Today’s guest blogger is Mary E. Pearson, author of such wonderful books as The Adoration of Jenna Fox and Scribbler of Dreams, but before I get to her great guest blog, I have not one, but two winners to announce! The winner of Maryrose Wood’s book two weeks ago never contacted me, so I’ve selected a new winner–Lucile, please email me with your mailing address. And the winner of a signed copy of Daphne Grab’s debut (last week’s contest) is Grace L.! You each have one week to send me your mailing address at email@example.com. This week, up for grabs is a signed copy of The Adoration of Jenna Fox, to a random commenter. If you’re a writer, I’d be interested to know where your inspiration comes from.
Mary E. Pearson on Inspiration
You know, I am probably certifiably NUTS to choose this topic, but it’s the question that writers are asked-hands down-more than any other question. What inspired your story? And most writers I know, including myself, absolutely dread the “idea” question. More than dread it. They secretly melt inside at the thought of retracing the path that led to the story.
And yet, the wicked irony is, that’s exactly what I’m always curious to know too. When I’ve read a book that I love, I want to know! How did the author do this? Let me inside your head! How did this story come to be?
Stephen King calls stories found things, “like fossils in the ground.” This analogy works well with the way I write. I am a bone hunter, and as I am writing, I am searching for the bones of the story. Yes, that initial spark gives me one of the larger fossil bones, perhaps the spine or thigh bone, but I still don’t know what the whole animal will look like. I discover it day by day, as new inspirations-from the largest bones to the smallest-are uncovered and help piece together the story. And when it is done and I step back, I am as surprised as anyone.
I think when most people ask what the inspiration for a story is, they are usually wanting to know what the initial spark was-what got the gears going in the first place. Even that can be tricky to answer, because a spark does not a whole book make. And sparks come in all sorts of forms from the subtle, to the dramatic. With A Room on Lorelei Street, the spark was simply an image of a tired house, a tired girl, and a few opening lines-subtle but intriguing for me-and when this image and voice wouldn’t go away I decided I wanted to learn more about this girl. With The Adoration of Jenna Fox, the spark was more dramatic-questions I had asked myself when my own daughter had faced a life-threatening illness.
But with both of these stories, I was still faced with a whole book to write beyond the initial spark. A long, whole book. The spark was not the whole story. Where to go from here? There is a Jack London quote that says, “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” And that’s where the rest of the inspirations come in. Writing a book is a long process. More often than not, you do not feel inspired. But you show up for work. You face the blank page with your club in hand. And the inspirations, large and small, come between the dry, keyboard-pounding daily effort of trying to find your way. For instance, The Adoration of Jenna Fox, would not exist without each and every one of these inspirations that followed the initial spark:
1. Image of girl looking out at water recovering from something (a character!)
2. Awareness that she has no memory (okay, now I am intrigued)
3. She is recovering from an accident (hm, what kind?)
4. Snippets. Where did those come from? The character is talking to me and I have no idea where these passages will go, but I write them down anyway. (Blind faith)
5. Research. (Oh my. My head is spinning. The near future is way ahead of my imagination.)
6. Frustration. The power of language. Without it we are isolated. (Empathy with character)
7. More characters! Where did they come from? Now where are they taking me?
8. Observations: Pressure on children, especially “miracle” children.
9. More observations: Over scheduling our kids. What’s up with that?
10. In the news: Organ transplants. What will they be able to transplant next? (midway through: a face!) 11. What makes us human? Is it in our flesh?
12. A Cotswold. A crumbling Cotswold. Finally the perfect house. (I can move forward!)
13. The human soul. Will science one day map it out too?
14. Lily loves her. She actually loves her. Life is too precious not to have hope.
15. Suspense. Distrust. Oh? Is this how the whole story will go?
16. We all have our demons.
17. Conscience. Why do some people have more of it than others, and some seem to have none at all?
18. Do any of us really know how far we would go in an impossible situation? Is it fair for us to judge others who have been there? But is it our responsibility to draw a line? (Hm, looks like I am back at another version of that initial spark.)
This of course, is a very crude and incomplete tracing of my inspiration-add in about another hundred or so micro-molding inspirations and a healthy does of life experience–but that is the way a story goes. It evolves. Stories are organic-at least for me-and as I find the bones, flesh grows on them. Hair. Teeth. They surprise me. They take me in unexpected directions. And the chain of inspirations melt into one another and it becomes hard to explain one without explaining the next and they all seem necessary to convey how the story came to be.
I think that’s why inspiration can become such a loaded question for an author. It is daunting to separate that initial spark from all the inspirations it is now connected to and the flesh that has grown around it all.
Of course, knowing the enormity of this question, won’t keep me from asking it the next time I have finished reading a book that I love. I still want to know, if only a few small bones at a time. And if the bones have all fused together into an answer like, life, that’s okay too. I understand.