writing

How writers find inspiration – or, where do stories come from?

helena fairfax, the scottish diamond
Image courtesy of Pixaby

“Where do you get your ideas from?” is a question writers are often asked – and sometimes all I can say is, “I just don’t know!”

It’s not a very helpful reply, I know, but I’ve been thinking of this recently as I read over a romantic suspense story I’m editing, ready for publication. I started writing The Scottish Diamond quite a while ago, and as I’ve been reading through some of the earlier scenes I honestly don’t know how or where the story first began to come together in my head. There’s no accounting for it, and when I look back on it, it seems like magic.

Take this couple of paragraphs for example, near the start of the book. The heroine, Lizzie, lives in Edinburgh and is in rehearsals for Macbeth. She’s convinced the Scottish play is cursed, and indeed, several unfortunate things have happened since she started rehearsing. Her boyfriend is from a fictional country called Montverrier. He’s unaccountably been turned down for several jobs in Edinburgh, and on top of this, Lizzie is convinced they are being followed because of his previous job as bodyguard to Princess Charlotte of Montverrier.

Here’s a passage that I apparently imagined one day and wrote down:

As the afternoon wore on, Léon shared my upsurge in spirits. The old smile I remembered lurked in his eyes, and occasionally he would tease me about my Scottish accent, copying my voice exactly when I pointed out the “darrrk hoosses” below us, or the “wee bairrrns” playing on the grass. I hadn’t seen Léon so relaxed since we arrived in Edinburgh. I didn’t want our rare light-hearted mood to end, but soon we’d made several circuits round the top of Calton Hill, and there was nothing left to do but make our way back down the stone steps and head for the crowds of shoppers and tourists thronging the streets below.

It wasn’t until we’d walked the entire length of Princes Street and were approaching the art gallery that I saw them again – the two dark-suited men from Montverrier who’d passed me on the steps of Calton Hill. They’d stopped to talk to a young woman seated at a stall by the gallery steps. I recognised them instantly. There was something about them that caused them to stand out from the passers-by. Despite their expensive suits, they had an air of suppressed violence about them. They looked like the sort of smartly-dressed men who would smile politely as they pulled out a gun.

helena fairfax, the scottish diamond
Calton Hill, Edinburgh (image courtesy of Pixabay)

It’s a while since I wrote this passage, and now I can’t for the life of me remember where my own idea has come from. It’s very strange, as I can picture the scene on Princes Street exactly in my mind as though it were real, when in fact it’s something that just came out of my own head.

helena fairfax, the scottish diamondI’ve been fascinated recently by how human beings can imagine whole ficitional stories in our heads and tell them to someone else so that they can picture it, too. And we start to love stories from such an early age! The photo here is of a story my daughter wrote in Primary School when she was about six years old. I really liked the punchline, so I saved it. You might not be able to decipher the spelling mistakes and the handwriting, but the story is lovely. It’s all about a man called Mr Mean, who “didn’t live in a nice house at all, because he never wanted the windows mended.” She writes, “Do you know what he gave his brother for Christmas? A piece of clay.” Then he’s visited by a wizard, who punishes him for his meaness by turning his money to potatoes, and an old lady punishes him by turning his nose into a carrot. Mr Mean learns his lesson by the end, and the last line reads, “Because he is so generous, he gave his brother two pieces of clay.” What a great story – and how amazing it is when you think about it, that even small children are able to use their imagination and make something up out of their own heads to entertain others.

There are some people who absolutely stand out as imaginative creators. I’ve been thinking particularly about David Bowie these past few weeks, who must be one of the most inventive musicians of our time, and I was really sad to hear of his death. He once said that at the peak of his creativity he would sit and write four or five songs a day. But he also said he suffered times of complete blankness. My favourite song of his – and one of my favourite songs ever – is Sound and Vision, and it’s about a time he suffered a mental block and couldn’t write. (He still turned that block into a brilliant song, though.) There’s an interesting version of it here:

I think when Bowie writes “Don’t you wonder sometimes about sound and vision?” he’s talking about wondering where ideas come from.

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If you’re a writer, where do you tell people your ideas come from? If you’re another kind of artist – a singer or painter – how do you find your creative ideas? Did you love stories as a child, and did you dream them up for yourself? If you have any comments at all, I’d love to hear them!

 

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24 thoughts on “How writers find inspiration – or, where do stories come from?

  1. This is such a lovely post and has me thinking where my ideas come from – I’ll usually start with a sentence or two, or an image, or something I see outside. Gosh, this is not helpful at all! I love your daughters story – what a kind hearted soul and gifted writer so young!😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “The ideas shop” – I love that! It would be amazing if there really was such a shop. That’s interesting you start with a setting. My stories usually come from the characters first (at least I think they do). I’m trying to think of a story to go with a particular setting at the moment, and I’m struggling. Your comment has made me wonder if this is why – because it’s not my usual way to go about it. Thanks for your comment. It’s made me think. And I hope I do Edinburgh justice in The Scottish Diamond!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Lovely post, Helena, and thanks for that music video – so haunting. I find ideas everywhere, especially from paintings, letters to magazines and so on. I usually start with a character and see where the story takes me, although two settings proved inspirational and I might use more settings at some point. But I’d still need my character/s first! Look forward to The Scottish Diamond.

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    1. Hi Rosemary, I’m like you in that I usually start with a character, although I am starting more and more to find the setting equally an inspiration. I’m glad you enjoyed the video – this version made me think about the song in a totally different way.
      Thanks so much for dropping in!

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  3. Great post, very interesting. For me, and what I’m about to say next usually draws a most quizzical look from listeners, it’s all about colour. When I pick up a script to read with a view to putting the play on the stage, if I can’t see the colours in the writing then I won’t direct the play. Often I don’t get much further than the end of the first act. It’s the same with a book – I never read blurbs before choosing a book. I see the colours on the cover and read the first page and if the colours are not there in the writing then I put the book back. As for my ideas as a writer…I see my inspiration in everything around me and everything I hear, but it comes into my head as a colour or a series of colours. The ideas sit there for a while at the back of my brain and then the best ones get written down in my notebook for use later. So, I should probably go and see a psychiatrist!

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    1. Hi Angela, that is really interesting what you say about seeing the colour in what you’re reading. Do you think it could be some form of synesthesia? Do you see colour when you hear music, too? I find the whole idea of synesthesia fascinating. I’d love to experience it, even just for a short while. I’m sure a psychiatrist would genuinely be interested in your way of thinking. I know I am! I’d love to find out more. I hope your colourful thoughts lead to lots of great ideas and wonderful stories. Thanks so much for your great comment!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Maybe we can chat further when we meet for lunch in a couple of weeks. Must say I’ve never thought of it as synesthesia. I think that is a completely different skill. Interesting idea though.

        Liked by 2 people

  4. I have no idea where ideas come from. They come from the ether. I understood this when working with song writers. We’d sit in the studio (recording) for hours messing around with music, the musicians would ‘tinkle’ and suddenly everyone would be humming along and music started to take place. The actual words come afterwards to fit the music. Sometimes someone would scribble a few lines, almost like poetry and then someone else would suggest another line and off we’d go, and music would be created to fir this later. I say we, I was a producer in these instances, so I didn’t write, though I have penned a few lines here and there to help out at times. Words come from nowhere, a feeling, a vibe. If you sit and deliberately try to write a song, it can be very difficult and forced. I do think it is like writing a book. If you set yourself a project, and you know vaguely where you want it to go, then it can become a way of life, almost like a job of work in the end, and you can sit and write as if guided by a mystical force. When I write a story, that is what happens. If I try and force it, nothing comes. I think creatives have their third eye, their chakras open and in it flows. Call me mad, but I have seen it happen and have had it happen.

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    1. Hi Jane, what a fascinating job that must be, to see how songs come together. I love the way you describe periods of creativity as something flowing through you, and I love the idea of a “third eye.” It’s like you’re seeing something in this world, but outside it at the same time.
      It must have been wonderful to watch/hear a song come to life. Thanks so much for your interesting comment. I’ve often wondered how songwriters actually work.

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      1. I think very much the way song writers do. It – the words, ideas – come from somewhere ‘other’ and sometimes it comes in a gush – I think The Beatles spoke of this once, and sometimes it unveils itself slowly, carefully. Almost like a strip-tease until the whole piece is there. I know I get the whole thing in my head sometimes and can’t type fast enough to get it down. When people are ‘gifted’ I really do believe they are. They have something which cannot be taught or learned. I comes from somewhere. But not from here. I’m booked into the funny farm for next week LOL

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      2. Jane, I really believe, too, that some people are “gifted.” I love that we all have the power to be creative, but there are some people who are just filled with an urgency to create and a wonderful gift for touching others with their stories and songs. It was interesting to hear your process…and maybe there’s just a fine line between being creative and being eligible for the funny farm!

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    1. How interesting, Susan. I didn’t realise that about your ideas for your mysteries. You must have had an interesting life! Mind you, perhaps we all have to use our own experiences in some way, no matter how fantastical the story.
      Thanks so much for dropping in!

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  5. I really enjoyed this. I completely agree – it is a sort of magic. I really like those times when you don’t plan what’s going to happen to your characters, you just sit down and start writing, line after line, and all these things just happen and you don’t know where it comes from. It’s an extraordinary thing. I’ve read lots of accounts of writers saying that sometimes their characters have a mind of their own…

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    1. Hi Clare, it’s so true about things happening and you have no idea how! I find it even more extraordinary when I read over a story I wrote a long time ago. I find myself asking “Did I really think up all this? Where did it all come from ?”
      I love it when writing just flows and the story/characters seem to develop a mind of their own.
      I’m so glad you enjoyed my post. Thanks so much for dropping in, and for your comment!

      Liked by 3 people

  6. What an intriguing post, Helena. We do get asked that question often. I’m like Kate above. I always start with the setting. Then ask, who could live there? What would they do for a living? What bad thing could happen to them? Then I flesh out the characters before I start to write. And yes, like Susan above, from personal experiences or people I know. But most places I write about I’ve at least visited. I think it’s my theatre background that requires I know what the set is before I can figure out how to move the people around. Lovely post, dear. I’m sharing. :)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Marsha, how interesting that you use your theatre background. This post has thrown up some fascinating processes in the way we all write. I love the idea of you imagining a set first, and then moving your characters around in it. I tend to do that bit after I’ve thought of the characters. I get inside the heads of my heroine and hero and look out through there. What can they see?
      I might try to write a story your way, and see how I get on. It will be interesting to have a change in process. Thanks so much for your great comment. And thanks for sharing!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. What a beautiful post, Helena – and I love the story written by your daughter, she has quite the creative spark!

    Inspiration as a writer, for me, is sometimes pure alchemy, magic seemingly from ‘nowhere’, particularly if I’m writing imagery, or visionary fiction.

    Other times, it may arrive through a song title, a topic we’ve been given for Writers’ Circle, a photograph which lends itself to questions and what-ifs, a scene of nature which has brought me to tears and demands I express my feelings in words. Everywhere you look, then…. ;)

    Isn’t it fantastic when it comes upon you and takes you over? :D

    Joanna

    / #TalkoftheTown 6 Feb /

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    1. Thanks so much for dropping in, Joanna. Good to meet you! It’s great when the alchemy takes over and everything comes together, I totally agree! I also like it when someone gives me a theme to write about, like in your writers’ group. I might have no ideas at all at first, and I have to work on it, like a crossword puzzle. Then gradually things take shape, and again it becomes like magic. I’m just working on a short story for a European-themed anthology in which the heroine receives a letter that changes her destiny. All I have in my mind at the moment is an old apartment building in Paris and a secondary character from one of my novels who is playing the violin in one of the rooms. This is all! :) But in six months everything will be fleshed out (I hope!) and it will really seem like magic.
      Thank you so much for dropping in through #TalkoftheTown, and for your great comment!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It always amazes me how different authors have diverse creative processes, too. We might all write on one theme at Writers’ Circle yet the breadth of our storytelling (and what we made of that one prompt) is always so interesting! Good luck with your Parisian creation, it sounds intriguing. :)

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