Friday, November 14, 2014

Finding the Next Big Idea: Creative Inspiration for Historical Novelists

Where do the “big” creative ideas come from? As we all know, there isn’t a simple answer to this question. We all gather inspiration from different places. Maybe we find ideas from people watching or a dramatic report or scene on television. Perhaps you picked up on an archetype that fascinates you in a particular genre. Or maybe you are drawn to fascinating people from the past. If you are someone who falls into this latter category and loves to write all things historical, there are several productive ways to kickstart your imagination if you are struggling for an idea. (But these tips can work for any genre, really!)

One great place to look for inspiration is your own family tree. Even if you can only go back a generation or two, there are so many things you can learn that could lead to your next great idea. Simply finding a census with information about your great-grandparents (or, really anyone) can lead you to construct plot lines in your head. For example, when I was researching my family history, I discovered all kinds of stories, from tales of hardship on the frontier to conflicts between family members when they fought on opposing sides during the Civil War. Census records and historical documents also led me to a fifth-great-grandfather who came from Spain in the 1700s, settled in Pensacola, and worked as a surgeon for the Spanish army. Through searching a bit more through various books and newspaper articles, I discovered much about this man’s personal life (which was quite tumultuous), and suddenly I started to get to know this person a bit more in my head. Though I can’t learn everything about him, and though I wouldn’t necessarily use him as a character in a book, the details I discovered about his life definitely led to sparking my imagination about ways I could create other characters. But even if you can’t find out a lot of information about someone, the smallest details can be enough. Census records, obituaries, letters, photos, army records, family stories--all of these things can lead you down a creative path to discovering your next great character or plot.

Along the same lines, a trip to the antiques store can also help you if you are stuck in a rut. There are all kinds of fascinating things in antiques stores--old photos, letters, and magazines, just to name a few. Old photos are great visuals to help you start to imagine a story. What was going on in the subjects’ heads when the photo was taken? If it shows a couple, were they newly married? Do they look happy? What could have led to their marriage? What challenges had they faced in life? Every detail of the photo can lead to character formation. For example, how are they dressed? What is the background like? Are they wearing jewelry? What do their eyes tell you? Of course, a lot of this could be speculative, but that doesn’t matter. You are just fishing for inspiration! Another fun source for potential ideas is old books--especially if you find one with lots of marginalia. Each time I find a book with writing in it, I always wonder about the person who wrote the comments. What were they thinking? What provoked them to underline something or to write out something personal in the margins? Usually I end up creating some kind of plot line centered around a mysterious love affair--but you get the point.

Museums are also wonderful places to look for inspiration. Because I am part of a romance writer’s group in Alabama, I have to give a shout out to the new Museum of Alabama at the Alabama Department of Archives and History.  This place is amazing, and there are so many personal objects to see that remain as relics of fascinating stories. You can look at clothing worn by people over a century ago, study an authentic Civil War surgical kit (yikes!), view artifacts from the Industrial and Civil Rights eras, and discover many other things that all tell individual stories about someone. And you can find things like this in any museum, of course. The key is you have to be curious and not separate yourself from what is in the glass case--something that is all too easy to do when we go to museums! So, take your time. Slow down, and really try to imagine the person behind the object.

Imagination and finding the next big idea depends on curiosity, I think. Sometimes we need a little help with that aspect of the process, especially when “normal” life and day jobs and everyday concerns tend to take us away from the frame of mind that allows creative inspiration and curiosity. And though I have been discussing inspiration for historical romance/historical fiction authors in particular, these ideas can be useful for anyone. It is time to fire up your curiosity and get your imagination going! Most importantly, have fun! Just let your imagination run wild so that you can find your next big idea.

Susan Sierra is a historical and contemporary romance writer. She loves books and old letters, adores her dog and family, and has a deep and committed love affair with coffee. She spent time as an undergraduate studying (having fun) in Mexico, went on to work for a large regional magazine as a copyeditor, and then decided that she hadn’t tortured herself enough in she went to graduate school. After many years, she walked away with a PhD and an unhealthy relationship with Charles Dickens. She hopes to complete her first full-length novel in 2015.
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Louisa Cornell said...

What a wonderful post, Susan! And the information you discovered about your ancestors! What a treasure!

I write Regency romance and I have found inspiration in my books about stately homes and the families that lived in them.

I have hundreds of research books with little post its stuck in them each time I find a place, a person or an event that I want to use in a future work.

Carla Swafford said...

When I was a kid, I use to sit for hours looking through my mom's encyclopedias. I even have bought a set when my oldest was born. Of course, no one looks at them anymore, but I won't get rid of them. The books are like artwork with all the information inside.

The historical articles are still good. Well, 99% of them.

Anyway, the reason I mentioned them, they're the reason I fell in love with the middle ages. Knights! Fascinating! So many true life things happened that is unbelievable nowadays. Great inspiration (the books and the period).

Meda White said...

I love that you have so much of your family history preserved. That's so cool. I have a couple of family members who find out the neatest historical things about people and places because they love to talk. They'll visit an antique shop and strike up a conversation with the shopkeeper, the next thing you know, they've learned all kind of stuff, including we're related somehow. :D

Susan said...

Louisa, Thanks so much! I love genealogy, but I get so sucked in sometimes that I will end up spending hours searching for one tiny lead! I hadn't thought about looking through those books about houses. That is a great idea! Thanks for reading!

Susan said...

Carla, so true! I still have an encyclopedia set, too!

Susan said...

Meda, I've been lucky on one side of the family. The other sides are harder to research. I love going through anything old! I think that is great about finding family connections!

Cari Hislop said...

Love your post! Its so true! Family history is like opening up a grab bag, you never know what you'll find. I've ended up weaving family stories into my stories, but not directly. Truth is almost always stranger than fiction (which is why I love reading biographies). It turns out I have two separate family lines that trace back to this one tiny non-descript village about ten miles South of London (England). One of the lines was in Georgia a short time and then headed to the West. The other line came over early and ended up in Canada. Strangely, I know two unrelated English people who've lived in that particular village (even though I live a hundred + miles North of London). Weird! The village has had some strange happenings in real life so in my Regency world it's become this village full of weird people and odd happenings. I've started a story set there - had too! I love family history!!! Nothing brings history alive like knowing you were related to named people who actually suffered or experienced those events.

Callie James said...

Fascinating post! Loved it. Looking up my family's history is one of those things that if I ever get the time ...

But not today.

Thanks for sharing!