The Write Thing: Finding Inspiration
Inspiration can strike us anywhere, at any time! Zara Stoneley and Piper Huguley talk about how they find and focus their ideas for stories...
'Where do you get your ideas from?'
This has to be the question I'm asked most, and I have to admit that after my first novel was published, the thought of coming up with a second, and third, and fourth, great idea was daunting.
But I think like most things it's a habit, something we can train our brains to do, and these days I seem to have far too many ideas buzzing about in my head, all clamouring for attention. The really difficult part is concentrating on one of them long enough to write a novel, and not letting the others distract me. In common with a lot of authors, I find that the shiny bright new idea is far more attractive (and obviously far superior) to the story line I'm trying to pin down, especially when I'm half way through writing the latest novel and boy is it a sticky middle!
Anyway, back to the question. The simple answer is 'life', though of course that's a bit glib and unhelpful if you're an aspiring writer looking for inspiration.
When I was a kid I was the most unobservant person ever. Totally. I had tunnel vision, my life centred around my friends and family. But now it's a different story, and I put it down to a pure nosiness (or interest in others) I've acquired with age!
I want to talk to that man behind the curtain and find out why he sits there gazing out every day as though he's waiting for somebody to come home. I want to know why that woman is in tears, why that guy has two young kids but seems to have no partner, why that couple meet every lunchtime but hide in the darkest corner of the cafe. But I'm not the kind to march up and ask, and besides the answers could be pretty mundane.
So I make up my own answers.
My head gets full of 'what ifs'. What if the old man's childhood sweetheart promised she'd be back one day, and what if she does return? What if that lady has lost the baby she longed for? What if she feels her whole life has fallen apart because she was jilted on her wedding day? What if that guy's wife is dying, and he's yet to discover that there is hope and a new life in the future? What if the couple in the corner are lovers, or passing on company secrets?.
Or there are the more cheerful questions - what if that woman on the underground, lugging a rucksack and heading for Heathrow, is starting a whole new life, living out her dreams (this was the inspiration for The Holiday Swap)? Why? What if that embarrassed looking woman on the phone is hiring an escort because she just has to have a date for a big event (I used this for my next book!)? What if that Deliveroo guy has just been knocked off his bike by his perfect partner.
And it's not just people that can trigger my imagination, it can be scenery - a wild Cornish coast, a figure standing on a cliff edge, a beautiful beach with a scattering of pretty shells. Who collects them? Why? Does somebody go down every day without fail, alone? Take any scenario and you can create a story if you ask enough questions.
As I've got older, I've learned that inspiration is all around me. It's all down to the 'why' and 'what if'. It's a case of opening my eyes, and asking myself questions about people and situations, rather than taking them at face value. Being nosy. Unleashing my imagination (nobody needs know the weird workings of my mind!). Oh yes, and being prone to flights of fantasy can certainly help!
Zara's latest book, the second in her The Little Village on the Green series - Blackberry Picking at Jasmine Cottage, is available now. For more information about her and her writing check out her website, and follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.
When I was assigned to teach Seminal Writers at Spelman College, one of the texts on the proscribed list was new to me. It was an essay by Langston Hughes called “The Need for Heroes.” That essay came to change the trajectory of my writing life.
You see, I was writing contemporary romance novels with African American characters and I wasn’t getting anywhere with them. Then, I read this essay, published in The Crisis in 1941. I felt as if the bard of Black America was speaking directly to me when he said: “Do not say there are no living Negro heroes. So not say there have never been any in the past. . . .African history, slave history, reconstruction days are crowded with the figures of heroic men and women.”
From my study of history in graduate school I knew he was right. I had learned about the histories of brave Black Americans, like Harriet Jacobs who ventured back to the south, with her daughter, to teach the recently freed enslaved how to read and write. I had been brought up with the story that it had been only white Christians who had done this work, but it was in graduate school when I learned of the example of those who had been educated at progressive schools like Oberlin, who risked great danger to come and educate others. This was the nugget of the idea that served to inspire me to write The Preacher’s Promise. Another model for my heroine, Amanda came from Mary Peake, a woman who started teaching before and during the Civil War in Virginia.
One of the models for my blacksmith political hero, Virgil, came from the real-life example of Randall Ware, one of the ancestors of writer Margaret Walker. I was also inspired by Henry Turner and Tunis Campbell, black men who had served in the Georgia State Legislature and were kicked out of their elected positions by those who could not bear to see successful Black men in politics.
When I learned about Victor Green’s The Negro Motorist Book, I started to think. What did people do for travel before 1936 when Green first published the guide that told Black people where they could safely travel? That’s how I developed my hero, Champion Jack Bates who has to be that book for the heroine, Delie to help her get her orphans out of the south to their new home in Pittsburgh. I will also admit that the plot of one of my favorite romantic comedies, Bustin' Loose, played a role in the development of that second-chance romance story.
Ideas are everywhere. Authors are on the alert for them all of the time. For a long time, I was intimidated about writing a western. I felt that I didn’t know enough about that part of history, even though my mother watched them all of the time while I was growing up. Still, it was a good thing I kept my notebook handy during an episode of Finding Your Roots. One episode ot the genealogy reality show featured actor Ty Burrell’s family tree. They spoke of his African American ancestry and how his ancestor had been kicked out of Oregon because they passed Black Exclusionary laws. I had always known there were legitimate reasons Oregon had a low Black population. What I didn’t know was how far they had spread across the western United States and how those laws impacted intermarriage laws. This thread of research and interests from what I call “the plot bunny show,” led directly to my recently published novella The Swan.
Langston Hughes preached it straight to me in the essay: “It is the social duty of Negro writers to reveal to the people the deep reservoirs of heroism within the race. It is one of the duties of our literature to combat—by example, not by diatribe—the caricatures of Hollywood. . . .After all, there was Crispus Atticks. There was Denmark Vesey. There was Harriet Tubman. There was Frederick Douglass. There was Oliver Laws. There is James Peck. There are the Negro voters of Miami. There are the fourteen sailors of the U.S.S. Philadelphia. And there are you.”
There are days when the work to be heard seems long and frustrating. There are many days when I feel as if people treat my story as if it is spinach—nourishing and necessary, but eaten only because you have to. Then, a glimmer of hope can some from nowhere. For instance, NPR just published the results of a study that said that only eight percent of high school students understood that enslavement was the cause of the Civil War. Such information makes me feel needed.
Langston Hughes was speaking to all of us, and me when he said, “And there are you.” So, my work to write romance into history still continues and I still stay inspired.
Where do you find inspiration? What inspires you? How do you stay focused? Share your thoughts with us in the comments or join the PHS discussion on this subject on Social Media!
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