"Where do you get the ideas for your books?"
Nearly every reading or talk I give I hear that question, usually from someone with lots of ideas or someone searching for one. At the heart of the question beats the mystery of the creative process. Where does it come from? How do you get an idea for a story?
The most immediate answer is thatI daydream a lot. Let the mind wander where it will. No great skill involved but an openness to the wandering. Give yourself permission to imagine. After awhile, sometimes a great while, sometimes years, the wandering mind seizes upon an image that persists, an image that you cannot let go, an image that sticks.
In her book What It Is, Lynda Barry calls an image "the formless thing which gives things form," and she has a great deal to say about how memory and daydream help us conjure up those images. If you want to write, you should get your hands on What It Is. Unlike most creative writing books, it is filled with pictures, and they are probably more helpful than any advice I might give.
The persistent image gnaws at the subconscious mind. For my first book, The Stolen Child, it was the image of a young boy hiding in a hollow tree on a late summer day not wanting to be found. In Angels of Destruction, a girl in a threadbare coat kept knocking on a midnight door as the snow blew. For Centuries of June, the image is taken from a painting by Gustav Klimt, one of eight women jumbled together under colorful quilts on a bed. The image keeps beating on the brain until it forces you to act.
The Question of Craft
But at the same time, there is the question of craft. For nearly 40 years, I've been thinking about writing in one way or another. First, as a constant reader from childhood on, then as a student of literature, and finally as a professional speechwriter and communications director for the past 25 years. But most importantly as a novelist. Craft is as important as inspiration. As I had been daydreaming, I was casting about for a structure for a story.
One kind of story that always interested me was collections of tales — from Aesop's Fables to 1001 Arabian Nights to the The Canterbury Tales — stories with multiple narrators pose several creative challenges. Modern versions twist the narrative even further. James Joyce's Ulysses, for example, uses different literary styles and genres in each of its sections. Other modern novels experiment with multiple narrators from Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler... to Annie Proulx's Accordion Crimes.
I knew I wanted to try to write in the voices of multiple characters and somehow intertwine their stories into a single narrative, and I had this persistent image of those women under the colorful bedclothes, and there and then, I had a story. Now, only to write it...
Joining Image to Story
The fun begins at that moment. I began to think about what their stories might be and how those tales might be interwoven with this speculation on time, memory, and the American story. In the actual writing, all sorts of other notions shoehorn their way into the book — from Bachelard's Poetics of Space to the stateroom scene in the Marx Brothers' A Night at the Opera. The novel becomes a mosaic like the patterns in the Klimt painting.
Once I knew it was a mosaic, the novel became a collage of styles — folklore, shipwreck account, archives of historical documents, oral histories, the western, silent film, hard-boiled murder mystery, erotic fantasy, dreams, and allusions. It has a little bit of everything from baseball to vaudeville.
It comes from daydreams, persistent images, and a lifetime of reading and writing. That's what it is, and if you want to write, you must first find something to write with.
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Keith Donohue is an American novelist, the author of the national bestseller The Stolen Child and Angels of Destruction. He also has written reviews for the Washington Post. He lives in Maryland near Washington, DC.
Books mentioned in this post
Keith Donohue is the author of Centuries of June