Irish writers Emma Donoghue, Dermot Bolger, Liz Nugent, and Karen Joy Fowler talk about where and how they find their inspiration with Irish Times journalist, Sinead Gleeson. (I’ve also added my own comments and personal experiences.)
Writers are often surprised by how ideas come to them – online, an overheard conversation, a flash of something while doing the dishes. Kevin Barry has spoken of a murky period in the morning between waking and reconnecting to the world. Here, he believes, is where some of the real gold of the imagination is to be found.
“For my first novel, I started with a historical event in which the motivations of the main player were puzzling to me,” says Karen Joy Fowler, the winner of this year’s Pen/Faulkner Award. “Why would anyone do such a thing, I asked myself, and then started the book to answer that question.”
The idea of writing what you know, or at least within your own frame of experience – from John McGahern to John Updike – is well-worn. Dermot Bolger, who recently penned the novella The Fall of Ireland, thinks that, while it might seem obvious, it’s a good place to begin. “Start with something that happened in your own life, or the life of someone you know, but be aware that fiction is not written about the real world – it is written about a parallel imaginative universe.”
Personally, inspiration and ideas can strike me anywhere. My phone is full of random thoughts and potential one line storylines that have hit me while I’m out and about doing the grocery shopping, at the cinema, watching TV, on a bus. My “Secrets and Lies” trilogy was inspired by the Japanese earthquake and tsunami of March 2011. My “Unfaithful” trilogy was inspired by one of my favourite films, “The First Wives Club”. “Watched” was inspired by the new stalking laws that were enforced in the U.K. in 2012. You just never know when or where an idea will strike. I’ve always got my eyes and ears open. Sometimes a turn of phrase, a newspaper headline or a magazine article will inspire me. Apparently, Maeve Binchy found eavesdropping on conversations on the bus a wonderful source of inspiration!
For Liz Nugent, author of Unravelling Oliver, her book started with the title character – and a shocking first line: “I expected more of a reaction the first time I hit her.”“I began with a character, and the reader meets this protagonist in the aftermath of a catastrophic event. Oliver was very clear to me – I listened intently to him even though I had no idea where I was going with him. Ideas for characters and plot came to me randomly and I made notes, but the story structure arrived much later – there wasn’t ever a grand plan.”
There are many different ways to go about writing a novel. Some writers are “plotters” and others are “pantsers”. Personally, I’m a definite “pantser” ie someone who likes to write without a detailed outline of where they’re going. For years, I got bogged down in writing the outline, and it wasn’t until I finally just sat down and started writing that I was able to finish a book. I’ll always have a general idea in my head about where the story is heading, and I’ll take character and plot notes as I write and the story unfolds, but I don’t tie myself up in knots about the planning. I like to see where my characters will take me. It’s usually a surprise how the story turns out in the end. There isn’t a right or a wrong way to write, every writer has their own method.
Karen Joy Fowler says, “In school, I would write the paper first and then the outline, and I still do this when I write novels.” “When I get to the end of my book, I outline what I’ve done so that I can get a better sense of the shape of it, the pacing, the emotional highs and whether they occur too early or too late.
“Instead of worrying over whether an idea is ready to be fully transformed, I’d encourage aspiring writers to think that the idea may just be there to get you started, like the booster rocket that falls away but the journey continues. Don’t worry if you can’t make it work. Be prepared to let it go.”
I think the most important training for a writer is to read a lot of everything: fiction, non-fiction, newspapers, magazines, the classics, anything that interests you. A writer once tweeted that it took her gaining a degree in English Literature and a masters in Creative Writing to realise that the only thing she needed to do to write a book was to actually sit down and start writing. I couldn’t agree more. Begin. It’s important to sit down at your desk ever day and write. Establishing a writing routine is key. I like to write a certain number of words per day, which keeps me focused on my end goal. It’s vital to set deadlines, otherwise I’d never get anything done. (I’ll discuss more about goal-setting in another post.)
The more you write, the more you’ll hone your craft, and the better your writing will be. I look back on some of my earlier books and cringe, but part of me can’t help feeling proud of those books because without them, I wouldn’t be the writer I am today. Don’t get me wrong, I still have a long way to go in becoming the Pulitzer prize-winning novelist I aspire to be! 🙂