Writers look everywhere for inspiration. History. Dreams. Family and friends. Our own faces reflecting back, toothpaste dripping from our chins, as an intriguing snippet of dialog or captivating phrase chooses that random but specific moment to gel in our consciousness.
Of course, it’s no revelation that non-fiction inspires fiction. If you do historical romance, you probably read about the time period that interests you. Sci-fi authors surely devour the latest popular-science books to stay current on new discoveries and speculations. But what about those happy accidents? Not when you’re conducting research for a novel or checking maps in a quest for geographic accuracy but when you’re reading a non-fiction book simply because the cover looked cool when you saw it in the library. Or it was a birthday gift from Bill, your brother-in-law who’s a marine biologist, though that has nothing to do with anything. Or because you had 11 bucks left on an Amazon gift card and were feeling whimsical that night. This hypothetical non-fiction book has nothing to do with your novel’s setting, genre, or time period, but just as you flip from page 19 to page 20, the epiphany strikes. “Son of a gun,” you say, “There’s my theme!”
You don’t actually say “gun,” but you remember that your blog can be read by your employer, so you decide to clean up the language a bit.
This has occurred twice for me recently. That is, a non-fiction book serendipitously provided me with a story core in one instance and the impetus for an unusual scenario and setting in another. These stories of mine are early works in progress, so they are too naked and raw to discuss in detail, but I’ll tell you how they were informed and will, ultimately I hope, be strengthened by unrelated works of non-fiction.
Project Two is a survival story about three preteen girls fighting to stay alive after a global catastrophe. I had most of the elements in place: A setting, a scenario, characters with motivation, and a plot (sort of… I avoid outlining). What I didn’t have was a core. Once you have the mechanics of writing down, you can write a competent novel if you have a concept, a setting, characters, a threat, and a plot. You can write a good novel if your story as a core. A theme. A heartbeat.
Enter Girl Groups, Girl Culture by Jacqueline Warwick, a music professor at a university in Canada (as of the book’s publication a few years ago). I was reading it because I am a fan of 1960s pop and soul music and because I am a civil-rights advocate, and this non-fiction work promised to discuss the former against the back drop of the latter. What I got was that and a fascinating examination of how these performers bonded as sisters (or didn’t) while touring relentlessly and being totally removed from a normal lifestyle. Say, it’s almost a metaphor for what’s happening to the young women in… my…
To quote Christoph Waltz in the film Inglourious Basterds, “Ooh! That’s a Bingo!” And, as a dumb-old boy trying to write about girls, I need all the bingo I can get.
Project One is a reveal/twist kind of thing that will be ruined if explained, but I can say it’s dark science fiction/ tech horror (you choose the label). This time I had the plot, characters, threat, setting, scenario, and core, but I needed a “why” that was less of a contrivance than “because.”
My question was answered last month when I read Angela M. Smith’s Hideous Progeny: Disability, Eugenics, and Classic Horror Cinema, the title of which is so long it took up all the space I had for explaining what it’s about. Suffice to say, the discussion of the early 20th century Eugenics movement (in part, a philosophy on genetic and racial superiority that advocated for sterilization of disabled and chronically ill people) lit the proverbial light bulb over my head. Why did I bother bringing this up since I’m not explaining what the novel is about?
My contrived answer: Because. Because it still cements my point, which is that writing inspiration can come from unexpected places, especially when you aren’t looking for it.
I don’t know if I’ll finish either of these projects. I put #1 on hold to work on #2, which I put on hold to work on a short story collection, so who knows? But won’t it be cool if I do finish them, and they are published, and you read them, and you track down this post, and read it again, and say, “Son of a gun!”
Only you don’t actually say “gun.”
So tell me about your serendipitous inspiration. That thing that improved or inspired your fiction when you least expected it…