.
The idea for my own novel wasn’t quite as dramatic. My husband and I were looking for a primary school for my eldest child and I heard a story about one mother who was going to spectacular lengths to get her child into a particular school. I started to ask myself about this person and wondered if her obsessive behaviour had anything to do with her own experience of school. I wrote a short story with this idea in mind. It then developed into my novel which is essentially about the struggle of the two main characters to come to terms with traumatic events that happened to them in their school days.
This week four very different authors were kind enough to tell me what inspired them to write their own novels.
Chris Hill is the author of the literary novel Song of the Sea God.
The story of my Young Adult Urban fantasy novel, Land of Midnight Days, was first inspired when I worked in a call centre that had large windows. My desk was right next to one of these and through it I could see the iconic, art deco tower of the Littlewoods building on Edge Lane, in Liverpool. I remember thinking it would make a great location for a story and the seed of an idea was born.
The next inspiration came to me when I was listening to a Jethro Tull CD in my car, and so the name of my main protagonist, Jeremiah Tully, came to me.
The above inspirations, coupled with various locations in my home town of Liverpool, melded and merged, and so the book was eventually created.
Robert Graham is the author of a number of short story collections and the novel Holy Joe published by Salt Publishing.
I’ve just finished what I hope will be a late draft of my new novel, The Fabulous Girl. The inspiration is the not unusual experience of first love, the first broken heart and the related experience of wanting to bring the past back. I’ve also been inspired by re-reading fiction that deals with a similar theme: Le Grand Meaulnes and The Great Gatsby, especially, but Great Expectations, too.
The theme might have been what drew me back to these and other novels, but in the end it was the language that was most striking, the repetitions of colours and sounds, times of the day and weather, for example, and the style, the rhythm of the words. It wasn’t for nothing that Hemingway said he redrafted and redrafted in order to get the words right.
I last read Fitzgerald half a lifetime ago and in those days I’m sure his elegant sentences passed by unnoticed. Coming back to Gatsby, (and The Last Tycoon and six or seven stories) that’s what I studied, though. I’ve been teaching fiction writing for a long time now and in the last few years I have more and more thought that if the sentences are good enough, narrative craft isn’t the be all and end all I have always thought it.
Fitzgerald, Alain-Fournier and Dickens all turn a mean sentence, but they also know how to keep you reading. As I studied them, I couldn’t help thinking that having models who were so far beyond most of what I read might have been daunting, but it couldn’t hurt.
Laura Wilkinson has published two novels, BloodMining, with Bridge House in 2011, and Public Battles, Private Wars with Accent Press in 2014. Her short stories have been published in a number of magazines and anthologies.
My novel Public Battles, Private Wars came about by accident. I was researching another story idea when I came across an image of a group of women marching down a suburban street. They carried a banner: Barnsley Women Against Pit Closures, though initially it wasn’t the banner that caught my attention – it was the expressions on the women’s faces. Broad smiles, sparkly eyes; they walked with a spring (and a half) in their steps. With purpose. From the clothes and terrible haircuts – all Princess Diana bangs and frizzy perms – I realised it must have been taken during the 1984/85 Miners’ Strike. I was gripped. There is a mountain of writing on the strike, but it’s nearly all non-fiction, and it’s a subject that’s under-explored in fiction, particularly the role of the women. The urge to explore this transformative time in recent history was irresistible.
My favourite example of writing inspiration has to be the story of how the novel Anna Karenina came into being. As Leo Tolstoy lay on a sofa one night after dinner he had a vision of an elbow, an image which expanded into a melancholy woman in a ball gown. The woman haunted Tolstoy until he eventually wrote her story. How wonderful to think that one of the greatest books of all time was inspired by an elbow.