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Literary Inspiration

IMG_0084 (1)Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about inspiration and where it comes from, and going in search of it.  Once I decided to write this post I had one of my regular bouts of word blindness and wondered if I even knew what the word means:


1  The process of being mentally stimulated to do or feel something, especially to do something creative:

2   A sudden brilliant or timely idea

As mentioned in my madcap collaboration with Francis Plug on Author Events a couple of weeks ago, one of the most common questions writers face is where we get our ideas.  Although it probably is dull having to answer that repeatedly, the question doesn’t surprise me as there’s something  mysterious and fascinating about the provenance of inspiration and ideas.  I love hearing other writers talk about how a random or indistinct thought takes shape and merges with others, eventually developing into something complete, with a life of its own and different meanings for everyone who reads it.

The source of ideas often seems to particularly interest people who don’t write.  I’ve lost count of the number who’ve told me they could write a novel if they could only come up with some good ideas to start with … (I smile and nod.)  Conversely I’ve come across very few writers who struggle to find ideas – many have more than they can cope with.

In my experience, definitions 1 and 2 of inspiration are inseparable.  It’s often said that when embarking on a new project the idea to run with is the one which gets stronger and more vivid. It grows.  When this happens, the motivation to transform it into a story takes over and the elusive ingredient is not inspiration, but time and stamina.  Writing a novel is a lengthy endeavour fuelled by the constant flow of ideas, images, dilemmas and so much of it is sub-conscious:  many authors have a eureka moment where they realise the book isn’t about what they thought it was about, or when a reader comes up with an interpretation so much more profound and intelligent than what you were thinking at the time that you can only, well, smile and nod.

I’m not a psychologist (I know some of you are, and hope you’ll comment!) so my understanding of how it all works, or why some people function like this and others don’t, is rather sketchy.  I can only focus on how it happens in practice for myself, not because I am fabulously inspired (sadly) but because I don’t know what goes on in anyone else’s head – or at least, no real people’s!

On a piece of scrap paper I made a list of ideas which have made it into my novels and short fiction.  In almost every case, the starting point was an object or real life experience:

  • Sitting next to a stranger on a park bench
  • A convertible passing by on a deserted road in rural France full of people in 1930s fancy dress
  • Abandoned copies of the Metro on the floor of Tube carriages
  • Family photographs in which something isn’t as it first appeared
  • Boarded up houses on the North Circular road
  • Shopping trips to IKEA
  • Conversations with my Greek-Cypriot hairdresser
  • An online fundraising campaign for pancreatic cancer
  • A burglary on my house, solved ten years later
  • A newspaper story about a Walmart cashier
  • Identity theft (although the story turned out not to be about that)

You could call those external stimuli (they’re often used in workshops and writing exercises).

The way they subsequently develop has more of a personal, internal nature and is influenced by my experience, beliefs, personality, the things which matter to me and increasingly, how honest I’m prepared to be, even though I’m not writing about myself. All writers face this issue, which I touched on in my Second Novel piece in the summer – we’re always being told ‘write the book only you can write’. It took me a long time to realise how much trying to ‘please all the people’ interferes with inspiration and produces vanilla writing. For me, anyway.

There’s still a lot I don’t get about inspiration and how it works, but working out what doesn’t is a big step forward and it’s different for everyone. I’m not terrified of the blank page if I already know more or less what I’m going to write. That’s why a daily long walk or swim away from all distractions is a necessity to work where the story’s going next.  That’s the hard part.  I love it when a thought I’ve had in the morning gets written that afternoon, becoming part of the text in such an apparently random way, although as a writer friend pointed out, there must be some evaluative filtration process going on.  Heaven knows, I have an unending supply of worthless ideas.

Fiction writers are never really off duty.  Not only is everything material, but we are puzzling stuff out all the time whilst driving, cooking, sleeping (or not – the incidence of insomnia in writers is extraordinary – bizarrely mine almost disappeared when I started writing.)  I know from Twitter how common it is to wake up with a tricky scene or plot hole nailed.  One of the things daunting me when I returned to my manuscript after a three week break was introducing longer passages of dialogue between two characters.  It wasn’t just how they would talk, but what they would talk about.  One morning I woke early and I could just hear them talking in my head – I could even picture their expressions and body language as if I were watching a film.  Miraculous – and slightly creepy and voyeuristic!

Where does your inspiration come from?


Thanks for the nice comments on my Set in Paris Pinterest board from last week’s post.

My story North Circular (incorporating two of the above ideas) will be published alongside the other shortlisted and winning entries in the Room to Write competition later this week – none of my fiction has been available online before, so will add the link soon.


About Isabel Costello

Writer (novels: Paris Mon Amour 2017; Scent 2021).Host of the Literary Sofa blog. Co-founder of Resilience for Writers with Voula Tsoflias. Perfume lover and Francophile.


16 thoughts on “Literary Inspiration

  1. Interesting 🙂

    Posted by thenoveilst | October 6, 2014, 14:29
  2. As one of your readers with a background in psychology, I confess I don’t know how inspiration works either. But I do think making an empty space helps: mindless or automatic tasks like washing up and driving; going for walks; and the time we’ve put aside for sleeping.
    I’ve always been puzzled by those writing courses and textbooks that suggest where to look for ideas as, like you, I often have far too many. I’d appreciate training in reducing them, but it’s such a great feeling when the idea comes that seems so right (even if it turns out not to be when you come to write it).

    Posted by Annecdotist | October 6, 2014, 16:36
    • Hi Anne
      Thanks for being the first psychologist to reply! It’s reassuring to hear that inspiration can be a mystery even to those who understand the workings of the human mind. I couldn’t function without making that white space for ideas to develop, turning off the background noise and especially escaping from devices. Mind you, it can be irritating for other people that I often leave the house without my mobile for precisely that reason!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | October 7, 2014, 10:32
  3. Great post! I often wonder about this. I don’t have that many “ideas”, hence I don’t often write short stories. Any ideas I do have tend to come from things I own, or find, or hear, or overhear. Also, I think I have quite a lot of unresolved issues from the past and I think they really drive me to write. (Psychological territory here!) I very often think about my childhood… no idea if that’s normal… but I do tend to relive scenes from my early years over and over, almost as though I am actually back there. In my current WIP I have used some of these memories, to good effect, I hope! Also I talk out loud to myself an awful lot and hold imaginary conversations! These things do help with my writing, somehow? – I think! One thing I do know is that I have a strong drive to write and I love doing it. Such an interesting post, Isabel, I’m sure it will spark a fascinating discussion.

    Posted by louisewalters12 | October 6, 2014, 17:25
    • Thanks Louise, I’m glad you enjoyed the post and it was interesting to hear your take on all this. I am writing a book in which the protagonist is still deeply affected by an event when she was young, so I’m looking forward to your next novel even more now! As for ideas, before I started writing I didn’t understand why authors would spend a good idea on a short story (I didn’t really read them at the time) – now I find shorts a good outlet for ideas that grab me but not sufficiently for a novel, and that’s not to disaparage the short form, which I have come to appreciate. And in apparent contradiction, both my novels originated as short stories!!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | October 7, 2014, 10:43
  4. I love inspiration and watching it manifest. I think for me inspiration first requires the exercise of overcoming resistance. Stopping the thinking that suggests there isn’t an idea or that the one that popped into your head wasn’t good enough. Once an idea arrives, perhaps from a prompt, then I follow it, I imagine what happens next.

    The first time I really saw this happen, I had to write for 5 minutes about a character in a class, so it was a pressure situation and when I saw everyone else writing I knew I just had to quit thinking I couldn’t do it and just write. So I wrote about a person standing on a pier with their back to me. And over time I kept asking myself who it was, and a story started to manifest. It was like proof that I could do it, I just started with a person standing somewhere and asked myself who they were and what they are doing there and went with the first thing that came into your mind and it just didn’t stop, it continued for 3 weeks until I had the outline of a major story – that I then had to write.

    For me it always starts with the resistance, almost like sitting in meditation, first the discomfort and then the acceptance and then opening to the imagination, to the subconscious.

    Many of the ideas have a link to some aspect of experience, and I use this to twist and turn and come up with alternative scenarios, some of them so vivid, they almost take over from the real memories and feel as if they were lived when they were only imagined.

    When I am unsure where to go next, I hang out the washing, it unblocks plot holes every time.

    Great post!

    Posted by Claire 'Word by Word' | October 6, 2014, 19:55
    • Hi Claire
      Thanks for this great comment – I loved hearing about your inspiration, and especially about when ideas become so vivid it’s as if the events and people were real. That’s a brilliant sign, since that’s what the reader will ideally buy into! I’ll try to feel inspired next time I hang out the washing – can’t say that’s ever worked for me so far…

      Posted by Isabel Costello | October 7, 2014, 10:46
  5. Interesting list of items that inspired your short stories, Isabel. Made me think about mine, and by far the most common seed for my shorts, is a writing prompt – the more constrained, the better, I find, as it gives me a launchpad and boundaries. I rather like comps which insist on a theme, or starting point, or items to be incorporated. The more bizarre, the more likely it will inspire me.
    I do dream vividly, and a few of my stories have started out as dreams.
    Another story grew from a conversation overheard on a train. It was such an extraordinary anecdote, that I began to ponder what brought it about, the lives of the people involved, how it all finished up (which wasn’t established by the time we reached my station, so I never heard the real outcome – if there was one).
    I used to collect interesting snippets from the news, and file them away for future inspiration, but I’ve never used them, and wonder why. Think it’s because they’re complete as they are – no more words are required. There’s one I remember about a girl at work, who felt a tickle in her bosom, went to the loo to have a look, and found a baby bat in her bra. Seems she’s taken the bra from the washing line that morning in the dark, and put it on without realising that a baby bat had roosted inside for the night. Love that, but haven’t found a platform to use it. Yet.
    Suppose that highlights the difference between true inspiration – the flame of a flowing and developing story – and an anecdote.
    When it comes to novels, I have a strong urge to write about a *theme* – but with little idea how to clothe that in tangible events, people, things that actually happen. So mostly, I resist that urge. My first bash at it, I was (of course) mighty pleased with; but beta readers told me it was *about* something else entirely, and once pointed out, I could see it was true. I also love that – when readers notice coherent themes that you had no idea you’d created. But you did!
    Which brings me to my final point – the power of the subconscious in driving creativity. For me, a nap sorts out all sorts of things. Also, as others have mentioned, doing something mindless that occupies the body and logical brain, but lets daydreams flourish. Cooking dinner, driving, supervising chicken playtime – anything that means I *can’t* actually write at that time – and ideas flood in.
    Not talking – that helps me, too.
    Sorry; banging on. Great post.

    Posted by Whisks | October 7, 2014, 13:01
  6. I first read this on the day you posted it and my first thought was to quote Neil Gaiman, ‘I make it up from out of my head’ but then you got me thinking. Most of my initial ideas seem to stem from conversations with people about topical events or things that are personal to me. After that it’s things I’ve read – either in the press or in non-fiction books.

    Ideas seem to solidify for me when I’m walking, which I do most days. Kernels of ideas that have been hanging around seem to connect to things I’ve read and then they grow into something useable. It happened with the setting of my WIP last week. A great moment!

    Posted by naomifrisby | October 8, 2014, 10:19
    • Hi Naomi
      How great to hear that inspiration has just struck for you – great timing for the start of your writing PhD! Before I really thought about this subject I would have instinctively taken the Neil Gaiman line, so it was quite interesting when I realised that the starting point for me is usually a real-life observation or object and then the internalising bit kicks in where my mind decides what to make of it, often with several ideas converging in the same piece. It seems a common thread for people to need mental space and physical activity to make this process work and that’s got to be a good thing!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | October 10, 2014, 11:01
  7. Great post, Isabel, and nice to see your list of inspirations – I recognise some of them in stories I’ve read of yours! My ideas/inspiration come from all sorts of places too. The premise for the novel I’m just about to write for NaNoWriMo came from something I read in the newspaper and the one I’ve just finished from a documentary programme I watched about people going missing.

    Often my short stories stem from things I overhear (I’m a terrible eavesdropper) and a good few have been from memories that my husband tells me about his childhood, half of which was spent in Hackney before his family relocated to Yeovil – where he was quite exotic being so urban! But most often it seems to come from people watching wherever I go and some little thing they do sparks my imagination and off it goes.

    Walking is almost as big a part of the process as writing for me and it’s then that I mull things over, often for days or weeks, before sitting down and writing anything. Which is when I usually discover it’s going somewhere or not. Unfortunately, sometimes I can be several thousand words in then suddenly realise it’s going nowhere!

    Posted by Amanda Saint (@saintlywriter) | October 8, 2014, 13:19
    • Hi Amanda
      Lovely to hear about your sources of inspiration – they really are everywhere and I bet your imminent globetrotting will add to them no end. Yes, I’ve got a few pieces and ideas that have gone nowhere so far, but in some cases I have revisited a lot later and pulled something out of the bag. Good luck with NaNoWriMo – I’m too embarrassed to tell you my pathetic daily word target. Let’s just say I won’t be taking part, EVER!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | October 10, 2014, 11:08
  8. I find ideas come quickly, and I keep a notebook just for ideas. The next step is developing them. Some don’t seem right so stay in my notebook. Others suit a short story. Then a find a novel idea and this becomes like a jigsaw. The pieces fit into place before, while and even after the first draft. This is the most rewarding part. I love it when it becomes a full picture rather than lots of pieces.
    After that, I’m back to my notebook – collecting ideas and being open to any possibility.
    Great post and well done re: your story!

    Posted by Ruth F Hunt | October 12, 2014, 10:40
  9. I’m one of those people who have more ideas than they know what to do with. I’m already thinking a couple of novels ahead of the one I’m currently writing. I also very much relate to what you said about a novel not being about what you thought it was about. That mystery is what I love about writing.

    Posted by annabelsmith | October 26, 2014, 09:33

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