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!!!!
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.