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"Just be who you are, calm and clear and bright." - Richard Bach, Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah

Ideas, part 1: Fill ’er Up

Last winter I gave a presentation to my friend Kathy’s class on creativity at Temple. By ‘presentation,’ I mean I packed up all my bits and pieces from The Practice Novel to Petty Magic (notebooks, research materials, rolodex, printed drafts dotted with stickies), laid it all out on a table at the front of the classroom, and said this is how I work.

It was an early morning class at the beginning of the semester (sigh, two strikes already). Kathy and I were the only people in the room who weren’t looking like zombies. (Only one student asked a question: “Are you left-handed?”) I was feeling all pumped up and enthusiastic and I kept thinking what a shame it was that nobody in the class was awake enough to be interested. Then I thought, duh, why not blog it?

My notes from that presentation fell into three stages: where I find my ideas, how I organize them (or, ahem, attempt to), and how I eventually use them (this part’s fun because I can show you a passage from the finished book and then tell you where the idea originally came from). So, onto part 1!

Like I said, a huge part of preparing myself to write is ‘filling up’: reading on any topic that interests me, traveling in search of new experiences, savoring music and plays and art and movies. I hope this is obvious, but I feel the need to clarify here: when I say I get ideas watching a movie or reading somebody else’s novel, I don’t mean I use somebody else’s ideas. The idea I get usually doesn’t have all that much to do with the thing that triggered it; oftentimes it’s a single word that sparks an entirely new idea. Either that, or it takes someone else’s idea in a different direction (e.g., I made up ‘Everyday Life in the Twenty-First Century: A Handbook for the Chronologically Displaced’ in Mary Modern, and realized ages later that my subconscious must have been thinking back to the ‘Handbook for the Recently Deceased’ in Beetlejuice).

Anyway, here’s the list I made of places I find inspiration:

1. Strangers (crazy or not) on public transportation.
One evening on New Jersey Transit a wild-haired man ran through the car shouting “Beware the marsh bandits!” Someday I will use this.

2.  Pop culture–movies and television.

laughing goblins
Labyrinth was THE movie of my childhood. (Perhaps I should clarify that while I did watch The Wizard of Oz at least 150 times, that movie hasn’t stuck with me quite the way Labyrinth has. Labyrinth came out when I was five, and I still watch it on occasion.) Anyway, I was always mesmerized by this scene in particular, in which Jennifer Connolly is all dressed up like the doll in her music box, with wild eyebrows and dangly skeleton earrings, and she dances with David Bowie around this ballroom full of laughing goblin-people. With Petty Magic I wanted to write a ball scene that felt festive yet sinister, so of course this was my inspiration.

3.  Reading eclectically.
I read a lot of books about espionage before/while I was writing Petty Magic–until it’s research, it’s just for fun. Details are so important, especially when it comes to historical fiction, and it was neat to collect facts and tidbits I knew I could use later on (Allied planes dropping bits of tinfoil to jam Nazi radar, leaving messages in toilet roll dispensers, etc.) I also found the stories of individual spies (Violet Szabo and “The White Rabbit” in particular) really inspirational; it didn’t seem plausible that my hero could escape the Nazis until I read that F. F. E. Yeo-Thomas had done it multiple times (and even when his escape attempts failed, he survived).

(I think I’ll write about research in a future post.)

4.  Music.
I went to Berlin to do some Petty Magic research in September 2008, and brought home a 4-CD set of cabaret music from the 1920s. I popped in one of the discs and as soon as Irgenwo auf der Welt (“Somewhere in the World”) came on, I knew it belonged in the book.

5.  Friends’ funny lines.
You know what they say about Irishmen: all potatoes, no meat.

6.  Things misheard.
“Lord of the slippy.”  If I could tell you what was actually said I never would have gotten the idea.

7.  Far-off places.

We were ushered through a doorway and up a spiral staircase, and a knight glared at us from a niche halfway up. We reached a landing and passed through a door into an inner courtyard. Here all the architectural periods in the castle’s history converged—medieval, faux-medieval, and quaint half-timbering—so that if I hadn’t known better I’d have thought I’d stumbled into a warren unawares. Vines of ghost ivy snaked across the stone and wood façades, and griffin-headed gutter spouts high above our heads unleashed the rainwater in roaring cataracts onto the cobblestones. The whole place would have been very charming in summertime, but that night, the last night of the year, the narrow windows reflected nothing but the storm clouds.

(A description of this place.)

8.  Art.
In Petty Magic there’s a whole chapter set at the Met. Also, I got the Leuchterweibchen (horned mermaid chandeliers) from a tour of Bunratty Castle and the fanged mermaids from a curio cabinet in a guesthouse in Ecuador.


9.  Graveyards (names, histories, mood).
It’s so true, what John Hurt’s character says in the film version of The Field: “I love the smell of a graveyard. ‘Tis a sweet and peaceful smell.”  I like graveyards. Weird as it might sound, contemplating my inevitable demise has only ever spurred my creativity.


Stacked up and ready to go. (An Islamic graveyard outside Göreme, Cappadocia. Elliot took this one.)

(More on names in a previous post.)

10.  Your own life and family history.
That’s where the whole idea for Mary Modern came from. (See my author essay at the back of the paperback edition; if you have the hardcover or ebook edition, email me and I’ll send it to you.)

Where do you find inspiration?

(Next time I’ll talk about how I organize my ideas using rolly cards, Moleskine notebooks, “brain dumps,” Scrivener, and suchlike. Link to Part 2.)

3 Comments to Ideas, part 1: Fill ’er Up

  1. September 19, 2011 at 9:54 am | Permalink


  2. September 19, 2011 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

    Oh man, do I love this topic with a passion. All I can say is that I am always way more inspired by something that usually wasn’t meant to be inspiring than something that smacks of high culture. Maybe if a piece of art is too famous, or too well-done, I just enjoy it, somewhat in awe of the artistry. But give me a bad B-movie or some crazy person in the supermarket, and my mind starts working.

  3. Kate's Gravatar Kate
    September 21, 2011 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    I am upset that I did not make it into “friend’s funny lines.” And I still find it creepy how much you love Labyrinth 🙂

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Hi! I'm Camille. I only write stories that could never ever happen in real life, though I do believe in real-life magic. If we were in the same room I'd fix you a cup of tea, but for now we'll have to settle for a virtual connection. I'm really glad you're here.