The Bones of Inspiration

You know, I am probably certifiably NUTS to choose this topic, but it’s the question that writers are asked—hands down—more than any other. What inspired your story?

Most writers I know, including myself, absolutely dread the “inspiration” question. More than dread it. They secretly melt inside at the thought of retracing the path that led to the story.

And yet, the wicked irony is, that’s exactly what I’m always curious to know too. When I’ve read a book that I love, I want to know! How did the author do this? Let me inside your head! How did this story come to be?

Stephen King calls stories found things, “like fossils in the ground.” This analogy works well with the way I write.

I am a bone hunter, and as I’m writing, I’m searching for the bones of the story. Yes, that initial spark gives me one of the larger fossil bones, perhaps the spine or thigh bone, but I still don’t know what the whole animal will look like. I discover it day by day, as new inspirations, from the largest bones to the smallest, are uncovered and help piece together the story. And when it is done and I step back, I’m as surprised as anyone. In fact, usually someone else will name the animal before I do (theme, genre, etc) because I am still contemplating all the bones that went into constructing it.

I think when most people ask what the inspiration for a story is, they are usually wanting to know what the initial spark was—what got the gears going in the first place? Even that can be tricky to answer, because a spark does not a whole book make. And sparks come in all sorts of forms from the subtle, to the dramatic. With A Room on Lorelei Street, the spark was simply an image of a tired house, a tired girl, and a few opening lines—subtle but intriguing for me—and when this image and voice wouldn’t go away I decided I wanted to learn more about this girl. With The Adoration of Jenna Fox, the spark was more dramatic—questions I had asked myself when my own daughter had faced a life-threatening illness. With The Miles Between it was a curiosity about coincidence and how it plays into our lives.

But with all of these stories, I was still faced with a whole book to write beyond the initial spark. A long, whole book. The spark was not the whole story. Where to go from there? There is a Jack London quote that says, “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” And that’s where the rest of the inspirations come in. As I said before, writing a book is a long process. More often than not, you do not feel inspired, but you show up for work. You face the blank page with your club in hand. The inspirations, large and small, come between the dry, keyboard-pounding daily effort of trying to find your way. For instance, The Adoration of Jenna Fox would not exist without each and every one of these inspirations that followed the initial spark:

1. Image of girl looking out at water recovering from something (a character!)
2. Awareness that she has no memory (okay, now I am intrigued)
3. She is recovering from an accident (hm, what kind?)
4. Voice Snippets. Where did those come from? The character is talking to me and I have no idea where these passages will go, but I write them down anyway. (Blind faith)
5. Research. Oh my. My head is spinning. The near future is way ahead of my imagination.
6. Frustration. Why can’t she tell me more?  But wait, she doesn’t know herself! (Empathy with character)
7. More characters! Where did they come from? (Complications. Layers.)
8. Observations: Pressure on children, especially “miracle” children.
9. More observations and questions: Over scheduling our kids. What’s up with that?
10. In the news: Organ transplants. What will they be able to transplant next?
11. More questions spurred by #10: What makes us human? Is it in our flesh?
12. A Cotswold. A crumbling Cotswold. Finally the perfect house. (Setting) Now I can move forward!
13. Wondering: The human soul. Will science one day map it out too?
14. Conscience. Why do some people seem to have none at all?
15. More wondering: Do any of us really know how far we would go in an impossible situation? Is it fair for us to judge others who have been where we have not? Is it our responsibility to draw a line? (Hm, looks like I am back at another version of that initial spark.)

This of course, is a very crude and incomplete tracing of my inspiration for The Adoration of Jenna Fox. Add in about another hundred or so micro-molding inspirations, and a healthy does of wondering and life experience, and that is the way a story goes. It evolves. Stories are organic—at least for me—and as I find the bones, flesh grows on them. Hair. Teeth. They surprise me. They take me in unexpected directions. And the chain of inspirations melt into one another and it becomes hard to explain one without explaining the next and they all seem necessary to convey how the story came to be.

I think that’s why inspiration can become such a loaded question for an author. It is daunting to separate that initial spark from all the inspirations it is now connected to and the flesh that has grown around it all.  Especially when some inspirations took you off in directions you never saw coming, and your story became a very different animal than you ever envisioned.

Of course, knowing the enormity of this question, won’t keep me from asking it the next time I have finished reading a book that I love.  I still want to know!  Where did that came fromWhat made you think of this part?   Tell me about your journey!  Even if the author can only share a few small bones at a time.

[Image of trilobite fossil from Flickr user Mr. T in DC, cc-licensed for commercial use.]

Mary E. Pearson is the author of five novels for teens, most recently, The Miles Between just out in September, and newly out in paperback, The Adoration of Jenna Fox which has been optioned by 20th Century Fox for a major motion picture and translated into thirteen languages, both from Henry Holt Books.


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