I’ve talked about how we take our ideas and shape them, but I haven’t really talked about where these ideas come from. Yes, they come from influences, but I know that personally I can find inspiration just about anywhere. If I’m listening to a conversation on the radio and I hear interaction of a certain manner between two people, where I can sense the tension, that can set me off, asking the question of “What if one of these people was something else?” “What if one of these people was secretly a murderer?” That’s an extreme example, but it’s the kind of thing that my mind runs with.
The images start to pop up, and I try to figure out how to connect these images and bring the characters forward into those scenes. I think that gets back to what I was talking about before as far as our influences. The images that I see are very clearly influenced by the media that I’ve taken in over my lifetime. Someone else might see the same situation and, rather than an axe murderer scenario, wonder what it would look like for these two to get into a passionate relationship. They would get images of the two of them on the beach, or something like that. That is what I’m talking about when I say our influences shape what we create, and we are what we consume, creatively speaking.
Having realized that, I also realized that if there’s something that we want to create, we have to consume media similar to what we’re trying to create. As I’ve gotten farther and farther into this urban fantasy/sci-fi/slipstream/whatever genre it is this week genre that I’m writing in, I have tried to find authors who write works similar to what I want to write, to feed my brain with the imagery and tropes common to this genre.
I think that would be my #1 advice to any writer. If you want to be a Romance writer, read a ton of Romance novels. If you want to write Historical Fiction, pick up a bunch of Historical Fiction novels. Reading good works helps, but it’s not completely necessary, as even the bad works have something to teach. I have had to cut off some of those bad works early lest I start picking up bad habits.
This is advice that I’ve heard for a long time, especially back when I was starting, but it wasn’t until I truly understood the significance of consuming that imagery and synthesizing into what we create – and the effect that it can have on that process – that I really started to know why it was such a solid piece of advice. It’s kind of the same principle that says if you want to be a healthy person, you need to be surrounded by healthy people. Like it or not, we are social creatures, and our social situation influences us. We can’t help it. Yes, we have our own powers of agency, but when it comes to creating something that draws from the subconscious, it’s best to have the subconscious armed with the kind of things you want to create.
This makes me wonder about the stories I read where the writers don’t seem to be thematically or emotionally connected to what they’re creating. Are they taking in what they want to be working on? I found out that Nicholas Sparks made a conscious decision to fill the “male who writes lovey-dovey books” niche. I’d like to know if he read and does he read a lot of love stories? And what does that mean for how connected he is to what he’s writing? I know that some writers can write something that’s functionally very good, but has no emotional punch whatsoever, and it will sell. I wish I could do that, but I’m not like that. I already do it in technical writing. If I’m writing fiction, it really needs to come from the core of me.
That’s why I think it’s important to read what you love and use that as a template internally for what you really want to write. It’s the old maxim: know thyself, be thyself. That’s sort of the concept of what I’m saying here.
Here are some steps of more concrete advice about all of this:
- Make a list. Do some research and find out the best or most popular writers in your chosen genre and create a list of works that they have written which might interest you.
- Take notes. When you read the books, try to read them with the conscious mind. I’m not saying you have to take actual physical notes (though that helps), but definitely take notice of how the writer is executing and whether you think some of the things that he or she is doing are what you’d like to do. Opening scenes, in particular, are very important, and that’s something I’ll talk about soon.
- Be Aware. Notice how your personal influences shape what you create. Is it a good thing or a bad thing? Do you enjoy what it does for you? When you write to your influences do you feel more passionate about what you’re creating? For me, if I bring in something that’s influential to me, I know it can spark a scene that would otherwise be bland because I have a personal emotional connection to that concept.