I’ve been a bit neglectful of my blog this year. I could tell you that I’ve been on interstate-trips for the day-job, dealing with grief & loss and family issues, travelling overseas, busy marketing my first novel, and just busy with life in general. All of this would be true, but none are valid excuses for not writing regular posts. It’s not for want of ideas. Inspiration for blog posts are everywhere. I write at least two posts everyday – in my mind. Actually writing the words is the problem. Not sure why I’ve been avoiding my blog, but its time to stop. Pick a topic, sit down and just do it. After all, that’s what writers do.
Inside the Writer’s Mind
Over the years, I’ve been curious about the writer:reader relationship. Specifically, the interest that some readers have in what inspires the writing process. This is most obvious at Writers/Readers events, such as the recent Adelaide Writers Week I attended. Audiences happily sit at the feet of some writers, hanging on their every word. And when it comes to question time, inevitability the discussion turns to: where did you get the idea for your book? What inspires you to write? Is it about you/people you know/real events?
Being a writer myself, and now being able to call myself a published author, this always makes me smile. There is no magical formula to writing. We aren’t actually opening up a vein and spilling out life-force all over the pages. The hideous antagonist isn’t created as sneaky revenge on those who have crossed out paths. Nor is the amazing protagonist a desired version of ourselves. A lightening bolt of inspiration did not hit us. And we aren’t aided through writer’s block by an otherworldly muse. Really, it’s not that interesting. Or is it?
Ideas for novels, blog posts, short stories and other forms of writing are everywhere. Day and night, inspiration can be found in many places. They flutter around us in everyday situations. Some are just a blur, as they rush past on the wind. Others float gracefully, trying to catch the writer’s attention. Whilst others sit on a shoulder, patiently waiting. Seeing them is not the hard part. Neither is catching them. Keeping them alive, until the story is written, is the hardest part. For when we work on one piece, especially something as long-term as a novel, we can easily get distracted by all the pretty things fluttering around us.
A Gardener is Needed
Rather than spending our time butterfly hunting, perhaps a more beneficial approach would be gardening. Whilst catching butterflies is possible without any devotion to developing skills, for all that is needed is a keen eye and a swift hand, gardening requires at least some basic knowledge, hard work and lots of patience. So lets switch metaphors: an idea for a story is like a seed. Seeds are common, they are easy to find. Their hidden beauty is not obvious, but each seed contains something far greater than itself. And they generally have a long shelf-life – there is no need to rush.
The difference between someone who notices potential seeds for stories and a writer is that the latter devotes the time and resources to plant and nurture those seeds. Seeing seeds isn’t special, it isn’t an ability that very few possess. Being disciplined and driven to sit at a computer for hours, weeks and years so that you can water, feed and shine on that bloody seed is where the dividing line between writer and non-writer lies. And being committed to learning the tricks of the trade, the rules of grammar, structure of stories and other must-have skills and knowledge is what separates the pot plant owners from fully fledged gardeners.
I would hazard a guess and say that the average writer has countless seeds lying around. Some are carefully guarded, awaiting the right time to plant. Some are tucked away in a drawer, and may or may not be planted. While others are already in soil, being nurtured until they bloom. I do all three. I have ideas for stories everywhere, in different stages of growth or dormancy. Where I get these ideas from differs from story to story. As does the process of growing them, but that is best left for another post. Instead, I’ll explain where I got the inspiration for some of the stories I have written or currently working on.
The Chocolate Box
Recently I published my first novel, When Rosa Came Home. I work full-time, so producing this book took many late nights over many months. Over the last two years, I have been working on a number of manuscripts and short stories. I have three manuscripts in different stages of editing, and concepts for four more – all waiting their turn to be nurtured. Rosa was the one I chose to go first. Not because it was the ‘best of the bunch’, but because it was one that I most enjoyed writing. Amongst the agony of countless edits, I enjoyed creating that story and spending time with the characters; whilst breaking a few of the ‘modern’ writing rules and blending genres. At every stage in its development, ideas for plot, characters, dialogue and hooks came from many sources. Mostly when I wasn’t working on the manuscript, like when I was driving or trying to sleep.
The actual seed for the book came from one image. I have a vivid imagination, and sometimes it feels so strong that it’s as if I can actually see an image. This one was simple: I ‘saw’ a withered hand reach into a drawers of a tall boy dresser and pull out a flat wooden box. I had the sense that this person was going to open the box, and share the contents with someone. Many months later, I recalled that image and started to ask questions: What is in that box? Who holds that box, and why? Weeks later, the seed sprouted, and I sat down to write. First I recorded the image, and from there another image, and then another. I don’t plot, and I don’t write in a linear path. Instead I take an idea, write it out, and add another and another. Sometimes this includes jumping from one bit of the emerging story, to another; changing, deleting, rearranging, adding as I go.
About three years after I had that vision of an elderly hand reaching for a wooden box, a novel was born. The actual scene of the man and the chocolate box is minuscule in the whole novel, and its omission would not alter the overall story. It’s not a crucial scene at all. Its whole purpose was to inspire me. It was a seed from which a story bloomed; after many months of hard work and dedication to finish.
The Unspoken Fruit
The manuscript I am working on now is already over 75,000 words, and will hopefully be finished mid-year. I have learnt that I can’t forecast completion time, because life gets hectic sometimes and unexpected things do occur. Also, I often hop from manuscript to manuscript, working on whichever is ‘calling me’ the loudest. The one I am writing at the moment is called Where the Fruit Falls. It is a quite a bit more serious than my first novel, and has not always been as fun to write. Mainly because it explores darker times in Australian post-colonial history. Its style of writing, or genre, is magic realism. I chose this type of writing as it’s a non-confronting way to write about socio-political issues in fiction. Magic realism also lends itself to indigenous ways of storytelling, and has the ability to incorporate the conflict between timeless cultures in changing worlds.
The inspiration for this story comes from a song: Strange Fruit by Billie Holiday. One of the many unforeseen benefits of technology that has enabled people and news to travel around the globe at a greater speed than ever before, is the increased connectivity and solidarity of peoples that have experienced oppression and other atrocities – both in the past and in the present time. The words of Strange Fruit are powerful, and even though they speak of a horrible era for African-Americans, I immediately felt a connection. Like many colonised nations, Australia’s first nations peoples have experienced the violence associated with occupation of invaders. In earlier decades, there were many instances of massacres, public hangings and other forms of ‘allowable’ murder. Later there were other forms of government driven harm, oppression and deprivation of human rights, such as forced removal from homelands, segregation, incarceration on missions, unpaid labouring and removal of children.
All of this came into my thoughts as I listen to that song. Powerful words, strong images of grief and loss, and the dark side of humanity. At first I painted my thoughts, producing a contemporary piece using dot painting techniques. My paintings are for me, I don’t display or sell them. They are just another way for me to voice thoughts and tell stories, just like my weaving and writing. Eventually I had other images, which I wrote down, until a story emerged. This story will eventually be published. Using magic realism techniques, with non-identical Aboriginal twins as the protagonists, Where the Fruit Falls confronts the social injustices, racism and ethnicity-based inequality found in Australia during the 50’s- 70’s, and the ongoing clash of cultures and world-views.
The Underwater Grave
Another manuscript I have on the go was inspired by ‘place’. There is a small rural town near me that has a large reservoir. Up until the late 60’s, where that water now lays was a town called Lovely Valley. The old stone buildings were dismantled, and every thing and person relocated for the sake of the dam. There are a lot of urban myths about Lovely Valley, including reports of hearing the old church bells ring during times of water scarcity. These tales are not true, proven false by archaeological research and dives. Still, it is intriguing. So I started writing Lovely Valley, a modern gothic tale. Compete with mysterious deaths, dark secrets and a ghostly woman of the lake.
Gardening while the Sun Still Shines
I have many other examples of where I have found inspiration and ideas for writing, most of which are based on thoughts, places, images and dreams. However, none of this matters in the least if I don’t find the time and discipline to sit down and flesh the ideas out, to nurture them until they are a fully fledged story. That is the hardest part.
When daydreaming, I imagine myself on a stage far from home, with a sea of faces in front of me. Unlike the seeds that I tend until they are novels, I know that this image may not come to fruition, despite how much energy and time I devote to my writing. Making it in this industry is not mappable – talent and hard work is often not enough to get you to the desired destination. Still, there is no harm in dreaming. I wonder if my imagined audience will get around to asking me about where I get my ideas? And if so, could I possibly make it sound interesting?
It just came to me – I know why readers ask writers where they get the ideas or inspiration from. Not because they yearn to know some heavily guarded secret, or to discover what makes writers different from them. It is more banal than that. They ask those questions because the answers are so much more interesting than the other questions, the ones that new writers might ask: how do you write? You see the act of writing, locked away in front of a computer, and the endless solidarity moments of editing, are simply boring. Discussing that part of producing a book would drain the magic out of any story. Maintaining the illusions of the writer and the creative journey is the better alternative.
I won’t disillusion anyone, then. Now, if you will excuse me, I have a garden to tend to.