A bit about ideas and inspiration
I’m getting ready for a month-long artist residency on Vashon Island (above) that starts next month. I intend to finish the first draft of my next novel while I’m there—a novel that I have started, that I have researched, and that I know will take a great deal more research, even after the first draft is done.
But in the meantime, I'm enjoying our new home in Colorado Springs (despite the weather). One of the great consequences of our move to Colorado last year has been finding new writer friends and spending a couple of mornings a month with them, following prompts and writing whatever comes to mind. It reminds me of writing to deadlines as a daily newspaper reporter, but in a fun way.
A week ago, the meeting hostess’s prompt called for riffing off a column Anna Quindlen had written for the Saturday Evening Post about the inspirations she relies on for her columns and books.
Anna wrote that “where do you get your ideas?” is one of the most common questions that she gets at book readings. I can claim no equivalence to a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, but I, too, have heard this question at launch parties and book readings. I’ll give you my answer in a moment. But first, I want to tell you a story that Sandra Dallas told me long ago—well before I started writing fiction myself.
Sandra, a Denver-based historical fiction writer much more famous than I am, has done many things to help me with my nascent fiction career, and we discuss writing and marketing from time to time. Back when I was still at the Wall Street Journal and she had already started her fiction career (and she was still working at Business Week, I believe). Random House had just released her first novel, Buster Midnight’s Café (still one of my favorites) and a woman had approached her at a book signing. “I have a great idea for a story for you. I’ll give you the idea and you write it,” the woman reportedly said. “And we’ll split the profits.”
Well, let me assure you, there isn’t a whole lot of profit in writing novels—even if you snag a publisher like Random House—at least at first. But that aside, anyone who thinks an idea is half the work obviously has never tried to write a novel.
I believe what Sandra said to me back then (I didn’t have a notebook with me), was something to the effect of: “Ideas are easy. Writing is hard.”
In fact, I think the problem most novelists have is too many ideas. We bat them away like flies as they try to distract us from the project we’re working on. While working on a novel, new ideas that pop out of headlines in the daily paper, out of conversations with friends, from surprising tidbits of history, or from someone else’s novel that I’m reading. I have a running list of ideas, often accompanied by no more than a paragraph, in a file on my computer. Funny thing is: I never have to go back to that list when I’m starting a new project because I already have another idea that needs attention right now.
So, where do ideas come from? I’ve just listed a few places – conversations, other books, interesting historical tidbits that beg to be explored. But I would say what inspires me the most is metaphor. I am most intrigued when I think a particular story can serve as a allegory for some dilemma or riddle in life. When I wrote The Rebel Nun, it was based on a true story of a sixth-century nun who tried to save her convent from falling under the control of the local bishop (one of those fascinating historical tidbits). But it was also about women’s efforts to free ourselves from persistent church or cultural strictures about what we should or can do with our lives. The Candlemaker’s Woman (still seeking a publisher) is nominally about a young woman sold into slavery in the early Middle Ages, but it’s also about the importance of mass migrations and international diasporas as catalysts for renewal of decadent cultures.
But novels can also come from personal experience. One such book I wrote was Hacienda: A South American Romance. This was in 2015. I was at the time, traveling a lot in South America, having learned enough Spanish be comfortable there and having become fascinated with pre-Incan Andean civilizations. The Denver Post had accepted a proposal from my friend Janet and me to write stories about old haciendas in the Andes and about traveling through the Altiplano of Bolivia.
(Here's a photo of us on the frontera of Argentina and Chile, on our way to the Bolivian Altiplano.)
We spent a couple of weeks in Bolivia and Ecuador, staying in some squalid hostels and visiting some of the oldest standing estancias. The oldest one on the continent was Hacienda Nucchu, nestled in a deep valley somewhere between Sucre and Potosí.
We stayed there for a few days, getting to know the last residents, a descendant of the original owner and one of the infamous tin barons of Bolivia and his wife. She was a wonderful cook, and he was a great storyteller, but the hacienda itself was a wreck. It had suffered from earthquakes, floods, and neglect due to financial problems for over four centuries.
When I returned to the U.S., I received a call from the owner. “Would you like to buy the hacienda?” he asked. Well, yes, I did. I fantasized for months about buying it and fixing it up and opening it up to visitors. I thought it would be a great challenge and a wonderful new chapter in my life. But I was married by then to a (need I say, wonderful) man who wasn’t and isn’t interested in living somewhere where English isn’t the first language and where you can’t get ESPN on TV 24/7. Actually doing it was out of the question.
So, I turned the fantasy into a novel. And, as it turns out, it was probably more fun to write about it than it would have been to live it. Today it serves as a lodge for ecotourists, and from the pictures I see on the internet, it appears that it is still a wreck.
I’ll be back in Colorado in May and then off to San Antonio for the Historical Novel Society conference.
Until then my friends, keep writing and keep reading!