Desperately Seeking Inspiration …

A couple of weeks ago, I went on holiday to the Lake District. This is a place I love and have visited on many occasions but this was my first visit to Hill Top Farm in Near Sawrey, the first property Beatrix Potter purchased in the Lakes.

I think anyone who has heard of Beatrix Potter would be interested in (and enjoy) visiting this lovely house and garden but, as a writer, I found it particularly fascinating. Beatrix, getting over the untimely death of her fiancé, found inspiration in the house, gardens and surrounding areas, setting many of her subsequent books there. The Tale of Tom Kitten is set in the house and garden, The Tale of Ginger and Pickles is based in the village and The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck featured a duck that strayed from Hill Top to pick just three examples.

Wandering around the property, knowledgeable guides were on hand with copies of various books where visitors could match the illustrations to exact pieces of furniture and rooms in the house. My six-year-old daughter loved doing this. And so did I!

At Beatrix’s wishes, Hill Top’s rooms and furnishings “should be kept in their present condition” so that visitors could see where inspiration had come from and I really could see it. Her desk was laid out with letters and books and I must confess to having serious writing-desk envy (lots of drawers and cubby holes!) and could really picture the talented writer and artist at work. I could also see why she’d be inspired living in such a lovely farm in such a pretty part of the world.

Here’s a picture of me standing in the doorway of Hill Top. Please forgive the pasty legs!!!!

Image

All of this got me thinking about inspiration. Two weeks ago Deidre blogged about locations for books and asked whether we like fictional or real settings. Last week, Alex took this a step further and blogged in more detail about the two locations (Glastonbury and Orkney) that have inspired her novels. I’d like to look at inspiration in general. Where does it come from? Does a location inspire a story? Does a story inspire a set of characters? Does an idea for a character inspire the plot? I guess it can happen in many ways.

For me, personally, the inspiration for my first novel didn’t come from a person or a place. It came from something that happened to me. I’d always wanted to write but had no idea what the story would be. When this particular thing happened, I thought, “What a great idea for a story” and once that thought popped into my head, it wouldn’t go away. Suddenly I had my protagonist too because she’s predominantly based on me although how she reacts to “the thing” in my novel isn’t necessarily how I reacted to it because her reaction makes a far more interesting story. The plot unfolded by me constantly asking myself, “What if…?” and “Why…?” which led to new characters, settings and experiences.

Location-wise, my book is set in a fictional North Yorkshire seaside town although it’s based very much on a combination of Scarborough (where I live) and Whitby just up the coast from us. These two settings in turn inspired certain events in the book as there is so much stunning scenery in this area that it would be impossible not to be inspired by it. Scarborough has a castle so I have used that. Both locations have lighthouse piers and I have used that concept but created my own version in my mind for a couple of key events.

To conclude this piece, I thought I’d do a bit of a research on where some very famous writers got their inspiration from. I started with one of the most obvious – JK Rowling – but ploughing through several pages of Google just revealed that she got the idea for Harry Potter in 1990 while staring out of a train window on a journey from London to Manchester (or was it Manchester to London?) I read another article saying that she spent the train journey imagining what Hogwarts would be like and that, by the time she got off, she had most of the characters. But this doesn’t really tell me where the initial idea came from. Was she thinking about writing a book set at a boarding school and trying to challenge herself to do something slightly different resulting in lots of “what if…” questions before arriving at Hogwarts? Was she thinking about writing a book for children and had had a conversation with someone about witches and wizards which set her creativity juices flowing? I don’t know. I don’t imagine for one minute that she stared out the window at some fields and suddenly this whole world was created. There must have been some sort of trigger. Mustn’t there?

I found a slightly more satisfying response when I decided to look up Enid Blyton, one of the Write Romantics’ favourites. It would appear that, since childhood, she’d always made up stories and that they flooded into her mind at night a little like mixed-up dreams. In her autobiography, The Story of my Life (1052) she described the process of a story-unfolding like viewing “a private cinema screen inside my head… and what I see, I write down.” I found a fascinating link all about Enid Blyton (see below) but I still don’t know exactly where the inspiration came from. What made her imagine a group of four children and a dog having adventures, or a tree that reached the clouds and had different lands arriving at the top, or a man with big ears and a little boy with a bell on his head? Some of these are slightly shall we say unusual things to just pop into the head or onto a cinema screen or whatever if was that Enid Blyton experienced so surely, again, there was some sort of trigger. For more info, check out: http://www.enidblytonsociety.co.uk/enid-the-writer.php

I checked out a few more writers but it was a similar story i.e. no specific pinpointed moment. And then it struck me that perhaps that’s just how it is with most writers; the ideas just appear with no specific sources. Perhaps that’s what being a writer and being creative is all about? Perhaps I’m unusual in being able to pinpoint the exact moment in time that my idea for Searching for Steven materialized because, not that I come to think about it, I can’t pinpoint where the idea for the sequel came from. It wasn’t from personal experience, that’s for sure. I think just popped into my head … while looking out of a train window … as if on a private cinema screen (or did I read that somewhere else?!)

Over to you. If you’re a writer, where has your inspiration come from? Something you’ve experienced? Something you’ve read? Something you’ve overheard? Or did it just materialize? I’d love to hear more. And if you’re a reader, what do you think might inspire you to write?

Thanks for reading.

Julie xx

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11 thoughts on “Desperately Seeking Inspiration …

  1. Julie, what an interesting piece, and so thought-provoking. I agree with you about JK. The view from the train window may have crytallized her ideas but there must have been something ‘other’, something deeper, that gave birth to Harry Potter et al.
    My self-pubbed rom-com was inspired by watching a demonstration of parkour (free running) on Brighton seafront. I’m not in the least bit sporty but the beauty and precision of this extreme sport captured my imagination. I went to another demo and bought the DVDs Jump London and Jump Britain. I knew I wanted one of my characters to be a free runner as it gave me an original way to introduce him. That was all I had to start the book with.
    My next, Remarkable Things, came from a couple of initial ideas. I read a feature in a mag about mothers who had been forced to give up their babies for adoption – all very emotional. As I was researching my family history I knew something about searching records so it seemed feasible that this was something I could write about. Then I saw an embroidered wall-hanging in a village hall, all done in individual panels, and it came to me that I could write a story which brought together the group of people who had sewn the panels. Both ideas went into the same book.
    The inspiration for the book I’m working on now came through my aunt. She told me about a friend of hers whose daughter died when she was about 20, and how a group of her daughter’s friends have kept in touch with her mother and are still visiting her regularly, 30 years on. It made me wonder whether they actually wanted to do this or whether they had never found a way to stop. That gave me my female lead’s ‘entrapment’ in a similar, but very much unhealthy situation.
    I think then that inspiration can come from anyone, anywhere at any time, and that’s why we need the notebook in the bag!
    Deirdre

    • Hi Deirdre, I love it that you can pinpoint the exact inspiration for all three of your books. Finding out where ideas for stories came has always been my favourite part of author interviews in Writing Magazine or Writer’s Forum. I must admit I was hugely disappointed with Stephen King’s On Writing book (which so many people rave about) because I expected to find some revelations in there as to where some of his incredible ideas materialised from … but there were only one or two.

      I particularly love that watching a sport that you’d never had anything to do with inspired a character and a story start. I also love the entrapment idea. As soon as you described your aunt’s friends situation, I thought “how lovely” then read what you’d said about obligation and thought “ohh yes, how juicy to explore!” Can’t wait to read it.

      Julie
      xx

  2. Hi, Julie. My novel started with the characters, though funnily enough, they weren’t the main characters that first popped into my head. We were on our way to a holiday in Somerset and that’s quite a trek from Yorkshire so I was pretty tired and just daydreaming as the scenery whizzed by and suddenly this character popped into my head. Within a few minutes he was joined by three others and I started to think about what they were doing. I saw a scene play out in my head (which actually never made it into the book!) but it got me so intrigued that I thought that I simply had to buy a notebook and start writing it all down. By the end of that holiday I had a whole bunch of characters and a basic plot. This has changed and evolved drastically over the last two years but that’s how it all began. A simple vision that got me writing again after years of not picking up a pen to write anything more exciting than Uni assignments or a shopping list!

    • Thanks for sharing, Sharon. And may I say what a great excuse for purchasing some new stationery!!! I wonder if something like that did happen to JK then – just staring out the window and there was a pitch invasion! I’m really glad this made you put pen to paper and can’t wait to read your work.
      Julie
      xx

  3. Hi Julie,
    I really enjoyed reading about your visit to Hilltop. It’s years since I last went but I remember that it’s a pretty magical place.
    I think the ‘What if…?’ question is really important in writing. I know that’s what provokes a lot of my ideas. Despite what I wrote last week about places inspiring me, the actual plot of what’s going to happen in these places seems to come to me when I’m doing something else. I had a great idea yesterday when I was parking the car at Sainsburys! And like Sharon and JK Rowling I find journeys a great time to think too.
    I can really relate to the situation that inspired Deirdre’s current WIP and I shall very much look forward to reading that book when it’s finished.
    Alex
    x

    • You are right, it is hard to pinpoint where ideas come from. I can walk down the street, and something just pops into my mind. Then it seems to grow. A bit like a closed flower, that gradually begins to bloom. It must have been amazing to actually be in the house where Beatrice wrote those wonderful stories, inspiration that you can take home with you. I loved the blog.
      Lorraine x

      • Hi Lorraine, love the analogy of the closed flower opening up. Yes, definitely the case! Thanks for your kind words. Mark actually took some fab photos inside the cottage only to overhear a guide saying to some other tourists on the way out that photography was not permitted in the house even though he’d wandered around with a huge camera and some guides had been stood right by him as he was snapping! They are very inspiring images so I may share them on our closed FB page.
        Julie
        xx

    • Thanks Alex, it was pretty magical. Dying to know what your idea was in the car park at Sainsburys! Yes, inspiration can come from anywhere can’t it. I came home on the train from work one day and we passed a hamlet of a few houses where I noticed a man sat on the roof of one of them. So many possibilities immediately popped into my head as to why he was there and I’m certain at one point that he’ll feature in a story.

      I did think about you with Deirdre’s WIP and what you told Jo and me about at the conference. Fascinating subject area.

      Julie
      xx

  4. Hi Julie,

    What a gorgeous house and an awesome experience. Being a fan of Enid Blyton and reading her books with both my daughters now, I would find it so surreal to be standing right where you were outside that picture perfect house.

    I think that your post summed it up…our ideas do come from everywhere: places, people, occasions, our daydreams, our own experiences. When I was doing part of a course in writing I remember the lecturer describing writers as “magicians and thieves”. She said that writers take ideas from everywhere and then magic them into a new story and weave their spells / write their plots.

    I think that setting can be a powerful idea generator. I think that sometimes we are too used to sitting in the study (or in my case, the walk in wardrobe!) tapping away at our writing but when we go somewhere new, whether it’s out for a walk around the local area or to a place like Hill Top House, it helps to clear our minds and then ideas start to flow.

    Really interesting post Julie and how exciting to have been so immersed in Enid Blyton’s life story.

    Helen R.

    • Thanks Helen. I absolutely love that quote you use about writers being “magicians and thieves”. It wonderfully sums up exactly how it is. A few years ago I attended a creative writing course run by a local author, GP Taylor (wrote Shadowmancer which was a No 1 Bestseller and tipped as “hotter than Potter”). Anyway, GP said that he had a favourite cafe in Scarborough where he loved to sit with a pad and listen to conversations as the cafe seemed to attract people from many walks of life. He found it a massive inspiration as even a snippet of conversation could inspire anything from a scene to a character to a plot for an entire novel. So, yes, definitely a thief and a magician. Love it!
      Julie
      xx

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