Inspiration is a bear. It’s either falling from the sky, a lightning bolt to the head that brings about a divine delivery of characters, world-building, plot and voice in a single moment. That does happen, but it’s rare. Most of the time writers are stumbling along, unsure of what happens next – or, if we know – unable to execute in just the right way.
Today I thought I’d share the inspiration for all of my books in the hopes that it will illustrate how I utilize elements from all different aspects of my life to come together and form a novel, and later on I’ll talk about how to transition from fan fiction to your own creative worlds.
Sometimes we can’t pinpoint exactly when or how an idea came to us, but for my debut novel, Not A Drop to Drink, there was a definite lightning bolt moment. In early 2010 I saw a documentary called Blue Gold: World Water Wars, all about a looming freshwater shortage for our planet. I was terrified. Shaken to my core.
We all need water to live. If we don’t have it we’ll die in about three days. Because I am the way I am, I decided to do a little research about the process of dying from dehydration and walked away from that even more disturbed. I’m a worst case scenario kind of person. In today’s world, if you don’t answer my text or call me back in about an hour, I’m going to assume you’re dead.
So, after watching this documentary I consoled myself with the fact that I have a pond in my back yard. Small, and with bits of fish poop and algae, but the possible desperate times might call for desperate measures, and I assured myself that if I had to, I would drink my pond. But… I’m no fool. What happens in a world where there’s a shortage of something we all need to survive? How do people behave?
I know the answer to that. Badly.
That night I dreamt that I was in my basement teaching my niece – who was about seven at the time – how to operate a high powered rifle so she could help me snipe people from the roof of the house to protect our water source. I woke up going wow – okay, bad parenting – but I also was thinking of this little girl, and her authority figure telling her that water was more important than other people’s lives, and killing was how to survive.
Out of that documentary and dream, came my debut novel.
The sequel, In A Handful of Dust came about in a little more forceful way. When we sold Not A Drop to Drink my publisher was interested in making it a two-book deal, and asked for a sequel. I had written it as a standalone on purpose – I was writing it at a time when readers were suffering from over-exposure to trilogies – and had no intention or ideas for a sequel. But a two book deal from Harper Collins has a way of making one reconsider.
I had a very short window of time to come up with a basic concept for a sequel, so I pushed my brain pretty hard. I knew my setting was used up. Not A Drop to Drink takes place over about five square miles; what did the rest of the country look like? It was a good question, and the driving force that directed the sequel, In A Handful of Dust. I knew I needed to move my characters, and in a world where other people were the danger, they would want to head west rather than east – away from larger population centers.
If they’re heading west in a lawless world what does that look like? Sounds like a western to me. I gave them horses, drove them through mountains, and relied on a lifelong love of The Oregon Trail, Little House on the Prairie and other survival stories to move my characters into an exploration of the larger world of Not A Drop to Drink.
My third novel, A Madness So Discreet, was a huge departure. I knew I needed to go somewhere else entirely. Dystopian was dead – what was next? Not only did I not know the answer to that question, I had no ideas. There was nothing floating around inside my head. But I had some time. So, I did what a lot of writers do when looking for inspiration – I read.
Like any reader, I go for books that interest me, and my own interests tend to be… dark. I’d been curious about early methods of criminal profiling after reading Patricia Cornwell’s book about Jack the Ripper, so I started looking into that subject, which led me to re-read some Sherlock Holmes stories, as well as The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson.
Those, in turn, led me to treatment of the mentally ill in the 1800’s, which led me to lobotomies and women’s rights, and all in all, a pretty odd assortment of books on my bedside table. I was slipping into sleep one night, staring at the spines, and the thought occurred to me, “Serial killers, insane asylums, lobotomies, early criminal profiling, women’s rights… someone should write a book combining all those things. Oh – I’m a writer. Maybe I should.”
A Madness So Discreet fell out of me pretty quickly. It’s a dark world, with darker inhabitants. It wasn’t a place I wanted to stay in long, but it was also one that required total immersion. After writing the first 10,000 words or so and waiting to see if my publisher would want it (they did), I dove in, writing the rest of the book in about… three weeks.
Yeah, I wrote the bulk of it in three weeks. I don’t recommend that, as I don’t think it was healthy mentally, physically, or emotionally speaking, but I do think that deep dive adds to the permeating darkness of the book. Also, I have no idea what happens in A Madness So Discreet. Seriously. I was pretty much in a fugue state.
I re-emerged from that place with a few months to breathe in between edits and coming up with a new idea. Remember, I was still working full time as a high school librarian during this time period, and while that might sound difficult, I actually find it energizing to be around my target audience. Other people give me my energy, and the lonely life of a writer needs a counterpoint.
I shut the book on writing for a little bit and decided to chill. Originally A Madness So Discreet was supposed to have a sequel. It was a two book deal, with the assumption that the second would be a follow up tale. I had a synopsis ready to go and planned to rest on my laurels for a little bit… but A Madness So Discreet did not sell well. Yes, it won the Edgar Allan Poe Award, and while that is the highest honor a mystery can receive, that doesn’t translate into sales.
In short, an old joke was trotted out for me. A Madness So Discreet is a historical, and those don’t sell well in YA, historically.
So – what else did I have up my sleeve to finish up this two-book contract?
Oh boy, well… I’d been planning on that sequel, and marinating it for months in my mind. Now I needed to cough up something entirely new. Or… maybe not. I had an adult manuscript sitting in a drawer that I’d given up on nearly 15 years ago. Maybe there was something there?
The Female of the Species was the first novel I ever completed, all the way back when I was in college. When I moved into my dorm room I suddenly had two things that I’d lived without my whole life – air conditioning and cable. I watched a lot of TV my freshman year.
There was a particular channel that ran a lot of true crime shows, and I had it on one evening when I caught the story of a young woman’s death in a small town. Everyone pretty much knew who did it, but they couldn’t convict him because of lack of physical evidence. The documentary crew interviewed the victim’s parents, people in town – even the purported murderer himself.
I was getting incensed while I watched, as it did seem very obvious that he was, in fact, the killer. Yet, he was walking free. The internet was new in those days, and the documentary named the town, and the man who was the supposed killer. Huh… I thought to myself, if I really wanted to, I could probably go there, find him, and kill this guy.
Then I thought, I need to lay off cable.
But, a little voice in the back of my head asked… what if someone did?
Originally The Female of the Species was an adult thriller, but when I floated the concept and the proposal of turning it into a YA to my editor, he thought it sounded like a good bet. So, I dug out the old manuscript – absolutely thrilled because – it’s already done, right? I just need to age people down. Um… no. I was 15 years a better writer, which means that I looked at that old manuscript and… flinched. Also blushed a little. It’s not false modesty when I tell you that it was terrible. Nevertheless, I had the concept, and started from scratch.
After that came Given to the Sea and Given to the Earth, my fantasy series. What can I say about these? They are bizarre, high-fantasy, with deep world building and a complex plot involving magic, war, romance, politics and trees that can kill you and cats that will eat you. Given to the Sea has four POVs and Given to the Earth boasts SIX. Where did all of this come from? Easy answer…. My brain.
Hard answer – so many different sources.
Back when I was a child I was in love with a made-for-TV movie starring Anthony Andrews and Sam Neill, which was an adaptation of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. For whatever reason, my non-romantically inclined heart was drawn to the not-so-happy ending of the star-crossed lovers played by Sam Neil and Olivia Hussey. It stuck, and you might be able to see that reflected in all my writing, but most specifically in my fantasy series.
Given to the Sea and Given to the Earth draw from my interest in genetic diseases. Khosa’s urge to dance into the sea and drown herself was drawn from reading a book about Huntingdon’s disease called The Woman Who Walked Into the Sea. My interest in genetic memory greatly influenced the Indiri twins – But of course, I took it to the extreme, asking, what if we were born with fully functioning brains? What if not only that, but if we knew everything our parents knew, and their parents?
What else? My fantasy also touches upon global warming, the treatment of indigenous people, the insane, the disabled, and the generally unwanted. So many topics, so many elements of things I’m interested in became involved in this series to create a deeply layered world.
For this reason I can’t point to a single inspiration moment for my fantasy series, but rather a lifelong interest in a diversity of topics that came together to form this slightly bizarre – and I’ll admit, widely unread – series.
Lastly, my most recent release – This Darkness Mine – came about because of an internet search that wound up in weird places. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of absorbed twins. We hear about them occasionally in books, movies, and real-life stories. But the truth is that fetal absorption happens more often than you think, and generally the surviving twin isn’t even aware of it.
This concept has always been a tenant in my mind, and one evening went down the rabbit hole of Wikipedia and somehow ended up learning about mirror therapy – the process through which phantom limb syndrome (the experience of pain or itching in a lost limb – is treated using an inverted image.
Hmm…. I rolled that around a bit. What if the “missing” piece of yourself was not a limb, but something more ephemeral. A soul… or an emotional heart? I checked to see if any of these ragged edges could possibly line up with that absorbed twin story I’d always been wanting to tell, then married it to another concept I’d been mulling awhile.
I worked in a public school for fourteen years, and the black and white of what is right and wrong that is ingrained in children from a very young age doesn’t leave much room for interpretation. In many ways, the healthy experimentation that marks a transition to adulthood could be looked upon as “bad.” What happens to the child who has always strived to be good, only to be pulled off course by totally naturally urges and curiosity?
What if “being good” is the only definition they have for themselves? What if this story piece fits into a larger picture that includes mirror therapy and absorbed twins?
It did fit, and the result was This Darkness Mine, my favorite review of which simply says – what the fuck did I just read?
You can see from my sharing here that most of my stories come from my natural curiosity drawing me to topics I find interesting, then stretching them out, pushing them a little by asking a very basic question … What if?
Up next – making the leap from fan fiction to your own creative worlds.
Fan fiction is a great way for writers to stretch their legs. Beginning writers don’t have to build a world, or even create their own characters. They can slide into a pre-written place, already populated with people whose personalities are established, and simply write their own plot and dialogue. It’s a great way for new writers to learn the ropes, and I know a lot of established writers who enjoy just jumping in and writing fan fiction for the fun of it.
When I was growing up fan fiction didn’t exist… but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t writing it. If a book I read had an ending I didn’t agree with, I made up my own. If there was a character I wanted to see more of, I gave them new places and plots to explore. Sidekicks have always been a great love of mine. The hero may not hold the attraction for me that they’re supposed to, but the one-liners from a supporting character usually had my heart. Very often I took characters I greatly enjoyed that I felt deserved more development, and I did just that.
This was fan-fiction before the term existed, and yes, most of mine revolved around My Little Ponies, She-Ra, and – I’ll admit this for my fellow children of the 90s – The Young Riders.
I was acquiring skills and learning how to plot, pace, write dialogue and dip into character development all without having to touch upon one of the scariest elements of writing – world building. To my mind, fan-fiction is a wonderful way to explore all of these skills before you dive off the deep end and make your own world.
A great way to transition is to ask yourself – what is this story missing?
Here’s an example. I used to watch The Walking Dead, but I stopped around season five because it was starting to bore me. It was dark, and it was dreary and it was a brutal, harsh world… right up alley, right? Yeah, totally. Except… that’s pretty much all it was doing. I tuned in every week knowing something really depressing, horrible, and graphic was going to happen and there would also probably be a monologue about how hard the world is now, and people have got to be hard to survive in it.
All true. All valid.
Also, kind of boring after five seasons.
If you remember the show LOST, this is something they circumvented by having lighter moments. You never knew if an individual episode was going to bring you romance, death, or laughter. Even the roughest episodes would have lighter moments, usually brought about by Hurley.
The Walking Dead, to me, needed a Hurley.
For those who write fan fiction and want to know how to transition over to your own worlds, I say, ask yourself what the show you love is missing, and then provide that. Build your character – let’s say, a Hurley for The Walking Dead – put them in a few Walking Dead situations and see what they do, how the react. Learn who they are.
Then, pull them out.
Give this character their own world, and their own story, entirely independent of the initial creation that you spawned them in. Build off this person you made to create the environment around them, and a plot will come.
I can’t say that any of my own fan-fiction-spawned characters are present in any of my published works because I never wrote anything down when I was a young writer. But I can say for sure that there’s a definite impact from The Young Riders and other westerns from the 90s in my work for both Not A Drop to Drink and In A Handful of Dust.
That leap into your own new worlds is a scary one. If you do it holding the hand of a character you made, it’ll at least be a little less lonely.