The Author’s Secret Sauce

It’s the first Friday of October. Already! You know what “first Fridays” mean, right? It’s the coming together of A Drift of Quills to chat about different aspects of reading and writing. It’s the latter we’re focusing on this time, with two questions we often get: Where do we get our story ideas? How do we keep track of them when they come to us? And joining us today we have author Joshua Grasso. Please give him a warm welcome!

JOSHUA GRASSO

Joshua GrassoAuthor of The Count of the Living Death and The Astrologer’s Portrait
Joshua’s blog

My ideas always come from the same source: usually a work of art, but sometimes, a stray moment or character from an old book. As a professor, I spend even more time than most people in books, and my teaching and research requires me to delve into all kinds of documents: epic poems, Renaissance art, odd biographies, scientific treatises, revenge tragedies, etc. As a teacher/scholar I’m looking for context for a paper or to explain something in class; as a writer, however, my eyes are alert for some small, teasing detail that suggests a larger narrative. I always believe the best material is just waiting for you to stumble over, though if you look/read too myopically, you’ll scatter the riches lying at your feet.

For example, the novel I’m currently writing came to me in a flash—the initial idea, anyway—from a painting I intended to use in class.

The painting is Portrait of a Young Woman (1435) by Rogier van der Weyden. This beautiful, almost photo-realistic portrait of a woman wearing a ‘winged turban’ made me forget my lesson plan. I found myself trying to piece together the expression in her eyes, the rigidity of her body language, and the emotion the painter hoped to capture in the portrait. The germ of a story fell right into my lap, and I’ve spent the past two summers trying to make it into a proper story. I’m light years beyond the photo now, but I still keep it right at my desk to remind me of my initial inspiration.

Sometimes, however, I simply don’t have time to start writing a novel or story on every stray clue from the ancient world. In fact, my most recent novel, The Astrologer’s Portrait, was inspired by a strange character from the Bayeux Tapestry—a person named ‘Turold.’ I read a book about the Tapestry which hinted at who this might be and the wheels started turning. But classes prevented me from doing anything with this for a year, so I simply had to add the clue to my notebook: “Turold in Bayeux Tapestry—sorcerer?” A year or so later I stumbled on the note and it all came flooding back. Three years later the novel was finished, and though it doesn’t resemble the character from the Tapestry in the slightest, I still maintain that the ancient Turold planted the seed of my modern work.

 

KRISTIE KIESSLING

Author of the short story, Sanguis Dei and a poetry collection, Light and Dark
Kristie’s Blog

My story ideas come largely from life. As a young poet of five, I heard my kindergarten teacher say, “Write about what you love and what you know.” Write What You Know has become a motto for me. I delve into the people I know, the place where I live, the situations and dramas around me to provide the fodder for my lyrical and literary creations. It is very simple, really…

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PATRICIA REDING

Author of Oathtaker
Patricia’s website

My ideas come from numerous sources. Perhaps most notable are those bits of wisdom I’ve come upon over the years, either from some third party, or via some inspiration (or revelation, as the case may be). I like to take these gems and create characters out of them, or use them to move a character through my story or to draw and shape the world in which my stories are told. Sometimes I can use them “as is.” Other times, I ask myself how things might operate but for…

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AND NOW IT’S MY TURN…

Inspiration comes at me from every direction! Music, other books, news, dreams, conversation, pictures, quotes, you name it! Any of those things can easily set me to wondering how one of my characters might react or how the setting or culture or plot could be changed by employing the “what if” factor. They can spark ideas for new characters and settings, or generate an idea to help me fix problems. In fact, I was watching a fairly insipid urban fantasy on television the other day when the answer to why spirits follow Sherakai (the protagonist in an upcoming book) came to me. One little sliver of a scene! The answer I came up with has nothing at all to do with vampires and werewolves, and everything to do with Sherakai’s purpose. It turned into a whole support column.

I immediately dashed off to the office to scribble something down—which brings us to the question about how we keep track of our ideas. Once in a while (like this time) I’ll jot it down on a piece of paper or into my cell phone, and (hopefully remember to) stuff it into a folder. I have a folder chock full of really cool ideas, but… The folder is a good place for random stuff, but a terrible place for specific stuff. So as soon as I am able, I fire up Scrivener and transcribe the notes either onto the appropriate character sheet or into the comments of the appropriate chapter. When it’s pictures, I often stash them away on Pinterest, unless they’re directly pertinent to the story I’m writing. If that’s the case, then it’s off to Scrivener with that, too, because guess what? In Scrivener I can keep pictures, music, and even whole web pages. Yeah, it’s that awesome.

So, in a nutshell, that’s how I find the meat and squirrel away the goodies!

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Are you a writer? How do you find inspiration? And how do you keep it?

Are you a reader? Sticking with the fantasy genre, what scene or snippet of conversation have you read that you find particularly inspirational?

4 thoughts on “The Author’s Secret Sauce

  1. I'm evaluating Scrivener (writing software that Robin mentioned). It looks really powerful. It costs only $40. I draw upon dreams for a lot of my inspiration. For some reason completely unknown to me I tend to have a lot of really weird hyper-realistic dreams. I have the time, the software, and the ideas. Now I just need to write. I'm sure there's at least one novel in me. The two things I want to avoid though is running out of material and writer's burnout. The first thing I believe I can safely avoid because I have so much that I want to say that it's driving me "crazy"; the second potential problem I can steer clear of by trying to keep writing fun and back away from it as needed to take care of other things (not too much though because I want a finished product in a reasonable length of time).

  2. Speed Turtle, I don't think you can go wrong with Scrivener—and if you participate in National Novel Writing Month you can get the application for half price if you complete the 50k goal.

    Those hyper-realistic dreams are fantastic story fodder! As I experienced with the television show, just one brief moment of the "story" can turn into a wonderful source of inspiration. Make sure you keep your ideas and potential scenes stored somewhere besides your head! (Faulty RAM, blah blah blah…)

    Writing IS fun—except when it's not. Sometimes it's a chore, and sometimes it's actual hard labor. As my husband says, "Every job has it's share of dirty dishes." I have found that when my writing gets to that point a complete break from it (and I usually turn to some other, non-writing creative endeavor) usually works. As with anything else in our lives, we need a balance. So—what's your first book going to be about? 🙂

  3. Thanks, Kristie. I am eager, too, and I've just been hit with a wee bit of inspiration. I'd ask you to cross your fingers, but then your own writing would suffer! Write, write, write!

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