By Katharine Britton
Inspiration, the root of which is the word “spirit,” comes from the Latin “spiritus,” meaning “breath.” Early (c. 1300) definitions of “inspiration” meant the “immediate influence of God or a god” mainly in religious writing. Inspiration, when it comes to an author, can feel like divine intervention. But even being on the receiving end of a heaven-sent exhalation requires work on the writer’s part.
Inspiration can play a role both in a novel’s content and its structure. It can be the “epiphany” that enlightens a writer’s understanding of how best to bend the rules of fiction writing in order to deliver a story in the most compelling way; and allow a writer to recognize and nurture the tiny, innocuous nuts of ideas and (with perseverance and hard work) grow them into a manuscript.
Observation and imagination: If you want acorns, go stand under an oak tree
Einstein is credited with having defined insanity as continuing to engage in the same behavior, expecting a different outcome. Inspiration on how to move a story forward rarely comes to me by staring anxiously and endlessly at my computer screen. It almost always comes when I walk away from my desk. Inspiration on whether and how to use that overheard snippet of conversation or riveting image of an elderly gentleman alone at a bus stop might be as close as my ironing board.
But first, I have to have overheard that conversation or spotted the guy at the bus stop. Story ideas and images are as abundant as acorns in the fall. A writer’s best bet for being beaned by one of these is to go stand under an oak tree. (Metaphorically, of course.) We must get out there and witness life (observe) and be inquisitive (imagine).
Once we’ve got our pocketful of acorns, we need to figure out whether and where to plant them. Here’s where a little divine inspiration really comes in handy. I receive my best insights while walking (which I prefer over ironing). On the beach. In the woods. Around the block. If the weather’s bad, around my house. It doesn’t matter as long as I’m alone so I can talk to myself as I noodle and muse and try to channel the writing gods. I stay open to possibilities about story arc, characters’ goals and challenges, where to begin my story, and how to end it. Car rides are also a good place for channeling. Especially now in the age of cell phones and hands-free driving. If you see me tooling down the road, talking to myself, assume I’m on an important business call. (Which, in a way, I am.)
Inspiration about process: not every acorn grows into an oak
Inspiration also informs process: how to structure a tale for maximum effect. For inspiration on rule bending, I read other books in my genre. I write fiction, so I read fiction. Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic, Jennifer Egan’s The Goon Squad, and Yannick Murphy’s The Call, Marissa Peshl’s Night Film, all bend rules of structure and language brilliantly. Imitation can hardly be called inspiration, so I recommend reading other books, and then putting them away and opening your mind to possibilities for your book. Is there another, better way to present the story? There’s nothing whatsoever wrong with presenting a story in straightforward narrative style. But, what if…?
“What if” (questions in general, really) act like 10-10-10 fertilizer. What if that character was male instead of female? What if you told the story from a different point of view? Or multiple points of view? What if you used shifting time frames? What if your narrator is telling this story in the future looking back? What if your narrator is dead? What if you give that line to a different character? What if you start your book with what you’re now calling Chapter Three? We are only limited by our willingness to be open and our courage.
Other great exercises to open the mind to possibilities and inspiration are free writing and mind mapping. For mind mapping, I use a big white board and colored markers. Write down a character’s name in the center and circle it, then start writing modifiers around the name: To whom is he or she connected? Where does s/he live? What does s/he want? Who else wants that? What is their connection? And so on… This exercise can be terrifically fruitful.
Of course the structure we choose has to enhance (not distract from) our content. Some stories are best told without bells and whistles. That’s where craft informs inspiration: recognizing when to bend rules and when to follow them. Not every acorn will grow into an oak. (Squirrels must eat some of them.)
Inspiration will come, but it requires work on the writer’s part. We must pay attention, get out there and be open and inquisitive. And judicious. If you stay open to the possibility of a miracle occurring in the form of a brilliant understanding of precisely how to get your protagonist out of the muddle she’s in, make yourself available for one. As Emerson said, “There is a guidance for each of us, and by lowly listening we shall hear the right word…”
Cama Truesdale’s ex-husband and young son leave Boston for a “boys only” fishing trip in South Carolina’s Low Country. In the early morning hours, Cama is jolted awake by a phone call. There’s been a fire on board the boat. Her ex-husband is dead. Her son is missing and presumed dead.
As she sets off for South Carolina, Cama’s belief that her son Tate is alive is unwavering. But her frantic search soon stirs up painful memories that send her reeling back to her childhood and the mysterious car crash that killed her Gullah mother and white father. As the clock ticks down, exhausted, haunted by dreams, and stymied by the police and local community, she enters a world in which she must rely on instinct over fact, and where no one and nothing is what it seems—not even the boundary between the living and the dead.
Vanishing Time is about how grief can shape reality and the power of a mother’s love.