Helen Douglas On Inspiration From A Photo

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 Helen Douglas, author of the young adult time-travel romance novel AFTER EDEN (Bloomsbury USA Childrens, July 2013) and the upcoming sequel CHASING STARS  (Bloomsbury USA Childrens July 19, 2016).

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?

Very much so. I came across a photograph from Vanity Fair that imagined what New York City would look like if sea levels were to rise as a result of global warming. It was a frightening, but beautiful illustration. I started researching the likely effects of global warming on communities around the world – not just the effect of rising sea levels on our coastlines and cities and islands, but also on our food production and landscape. And then I began imagining what it would be like to live in a world so recently changed. Because Chasing Stars is the second part of a time travel duology, it had to take place in the future. It was fun – and alarming – to set it just a hundred years in the future, using some of these projections. Then I asked myself how my main character, Eden, would cope if she suddenly found herself living in this world where once powerful nations were struggling to feed their people, and other countries had risen up as world leaders. How would she cope in a world where cereal crops were impossible to grow and insects formed a large part of our diet? 

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

Once I’d decided the story would take place in the future, and that there would be a scene set in New York, I plotted backwards and forwards from that. In After Eden, Eden and Ryan had broken the laws of time travel in order to be together. I knew there had to be consequences. And so, at the beginning of Chasing Stars, a ‘cleaner’ is sent back to ‘clean up’ any trace of Ryan’s presence in the past, and to transport him back to his own time for a trial. As Eden knows about time travel and bits and pieces about the future, she has to go to, to prevent any contamination of the past. The story built from there.

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

I don’t like to outline in too much detail, because for me, the ‘fun’ part of writing is the discovering of the story. If I’ve already worked out in detail what is going to happen every step of the way, the writing itself feels like a chore. So, I have an end point and a journey in mind, but usually find myself taking unexpected detours along the way. With After Eden, however, the book I submitted to my agent had a very different ending to the one that was eventually published. Without giving too much away, the original ending was quite bleak.

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

I have more ideas than I have time to write. They’re not fully fleshed stories, but bare bones of ideas just waiting to be assembled into an interesting shape and given substance. 

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

Generally one of them is yelling just a little bit louder to be heard. That’s the one I’ll go with – the one that makes me most excited. Other times I’ll pass on a story idea for the time being, because I know it will require lots of research and I don’t have the time to do the research at the moment.

When it comes to naming characters, I just rest my hands and let them tell me what their names are. What’s your process? 

It depends. Some of the names of characters in the After Eden series are quite significant. Eden, for instance, is the name not just of the main character, but also of a new world – I wanted to draw on the symbolism of an unspoilt paradise. And because many of the characters in the series live at a time when space exploration is happening, they are names after famous constellations or stars. Many of the minor characters are named after friends. Sometimes I really struggle to fit a name to a character though and have to go through several name changes before it feels right.