Alexandra Duncan On Keeping Lists For Inspiration

Inspiration is a funny thing. It can come to us like a lightning bolt, through the lyrics of a song, or in the fog of a dream. Ask any writer where their stories come from and you’ll get a myriad of answers, and in that vein I created the WHAT (What the Hell Are you Thinking?) interview. Always including in the WHAT is one random question to really dig down into the interviewees mind, and probably supply some illumination into my own as well.


Today's guest for the WHAT is Alexandra Duncan, an author and librarian. Her YA sci-fi novels, Salvage and Sound, are available from Greenwillow Books. Her short fiction has appeared in several Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy anthologies and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Her newest release, Blight, released in 2017.

Ideas for our books can come from just about anywhere, and sometimes even we can’t pinpoint exactly how or why. Did you have a specific origin point for your book?

Blight started as a freewriting exercise way back in 2011. Two other authors and I challenged each other to write a book in the space of a summer, and the first third of Blight was what came out of it.

I had this image of a girl in a guard tower who had been trained to kill intruders choosing not to pull the trigger, which became the first scene in the novel. I also was really fascinated by the idea of the Global Seed Vault in Svalbard, Sweden, where they keep a library of as many of the world’s variety of food crop seeds as they can find. Some people call it the “Doomsday” vault. I couldn’t help trying to imagine what kind of scenario might cause us to need it.

Once the original concept existed, how did you build a plot around it?

When I start writing, I tend to have an initial idea of the central conflict and how I want the book to end, but not much in between. My books tend to be very character driven, and I can’t always plot out where the main character’s emotional arc will take them, so I usually develop that in tandem with the plot as I go.

Have you ever had the plot firmly in place, only to find it changing as the story moved from your mind to paper?

Definitely. I had initially thought Blight would be much more of a road novel, perhaps with the characters literally traveling to the Svalbard seed vault and encountering different factions as they went. While some of those elements are still there, they’re only part of the whole. I realized that reaching the destination was only part of the journey. That couldn’t be the end of the book.

Do story ideas come to you often, or is fresh material hard to come by?

I’m always having ideas, the question is whether or not they’re good ones. Some seem really cool at first, but then later I realize they’ve cliche or already been done at first. Then there are some ideas that I love, but that I think would be better told by someone else. For example, I would love to write a YA adaptation of the story of Queen Esther, but I think a Jewish author could do that story so much more justice and bring so much more depth and meaning to it than I could. (Please, someone write this!)

How do you choose which story to write next, if you’ve got more than one percolating?

If I’m not on a deadline, I tend to bounce back and forth between stories, depending on what I’m feeling more inspired to write that day. For example, if I’m stuck on one story, I’ll go work on another at a different stage of development. I keep an ongoing list of interesting things, so if an image or concept strikes me, I write it down to go back to later when I’m lacking inspiration.

I have 6 cats (seriously, check my Instagram feed) and I usually have at least one or two snuggling with me when I write. Do you have a writing buddy, or do you find it distracting?

I haven’t leveled up to quite as many cats yet. I have two, along with the occasional foster cat who stays in my office while it’s recuperating from some minor illness or another. My two permanent residents like to sit near me while I’m writing, but they usually don’t interfere with the False Cat, i.e. my laptop. The only downside to writing with them is that they start looking so relaxed, they make me want to take a nap!