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Behind the Fiction, Past
A Fiction Column
By Brian Hill & Dee Power

The Magical Process of Inspiration

     An archaic definition of the word inspire is, “to breathe life into.” That’s a wonderful way to think about what a successful author does, makes ideas come to life. These authors are able to make characters that seem real, more real than even the people you work with in your daily lives. Certainly more real than your boss.

    Many authors clearly have a superior gift of imagination. It does seem like a magical process to many of us, the ability to sit down, pull a concept out of the air, and develop it into a book length work. And these authors do this year after year for twenty, thirty, forty, years.

    Some authors are able to, almost routinely it seems, craft two or more books each year. They are also superb technicians, who know how to organize a seeming jumble of ideas into prose that flows like honey. Consider how many “ideas” it takes to populate a book with memorable characters and labyrinthine plot twists. Then multiply that by a 10, 20, 30, 40 book career.

Emeril or Edgar?

     Where, exactly, do these great ideas for books come from? Is it an event, or a process? Perhaps it comes to the author like a lightning bolt in the middle of the night, and he has to get up, in a fever, hurry downstairs and write it down before the muse flits off. Or maybe the light bulb analogy is more accurate: her mind seems to be a blank slate as she sits with a pad and pen at her desk, then the idea just appears. Perhaps the idea announces itself with a loud BAM! like TV Chef Emeril Lagasse seasoning a pork roast.

   It could be the process is less picturesque; it’s just plain work, 100 push-ups for the brain. She is sitting at the word processor for a long time, turning concepts over in her head, painfully rejecting one after the other until, Aha! That’s the one!

     Edgar Allan Poe may have been describing his own process of idea creation in the famous poem, “The Raven”. There Poe was, up past midnight, tired but still pondering “Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore.” So here is the author, deep in late-night exhaustive research, when he hears that tapping, “As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.” The Raven’s quiet arrival may have been the way new ideas came to this great writer, who lived in an era where the compensation earned by authors was unfortunately not nearly as generous as today. On the other hand, he didn’t live to have to sit through the bad movies that have been made out of his incredibly imaginative, suspenseful work.

A Visit To The Idea Factory

    Bestselling authors seem to get asked the question, “Where do you get your ideas?” more frequently than any other except perhaps, “How does it feel to be so rich?” Some have even begun posting the answer to the question on their own web sites, to perhaps stem the tide of inquiries at book signings and via e-mail.

   Stephen King got the idea for "Carrie" from his experiences as a part time janitor at a high school when he was 19 or 20 years old. Part of his responsibilities was to clean the boys and the girls’ locker room. As he describes it in his book “On Writing”:

    “This memory came back to me one day while I was working at the laundry, and I started seeing the opening scene of a story: girls showering in a locker room where there were no U-rings, pink plastic curtains or privacy. And this one girl starts to have her period. Only she doesn’t know what it is, and the other girls – grossed out, horrified, amused – start pelting her with sanitary napkins…….The girl begins to scream. All that blood! She thinks she’s dying, that the other girls are making fun of her even while she’s bleeding to death…she reacts … fights
back…. but how?”

    At, the hugely successful mystery writer tells his fans:

     “I have a fevered imagination and a rich fantasy life, which helps with the sex scenes. I’ve never really had any trouble coming up with ideas; they just grow, like weeds. Writers are always astonished to be asked this question: the answer seems so obvious. Why do people think this is the question they are supposed to ask writers?”

   Nicholas Sparks, author of “Nights in Rodanthe” as well as several other novels, handles the question on

    “That's a question even he can't answer, though he does admit that the ideas never come easily. Because his novels deal with universal themes and universal characters, it's difficult to conceive of an entertaining, interesting, and original story that hasn't been told before, either in a book or in a film. Generally, he works through hundreds of ideas and characters (a process that can take months) before finally making his decision and beginning to write.”

    David Baldicci was a young lawyer living in Washington, DC, not very special in a town chock full of young lawyers, when he wrote his first novel, “Executive Power”. He sold the book and film rights to the novel for the tidy sum of $5 million; the movie was re-titled “Absolute Power,” starring Clint Eastwood. Baldacci has since gone on to more great success with books such as “Last Man Standing” and “The Christmas Train”.

    Baldacci says "I am always thinking about and seeking story ideas. As a writer, you can never 'turn off' your passion for the written word and love of a great story. So I watch life, listen intently, and basically drive everyone around me a bit crazy as I absorb every environment in which I find myself. And believe me, being naturally curious uncovers many possible storylines. Writers have to see the world exactly as it is, and then go a step further and realize the potential of what could be there."

     Sue Grafton writes novels about crime. Her books are famous for having letters of the alphabet in the titles, “Q is For Quarry,” for example. How did she come up with this unique approach? In an interview at ivillage she says: “When I first came up with the idea of doing a mystery series, I was looking for a way to link titles. I was aware of John D. McDonald, whose titles were connected by color. I was also aware of Harry Kemmelman, whose titles were linked by days of the week. I was reading a book of cartoons by Edward Gorey in which he does pen and ink drawings of little Victorian children, being "done in" by various means, so Edward Gorey did "A is for Amy, who fell down the stairs"; "B is for Basil, assaulted by bears," etc. The minute I got to that line, it occurred to me that it would be possible to do a series based on the alphabet.”

So Many Ideas, Only One Lifetime: The Process of Giving an Idea the Green Light.

     Think of what a critical step this is: the leap to the decision to commit months or even years of your life to the research and writing of a book. One editor at a major publishing house told us that she thinks the truly great novels take up to five years to develop and write.

     Even if you don’t agree with that editor’s point of view, because it would mean some of today’s most popular writers must be 225 years old, you have to respect the amount of effort that goes into a bestselling author’s career. Bestselling authors do not have the luxury of sitting at the word processor, staring out the window, going to lunch and coming back and staring some more. They have publishing contracts in place that require meeting rigorous deadlines and maintaining productivity.

     Prolific authors have trained their minds to be constantly generating new ideas. All the sensory input from the world, what they see, hear, touch, taste (maybe even smell) can become elements that are combined into the idea. For fiction writers, as they proceed in their careers, their ability to design and outline complete plots is greatly enhanced. There is no more struggling to plow through the dreaded middle of the book, after the easier parts, the beginning and the conclusion, are decided.

     For his or her $25 bucks, readers want to clearly hear that favorite author’s individual, unique voice—and demand that they come up something really fresh, really new. Recycled ideas, old characters with new names, or tired plot twists are easily spotted and not appreciated by their fans. Not an easy job, this author business.

© Brian Hill and Dee Power

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