WHERE DO YOU GET YOUR IDEAS?
|I’m sure all writers will recognize this as the question readers ask more often than any other. I wonder if other writers find it as nearly impossible to answer as I do. Most of the time I really don’t know where my ideas come from. I often look back on a finished book, or even one in progress, and wonder how on earth I came up with a particular plot idea.
Perhaps that is partly because I really can’t plan a story ahead of time. I usually start with two characters (and I don’t even know them particularly well at the start!) and a situation. But I have no story apart from a few vague notions of where it may be headed and the certain knowledge that it will end happily. The story takes shape gradually after I have got the characters into that situation, acting and reacting and interacting, though even then there are many false starts and restarts. Often I have to go back and rewrite as new ideas pop out of the ether. It is not a comfortable way to write. Nor is it for the faint of heart. But it is challenging and exhilarating and I wouldn’t want it any other way. Somehow everything always seems to work out for me. After more than a hundred novels and novellas that is reassuring—especially when I am deep in despair after having painted my characters into a corner with no discernible way out.
I do know, however, what sort of thing might inspire me to write—and it is almost always something that stirs some deep emotion in me and inspires me to write a story from that emotional place. It doesn’t have to be a romantic emotion. It can be a scene of extraordinary beauty—the mountains and lakes of British Columbia, a sunset reflected across the ocean, or a picture of giant trees in a rain forest. It can be a work of art. I remember once sitting and staring at a picture of Michelangelo’s Pieta for well over an hour. Or it can be a piece of music. Beethoven’s Violin Concerto can do it to me every time. So can Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World or Bette Midler’s The Rose. And definitely it can happen with any music sung by a Welsh male voice choir—Hiraeth(Longing) or Myfanwy, for example, or the Welsh national anthem, Mae Hen Wlad fy Nhadau (the land of my fathers). Or sometimes it is a quotation or a short poem, like William Butler Yeats’s Had I the Heavens’ Embroidered Cloths. I always want to capture these soul-deep emotions in words of my own and in a love story.
Just occasionally I know exactly where a story idea comes from because I have chosen to set a book within a definite historical event. It doesn’t happen often, but I can think of three of my books that came into being that way. I wanted to set a love story in my native Wales, and chose to set it in one of the coal mining valleys of South Wales during the early years of the Industrial Revolution, when the resources and the workers of Wales were terribly exploited for the profit of wealthy mine and steelwork owners, mostly Englishmen. I had to do a great deal of research for LONGING and make sure that my story was woven about authentic events. Nevertheless, my passionate identification with the Welsh (even though my hero was one of the English owners) helped me keep the story on track as an intense love story, I believe—and hope. My use of Welsh music in the book helped with that! Then there was another Welsh book, TRULY, (I hate the title, was assigned to it when I was away from home for a few weeks and had no input). The third book based heavily upon actual historical events is BEYOND THE SUNRISE, my most action-packed book, set in Spain and Portugal during the Napoleonic Wars. My hero and heroine helped shape those events, so I had to make them accurate.
And then there are the stories I can’t account for in any rational way. They come from an inner place that is virtually impossible to describe in words. I have often complained that I find it impossible to think. When I sit down to try to work something out in my head, my mind either turns blank or it wanders off on a thousand tangents—or I fall asleep. At school whenever I had a paper or essay to write I could—and did—do exhaustive research, but then I could never think through what I was going to write. If a teacher demanded a detailed outline, I always wrote it after I was done with the paper. The only way I could write that essay was to sit down with paper and pen (yes, I am that antique) and write. Then ideas I did not know I had flowed with no trouble at all. The same thing happens when I write a book. Every morning (EVERY morning) when I sit down to write, I have no idea what is going to happen. I could easily plead permanent writer’s block. I have to take a few minutes (sometimes more than a few) to focus in and then just start. My daughter, who is a trained hynoptist, tells me that what I am doing is hypnotizing myself. However it is, the act of writing enables me to by-pass the mind and put myself into some other dimension—the sub-conscious, consciousness itself, call it what you will. But it works for me. Do you wonder that when people ask me where I get my ideas I find it almost impossible to answer?
To one person who leaves a comment below before the end of next Wednesday, September 19, I will send a signed copy of LONGING, the Welsh historical mentioned above. The winners of the two tote bags last week were MELISSA RENNER and MARTHA JUDITH DURICK.
[UPDATE: The winner of a signed edition of LONGING is KATHERINE RIVERA. Congratulations to her. Thank you for your comments. I always enjoy reading them]