Where stories come from
Posted December 11, 2010on:
Yes Virginia, there is a Story Claus.
One of the biggest topics in the business of being an author (taking the word ‘business’ loosely, since being an author is a life or a compulsion, not a 9-to-5 type of thing)(at least I wouldn’t want to read something written by someone who thought of it that way) is the question of where authors get their ideas. A lot of authors, myself included, have answered this in basically the same terms: I get my ideas by paying attention to my life and the things that happen in it.
But that isn’t enough. I’ve worked any number of real life incidents into my fantasy novels. There’s no better way to make a character real than to use your real life as material. But this is is where the text comes from, not where the story comes from.
Stories are born, not made. They are not born in the moment a connection is made between two otherwise disparate concepts. I have many such ideas in a folder, waiting to become stories. A story is not born when, after diligently writing a thousand words a day for many days, the author finally writes The End and reaches for his agent list.
Stories are born in that great moment of inspiration that we all live for, as authors, and as people. That great moment of ‘Aha!’ where suddenly everything makes sense. This moment does not always come when writing a book, or living our lives. (Lives are stories too, but that is a topic of considerable philosophical complexity so I will focus on the smaller topic.) Preferably it comes before the book is started, but I wrote St. Martin’s Moon without one, and finally had my Aha moment two weeks after it was done. My initial Aha moment was very small and didn’t really suit me, but it got me as far as the lead characters and then left me stranded in chapter two.
Inspiration doesn’t work on demand. By definition (I have the OED in my kitchen and just looked it up) it is a breath that comes into…well, me, if I’m lucky. So far I’ve been pretty lucky. Sometimes it’s a small breath, barely enough to get me started, sometimes I get a hurricane, like when I wrote Off the Map, a typhoon that keeps me up for two hours as ideas cascade, and I can barely keep up with them. Which is not always a good thing, too many ideas is as bad as too few, and more frustrating, since you know you had them and then they got away. But the breath is someone else’s breath, and if I believe in any form of divine agency-I do, although not in any of the forms organized religion would understand-it is because of my experience of this breath.