If you follow a well-known religion, I imagine it’s easy to answer the question “What do you believe?” At least it’s easy to give a brief answer, even if it is far from complete. For me, there hasn’t been a short answer since I started really thinking about what I believed, and really being honest about it.
And the same is true when I try to answer questions about my inspiration for writing. In her calls for submissions to this series, Star referred to the “almost spiritual” nature of inspiration, and that phrase really struck a chord for me.
The simple answer to where I get my inspiration from is “my head”. My ideas can come as dreams, daydreams or random thoughts; they often arrive as phrases or concepts, sometimes characters and very occasionally as plots or stories. But where do those things come from? Your guess is as good as mine. I refer to The Muse as a shorthand for something I don’t really understand, in much the same way I might occasionally refer to God, although I don’t picture any particular entity when I use that word.
For me, the interesting thing is not the arrival of the original idea, but the process that turns it into a story. With the possible exception of dreams, my initial ideas are no more than snippets, in need of a great deal of development before they will become even the shortest stories.
When the writing flows best, it feels like a sort of transcribing, perhaps a stream of consciousness, although my writing would never be described as that by a reader. I write stories like I write non-fiction, by just letting the words flow, seeing where they take me, and then tidying them up into something more coherent after the fact.
Some writers talk about “Movies in my mind”. I have no mind’s eye – I could not, for example, give you a reliable physical description of someone I know well, let alone someone or something I’ve imagined. But when a story flows well, this transcribing does come close to something like a movie in my mind, or perhaps a radio play: sounds, words and emotions, but no pictures.
When the writing isn’t flowing, I try to write anyway, and then it’s more about joining the dots, working out where I want the story to go and how it’s going to get there. This is how I write when I’ve drawn up an outline first (something I think has advantages and disadvantages, and which is worthy of a post of its own). Writing to an outline feels much less natural, but it’s still an organic process, because the outline never has the richness and detail of the writing itself, and eventually the characters, places and storylines still take on a life of their own.
One place I both do and don’t get inspiration is real life, and in particular the real people I know. Anyone who knows a writer has probably wondered if they’ll end up in a story, or even asked to, and I can’t answer for other writers, but for me they answer is mostly no, but with a little bit of yes.
As a rule, I find real people far too restrictive. I want to write fiction, not fact, and I want to write the stories The Muse gives me, not the ones I’m already living. And that’s before you get only people’s feelings. If I wrote a character even loosely based on someone I knew, I’d be too worried about upsetting them, or getting things wrong, to really enjoy the writing process. Obviously there will always be name overlaps or relationships that mirror those in my life, but I choose names because they fit a character, not to link them to a real person. I normally say if a character has your name, you can guarantee they won’t have any other facets I particularly associate with you.
On the other hand, I can’t deny that I occasionally use an anecdote or characteristic from someone I know, to flesh out an established character who I’m clear it would work for. Real life, whether an overheard conversation on a train, or an old memory of my own, can inspire elements of a story, even the story itself. Very occasionally I go so far as to play the ‘what if?’ game in my stories, and to wonder what would have happened if a single moment in my life or someone’s close to me, had gone another way. I imagine that’s a game all humans play, but as writers, we get to play it out on paper.
Jennifer Pendergast writes principally for the love of the story, but is gradually building her portfolio and seeking publication of her short stories whilst polishing several draft novels with a view to publication in the longer term. She was delighted when two of her stories were featured in the Canadian edition of Reader’s Digest. Her weekly flash fiction and thoughts on writing can be found at her blog www.elmowrites.wordpress.com.