Writing is often an imposing task. The prospect of setting out a plot, developing realistic characters, balancing the effect of verbs and adjectives- when considered in a serious manner it is a wonder that any one takes on the challenge.
Henry James believed that all great stories begin with a “germ”- an idea that grows in the mind from a “hint,” a casual idea that just happens to catch your interest. In John Gardner’s book The Art of Fiction Gardner expands on James’ idea.
“The writer’s first idea for the story- what Henry James calls the “germ”- may not be an event but an interesting character, setting, or theme…Whatever happens in life- a curious fact one comes across in one’s reading…a snatch of conversation, something from the newspapers, a fight with one’s landlord- all this becomes possible material for the shaping of the plot, or for characters, setting, and theme as they may influence the plot.”
Rather than waiting for these chance “hints” to come to me, after reading this I sat down and wrote a list of the things that interest me: themes, events from my past, my favorite books, special places or seasons.
Well I love rainy days, and hot coffee. I love being wrapped in a blanket while reading a favorite book. I love The Lord of the Rings and classical music. I love reading by the fire with candles on a winter’s day. I love remembering that vacation to the Black Hills, the last one with my mom.
With this list I attempted to whittle down the extraneous bits. Yes, I love Jane Eyre, but why do I love it? What elements of that story stood out to me? I love a fireplace on a cold snowy day, but what specifically about it do I love? The warmth, the sense of home, the nostalgia? You will find that you do not love the named object so much as the things that come with it, the feelings, the sensations.
In this manner I came to several common factors that I recognized as key elements in my writing. These have become my Brand, the things I want to be known for. Being able to identify them in this manner helped me to guide my own writing, hone in on new “germs” of ideas and identify my sense of style.
How to use this technique to find your own inspiration:
- Create a list of your favorite things. Things to think of are: books, songs, movies, places, seasons, weather, clothes, activities, holidays, hobbies, tv shows, favorite objects, traditions, feelings, emotions, memories, stories you heard or read, friends, vacations. This list will be your list to reference for idea sparks.
- Look closely at each of these things. Don’t just think of the actual thing they describe, think of what it is about that thing that speaks to you. I listed Jane Eyre as one of my favorite books. I reread it every few years and it is just something that has always stood out to me in my childhood memories. But what about that book is meaningful to me? I listed everything I loved about the book: mystery, the gothic elements, the mysticism, governess/master relationship, feminism, independence, the stormy wild weather.
- As you follow this process for each item on your list repeated elements will stand out. I noted mysticism in Jane Eyre as an element that intrigued me. I noticed that that word kept springing up. I added mysticism to a new list entitled “My Writing Elements.” This list will be the one to define you and your writing.
- Using your Writing Elements list, you should be able to recognize common themes within your own writing. These are the common elements in the things you love. We find them in our homes, our music, our relationships, our reading and our writing. Understanding them will help you to make your writing unique and meaningful.
I continue to use these lists to find objects, songs, themes to use and reference throughout my stories. These things from the first list are objects that connotate the style I wish to convey in my works. Including the objects from the first list will convey the feelings and sensations from my elements list.
When stuck for ideas I pull out the first list, the favorites. I choose one item to fixate on. I consider it beyond the dry meaning of the word. Consider the connotations, the associations, the history of the word, the history of the object or quote, or song. I wrote books on my favorites list. I love just seeing books, holding books, being near them. I let my mind wander. I began to wonder what life might be like for those that do not see the beauty in a book. See the possibility, the escape. How dull that person must be. For him, reality would be stark, cut and dry. There must be little hope in that life. And as I thought this man came to life. He grew within my imagination, a cold pillar in a beautiful library, unaffected by the beauty and imagination surrounding him. Why was he there? What did he come for and what will he leave with? The plot continued on it’s own.
Settle into the elements of this object and see where it takes you. When your writing seems to stray away from the intended goal, pull out these lists, see what is missing.