Welcome to the Enchanted Orb - a look at the inspiration behind the DarkSider's tales.
Our guest today is Maree Anderson, sharing her "Recipe for Inspiration". Take it away, Maree!
A Recipe for Inspiration
By Maree Anderson
Helen Kirkman. Helen kicked off the workshop by admitting that when she first started writing, “[...] ideas seemed to come out of the air, no problem at all. But after a while, I had to work harder for them.” Her solution was to become more observant, to look at things around her and ask, “Is there a story in this?”
She went on to explain how she now looks at newspapers, the TV news, documentaries etc., in a new light—searching for “the human interest angle, the angle that gives a good, gripping, emotional story, because that’s what our stories are about, especially romances—the emotional experience.” So at the time of giving that workshop, part of her inspiration process was conscious. She mentioned, for example, making a point of watching and reading President Obama’s inauguration speech because “[...] he’s a good orator and I want to write a character who inspires people to follow him.” But the rest of her process was subconscious: “Things that used to pass me by now leap out and hit me at unexpected moments because I’ve become more receptive. Part of me is now subconsciously looking at the world in a different way. I watch events and people in a different way.”
At the time I remember thinking I was pretty darned lucky because I was obviously still at that “starting off” point in my career where I never had to struggle for ideas—they just smacked me upside the head without any effort at all on my part. I could still zone out on the couch in front of the TV if I wanted to. I didn’t have to watch the news and documentaries, and pore through newspapers etc., with an eye for that human interest angle that would resonate and create a light-bulb moment. Yay! Go me!
In actual fact, every time I read a book, or watched TV or a movie, or flicked through the newspaper, I felt a tad guilty for mucking around instead of working on my current manuscript. Sure, I called my time-out “research” but it was always in a half-joking apologetic way, as though you and I both knew I was only making excuses for goofing off.
Turns out I had nothing to apologize for. Helen’s conscious process was something I’d been doing unconsciously all along—and still am to this day.
Those twenty or so books I read every month? Sure, I’m reading for enjoyment—I wouldn’t be getting through that many books per month if I didn’t enjoy reading!—but what I’m absorbing is random, as-yet-unformed ideas that percolate in my brain and lurk there, waiting for the catalyst that will morph them into a story idea. It’s the same with the science and technology sections of The Economist I skim through during breakfast, random magazine articles skimmed in waiting rooms, ads on the radio or in magazines, song lyrics, snippets of conversation, a phrase—or even just a word—overheard in a cafe or while queuing at the checkout.
Sometimes the inspiration is immediate—an instant smack upside the head that has me scrambling for pen and paper (or as a last resort, the Notes app on my iPhone.) Sometimes it's over the course of a few days. But for me, the process that leads to the inspiration for a story is like some bizarre combination of biology and a recipe. Kinda like this:
MAREE'S RECIPE FOR INSPIRATION
Step 1: Exposure (to as many mediums as possible... without totally goofing off and becoming a permanent couch-potato or bookworm)
Step 2: Absorption (taking it all in and not even attempting to categorize it or analyze it; just getting swept up and going along for the ride)
Step 3: Light-bulb moment (AKA the “Oooh! What if—? That would be cool to write about!” moment)
Step 3a: Stir, and leave to ferment (...for as long as it takes, resisting the temptation to poke and prod, or try to force anything because if you leave it be, your weird and wonderful brain will eventually do its thing)
Step 4: Light-bulb moment (AKA the “Oooh! What if—? That would be cool to write about!” moment)
Extra materials required:
Paper and a working writing implement (to jot down that awesome idea before it fades and you can’t for the life of you remember it. And if you suspect that tip’s based on personal experience, you’d be right!)
I started writing books in 2003/04 and I can still tell you what sparked the inspiration for all ten of my published books, plus the four unpublished manuscripts on my hard drive, and the story I’m working on right now.
Here are just some of the sources that have inspired my stories:
- the afterword in Stephen Donaldson’s The Gap series
- a common saying about how power corrupts people
- a short, evocative piece of writing about soul lights by an anonymous author
- a manual on crystals and their properties
- an email announcing a women’s triathlon
- a visit to the Chinese Gardens in Sydney, Australia
- an article about PTSD in war vets
- an article about slick-rock bike tours in Moab that mentioned statistics for lightning strikes
- the photo and caption accompanying an article about men’s fragrances
- a sentient cyborg in Marge Piercey’s book Body of Glass
- one of my editors begging me to write a ménage (and me being so terrified of the prospect I was inspired to write about an alien with er, extras, instead!)
- coming across the word “liminal” in an urban fantasy
I guess for me, inspiration is a somewhat magical process that justifies me doing any and all of the following: reading loads of books; listening to music; perusing articles that interest me; eavesdropping on cafe conversations, and, watching far too much TV and far too many DVDs. It’s all research, I tell you!
So the way I see it, whether your journey toward inspiration is a conscious, deliberate process that gets you to that light-bulb moment, or an unconscious process leading to brain-soup that eventually burps out ideas, it’s all good. Whatever works for you!