My ideas for stories come from the most unexpected places; they never seem to arrive in the same way. They all start with a thought teasing my brain drifting out of the ether.
Sometimes that thought comes from a dream fragment or after I’ve read a newspaper article (like the 1958 “Kissing Case” where two black boys, ages 7 and 9, were arrested for letting a young white girl kiss them on the cheek) or while my brain is exploring a childhood fantasy (“What if you lived upside-down and your feet stuck to the ceiling?”). Maybe it surfaces while I’m zoning out in the shower, contemplating a fascinating work of art, staring up at the clouds (is that a pirate ship?), or listening to some music that touches me emotionally. I never know what will inspire a new idea. I write down every crazy idea and file it away until its time comes.
The other day I was driving in the car listening to the Mumford and Sons song Awake My Soul. Near the end, when the the song builds to a crescendo with instruments and vocals tearing off in musical abandon, I felt myself being transported elsewhere. I wasn’t driving down a dreary winter street, I was racing barefoot along a mossy forest floor, with warm sunbeams streaking through the breaks in the trees. I was leaping and chasing the music. A wild creature with no worries or commitments, totally free…then the vision changed into the thought of what would a character like that do when interacting with others? How would she affect them? I was so into this idea, thinking about storylines that I barely remembered where I was going, trusting my muscle memories to keep me on course when my daughter, sitting in the passenger seat, broke the spell:
“You look like one of those bobbleheads – no offense.”
The dreamscape disappeared instantly. I just had to laugh and then make even more exaggerated bobblehead movements to entertain/embarrass my daughter. I was still grooving out to the music, still in my car, navigating through traffic, but now I had a thread of an idea for a story forming. Would it be a good idea worth pursuing? Maybe. Maybe not. I wrote it down anyway.
My latest YA novel, for example, came to me because I kept thinking about some of the young girls I had worked with at a private psychiatric hospital as a mental health tech, and one in particular. I was pursuing a degree in psychology at the time. Working at the psych hospital was the one of the most emotionally challenging and most rewarding experiences of my life. I’d always wanted to tell a story giving a voice to what the lives of the kids in treatment were like, but I wasn’t sure exactly how to go about it. I couldn’t tell their actual individual stories, of course, but I hoped to capture some of the emotions their stories inspired. Then an idea was whispered into my ear, or rather shouted into it.
I was hard at work revising a completely different manuscript when I was constantly interrupted by a girl’s voice yelling in my head, “I don’t need to be here!” She became rather insistent that I turn my attention away from the story I was working on and start writing hers instead, or actually a very fictionalized version of hers. This girl wasn’t a conduct problem and she hadn’t seemed like an addict. She had run away from home, but that didn’t seem reason enough to warrant admission. To me, she appeared to be a rebellious teenager with wealthy parents. I started thinking “what if” someone put their child into treatment when they didn’t need to be there and what would cause them to do that. I couldn’t stop thinking about this idea. It became so persistent that I stopped working on the other story and started writing Institutionalized.
One of my writing mentors always says, “You have to feed your artist’s soul.” I truly believe that. The more you open yourself up to experiences and to influences outside of yourself – music, art, theatre, bobbleheads – the more ways you will find inspiration.
What inspires you?