We writers write to express ourselves, to share an idea, to inspire – to give a glimpse of another life. We write to take people on a journey that they might never take in reality; journeys to places they might never see, in a time or a world they may never inhabit or discover. But, if it’s written well, our readers feel they have been there, maybe have lived that life, fulfilled that ambition – vicariously.
After finishing a good book, readers know more about that distant place or country, that time in history – or even the fictional future. Our audience has had the opportunity to have learned something new about people, their work, their pursuits and more about the world – vicariously.
Reading books is a way we ‘meet’ new people that we would normally never get to encounter and the chance to have wonderful, or perhaps scary, or even exotic, or romantic adventures, without ever leaving our armchair or couch.
Within these stories, the writer skillfully creates characters and plot lines that touch on parts of our own personal qualities and idiosyncrasies that we, as the reader, can identify or empathize with. Or perhaps the characters brought to life are those we recognize as someone we know or have met along the way.
The books that readers immerse themselves in are a wonderful escape from the humdrum and the stress of everyday living. They broaden our horizons and sometimes inspire people to make changes in their lives, to try something different or find a new perspective.
Inspire: there’s that word again. So, what inspires us writers to spend such long hours composing in our notebooks or wrestling with words on our computers?
Writers – Where do you find your inspiration when you’re stuck?
For me – music often inspires me. As I’m driving or when I’m washing the dishes or cleaning up, and I hear a particular song or piece of music, a story idea often pops into my mind. I find the inspiration for maybe a new twist on something I am writing. Sometimes it’s simply the title – often, the lyrics – and the music brings it all together. Songs can inspire perhaps a new character to solve a plot problem or a change of scenery that will move my story along.
The lyrics of some of our classic songs tell a story. When you think about it, just as poets have that special skill to say so much in a few (usually rhyming) words, so lyricists have a special gift of creating characters and a scenario, which they edit down to just a handful of words that say so much. Those carefully chosen simple words meld seamlessly with the melody and can touch on a story that we novelists can fill in, color, investigate, enlarge upon. We can be inspired to creat a whole world around a brief stanza that we then nurture into many thousands of words of a completed novel. That is our writer’s talent.
As a scribe, we can change the names and places, (to protect the innocent and the copyright!) but the plot line in some songs is already set out. So, when you’re stuck for what to write next, think of, say, the Beatles song Eleanor Rigby. What a poignant story for us creative minds to fill in the gaps. Or the dark storyline in Mack The Knife. Johnny Mercer’s Moon River is a more whimsical tale of “Two drifters off to see the world…” And how about Cole Porter’s 1934 facetious tale of the hanging of a society woman after she murders her unfaithful lover – the song made famous by Ethel Waters and later Ella Fitzgerald: Miss Otis Regrets, she’s unable to lunch today?
Take George Gershwin’s An American in Paris – inspired by his time in the City of Lights in the 1920s. Apart from the lush musical score, what story could that simple title inspire? Glenn Campbell’s Wichita Lineman, “I am a lineman for the county, and I drive the main roads…” could be the start of an intriguing tale. Barry Manilow wrote about showgirl Lola’s ambitions stymied by a jealous admirer in his disco hit Copacabana: there’s a tale ripe for embellishment.
What about Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Memory from his musical Cats, based on T.S. Elliott’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats? Or Elaine Stritch’s signature song, Here’s To The Ladies Who Lunch, from Stephen Sondheim’s musical Company. Perhaps a more whimsical tale could be based on Antonio Carlos Jobim’s Girl from Ipanema. You get the idea.
Today, even traditional world-famous book titles can inspire us. I notice that some of the new books now use old and borrowed titles anyway. When authors had worried about their ideas being stolen, someone pointed out that if ten writers were given the same assignment, their styles and experience would be so varied that the ten books would turn out to be totally different.
And so I pondered: what if we wrote our own version, inspired by just the title, of A Tale of Two Cities, The Man Who Came to Dinner, A Caribbean Mystery or Witness for the Prosecution? The results would be as varied, as creative and fascinating as befits our own individual talents. Some scribes’ version would be a romantic comedy, or a hardboiled noir, others would produce a thriller, a cozy or a charming escapade.
Today I see inspiration everywhere – and am frankly open to ‘borrowing from the best’ when I get stuck. I like to channel their inspiration. I enjoy any way I can to write and to perpetuate writing for all of us. To paraphrase Pinocchio’s chanson – “Hi-diddle-dee-dee – A writer’s life for me….