From spark to story: How books get started

Where do stories come from?

Are writers inspired from deep within the unconscious psyche by forces beyond their control? Or are they compelled by external cues that resonate without invitation – unexpected and accidental?

As an editor, I’ve seen the muse arrive in surprising and mysterious ways. The creative spark, a blessed event to be sure, can arrive at any moment in time.

Whether the source is mundane or magical, the author fans the spark into a fully realized story.

From spark to finished story

I asked two authors about their original impulses and how they developed into the books that were ultimately published.

Kristen Tracy published Lost It (Simon and Schuster) in 2008. It was her first novel for young adults and is about a young girl who loses her virginity under a canoe. Kristen has a PhD in English, a MFA in Writing, a MA in Literature and has taught writing and literature at Brigham Young University and Stanford University. She also taught at Hawthorne High School in Los Angeles, publishing many more books for teens at S&S and tweens at Delacorte and Hyperion (Disney).

Neville Frankel recently published Bloodlines, a novel about the consequences of a love affair between a white married woman and a black member of the African National Congress during Nelson Mandela’s epic struggle against apartheid in the 1960s. Neville is a financial planner and wealth manager who was born in Johannesburg, South Africa and immigrated to Boston when he was 14.

What was the original spark, the inspiration for writing your book?

Kristen: When I started writing Lost It, the concept of the novel came first. I knew that I wanted to write a funny novel about a girl who loses her virginity. Did I know this event would happen underneath a canoe? No. I didn’t. This revelation came to me while working on the first chapter.

When I began writing the novel, the quirky voice came first. She essentially delivered a monologue that recapped the big event and the canoe was front and center. Once I had the voice, I was able to draft a first chapter, which became the framework for the rest of the novel.

Neville: In 2005, I read a book by Glenn Frankel, no relation to me, called Rivonia’s Children, a true-story of three white, middle-class South African families who struggled and suffered greatly in the fight against apartheid in the mid 1960s. This was my first discovery that there were white middle class families who had put themselves at risk by helping in the anti-apartheid movement.

Having left the country with my family in 1962 when I was fourteen, I had unresolved issues about my own history so writing the book became a way of taking back my past. I began to wonder what my life would have been like if I’d come from a family that had been involved in that kind of activity. And the book came out of that question.

How did you develop the spark into the story?

Kristen: At the time I was writing Lost It, my fiction mentor mentioned to me that first novels are often the most autobiographical. This surprised me, because I believed that all of the events and characters from my novel came from my imagination, not my own high school experience.

Now that a few years have passed since Lost It’s publication, I can see where my own autobiography played its part. The setting is entirely stolen from my upbringing, as well as the main character’s interest in wildlife (particularly bear) safety. I guess that’s what happens when you grow up near Yellowstone Park.

Neville: Well, having read Rivonia’s Children, I went back to South Africa for my first visit in almost 40 years and felt such a sense of optimism in the country – black and white people in stores, behind the counters and shopping together, all smiles and delighted to be a part of the new South Africa. That experience added to the compulsion to write the book by filling me with a sense of unbearable loss at the life I might have participated in.

So I started out by weaving my own family history into the book, including a protagonist who was a painter like me, and also felt he didn’t really belong anywhere, as did I. I used autobiographical elements of my identity, sense of loss, and the way individuals get caught up in big events that can determine the outcome of their lives.

But at the end of the day, I found that I had two completely different stories, that were way too complex to interweave and had to drop about 150 pages of that material, which I’m now writing as a second book.

______________

More examples from famous authors

Ron Rash’s spark: A mysterious visual image

Ron Rash, the best-selling poet, short story writer and novelist, had a vision of “a young woman pulling back some rhododendron leaves and seeing a bedraggled young man playing a beautiful silver flute.”

This vision eventually grew into his literary wartime mystery and romance, The Cove. Rash, a professor of Appalachian Cultural Studies at Western Carolina University wrote that ultimately he’s interested in how landscape affects a character’s psychology. “I would say, for me – in The Cove particularly – landscape is destiny.”

Margaret Mitchell’s spark: An idea for a great ending

Margaret Mitchell was recuperating from an auto accident in 1926 when she thought of the final moments of a story in which the heroine’s lover has just left forever saying, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” about where she goes or what she does, and the young woman thinks to herself, “I’ll go home. And I’ll think of some way to get him back. After all… tomorrow is another day.”

Then Mitchell went back to create a step-by-step story about the civil war and how it brought Scarlet O’Hara and Rhett Butler to that climactic scene in her epic story Gone With the Wind.

Herman Melville’s spark: An obsession with an irresistible true story

During 1841-1842, 24-year-old Herman Melville was serving as a seaman on a whaler when he met the son of Owen Chase, the first mate and one of eight survivors in the 1820 sinking of the Nantucket ship Essex after it was rammed by a large sperm whale. Chase’s son lent Melville a copy of his father’s out-of-print memoir called The Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex.

Melville spent the next ten years writing and researching his story, incorporating much of what he himself knew as a member of a whaler’s crew until it was published as Moby Dick in 1851.

Christopher Isherwood’s spark: An unforgettable woman

In 1931, a 27-year-old writer named Christopher Isherwood heard a singer perform at an underground club in Berlin. He didn’t think much of her voice but was very much taken with “her startling appearance, and her air of not caring a curse what people thought of her. Her fingernails were painted emerald green, a color unfortunately chosen, for it called attention to her hands, which were much stained by cigarette smoking and as dirty as a little girl’s. She was dark, her face was long and thin, powdered dead white.” Her name was Jean Ross.

Two years later, Isherwood wrote a short story based on the singer called Sally Bowles, the first of an incredible succession of stories, novels, plays, Broadway musicals and Hollywood films about a fictionalized Jean Ross that led ultimately to the blockbuster Cabaret.

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What about you?

What kick-started your idea for a book? Tell us about your spark and what happened next.

14 Responses to From spark to story: How books get started

  1. Carmen Anthony Fiore

    My novel about the races (black & white) in America and the Civil Rights movement came about by my witnessing a conversation in the office where I was working for the State of New Jersey’s Dept. of Transportation. I knew the black man well and I knew the older white woman secretary as well. And after their conversation ended and he had left the office, she remarked to me: “He doesn’t like being black.” I found the comment so interesting and so intriguing that I must have thought a lot about it, which must have triggered my subconscious mind to begin working on that very theme and feeling about one’s racial origin; because one day not long after that conversation with the secretary, the line “come save my black ass,” popped into my conscious mind. And, of course, being a part-time writer at that date in my life, I hurriedly wrote that line down in my notebook. And having been born and raised in an integrated neighborhood in Trenton, New Jersey, and having gone to an integrated school and having played with many black friends in my neighborhood, as well as having served in an integrated U.S. Army, and then worked as a social worker for the state of NJ, as well as later teaching sixth grade in an integrated school in Trenton, NJ, besides all the research I did eventually about the Civil Rights movement, it all gelled into an eventual novel titled SEARCHING. As for the line that I first wrote down, it ended up the final line of the novel with a minor change: it became “Hurry, Shar…come save my black ass.” I should point out that I did title the novel originally as THE MAN WHO STOPPED BEING BLACK, NEGRO OR COLORED. But I decided to change the title to SEARCHING when I finally got a publisher to publish it in a print edition in 2002. It is now available as an e-book from Amazon’s Kindle e-book reader store. So, I hoping it will have a long life in digital despite its short two-year life span in print. I also have used my professional social work experiences and my personal experiences with black people to publish two novels (in print), THE BARRIER and LITTLE OSCAR, which are now both available as e-books from Amazon’s Kindle bookstore. Once again print morphs into digital for a much longer literary life. Thankfully, writers no longer have to fear publishers who dump their work rather quickly if they don’t become best sellers. Digital has now leveled the playing field, so to speak. Our work will now get the time our books need to reach an audience. Commerce has its place in the publishing world, but at least now art has a chance to survive a longer longer.

  2. lydia

    Hi Alan,

    I was purusing blogs this a.m and came across yours (as always). I’ve been thinking about this question for the past few weeks as I am coming into another revision of my first attempt at a novel. I’m contemplating waiting a bit longer to pursue publication (for a more opportune moment) and making it nonfiction, as it is strongly autobiographical as you inferred. As you’ve recommended on this site in the past, I am working up my platform while I am writing and deciding. Short excerpts are posted on my blog. In answer to your other question the spark came from a request to write a short political piece about the loss of my significant other in Tibet. It has grown from there.

  3. Mary Russell

    My novel was born in 1962 and I wasn’t aware of it until 2011. In 1962 my uncle was murdered and the murder was never solved. At the time I was sixteen and busy with growing up and school and boys. In the 1980′s my older sister gave me eight letters. They were written by a women who knew my uncle and from the letters she was married to George and in love with my uncle who never married. In the letters she claimed she knew who murdered my uncle and why they did it. However, the police said she was nuts and didn’ know what she was talking about. The letters sent my on a two year research project that is now a fiction novel that I have written and am now working on rewriting. And I am leaning toward self publishing.

  4. Carmen Anthony Fiore

    Everything a writer experiences can be a spark for creativity. Writers have to be voyeurs, if they want to keep writing over a long period of time, even though their early work may be biographical, sooner or later he/she has to branch out beyond one’s self. We need grist for the “old” creative millstone, and it’s all around us on a daily basis.

  5. Alan Rinzler

    Carmen,

    I agree that everything one sees and experiences can inspire the creative process. Norman Mailer used to carry a little notebook and pop it out suddenly to make a notation when someone on the street or at a party said or did something he wanted to remember. I remember feeling honored when he told me something I said to him was worth writing down, but it might very well have been because it was naive or just plain dumb, I never knew.

    Nevertheless, I recommend a writer be discerning and highly selective. There’s no guarantee that something great happens just because we’re paying attention. Wait for something truly inspiring that resonates with surprising compulsion. Cull through the choices. Go ahead with only the very best ideas, and be willing to abandon them if it doesn’t begin to develop naturally.

  6. Carmen Anthony Fiore

    I agree, Alan, a writer can’t go chasing every idea “rainbow.” He/she does have to be discerning, and I think that will come naturally with time and experience as some of the notations in one’s notebook don’t pan out into a genius-type effort. But at least the drive will be there and panning for golden ideas will sprout the “big one” eventually. We writers must be innate optimists. Why else would we be so stubborn and continue writing in the face of rejection after rejection? It took twenty years of revisions on one particular novel of mine, after a multitude of rejections, before I got it accepted and published in print, and now it lives on as a digital e-book. Do I get an A for effort? or just a B+ for being stubborn and never giving up? I’ll take either one. P.S. Thanks, Alan, for providing your blog as a place for writers to exchange info, ideas, etc.; and a place to rant from time to time, which we all need as well.

  7. Mary Russell

    Carmen, By being a voyeur do you mean watching what is going on around you and recording it as soon as possible? I do carry a note book with me all the time. You never know when something you see or hear will become a spark for the next book. I have question for you. Do you think e-books are the way to go or a passing fad?

  8. Dawne Webber

    After a friend’s daughter informed me that she was going to have five wedding showers (not including the engagement party) and reading a bride’s memo to her bridesmaids stating that she basically owned them until her wedding was over, I was inspired to write a short story about a bride planning her wedding. The funny thing is that I have no recollection of my inspiration for the very unexpected ending, and it’s due to the twist ending that the story was accepted for publication in an upcoming anthology.

  9. Carmen Anthony Fiore

    I believe we should all carry a pen and notepad to record interesting people and conversations, etc, as soon as we see/hear them. Can’t depend on memory; there are just too many distractions these days. And I believe digital is the wave of the future in publishing that is already washing over us, so to speak. It’s not a fad. It makes sense. It’s practical. Once it became convenient to download books and everything else and not have to be hooked up to the Web/Internet, e-books took off. I still love print books, but we writers have to be realists. We can’t ignore the future coming down the pike at warp speed. I think print will be with us for a long time yet, which I sincerely hope it does remain with us during our lifetimes. But in the distant future, such as by the end of this century, it shouldn’t be shocking to anybody to see print go the way of the dinosaurs.

  10. Mary Russell

    Alan,

    What is the best advice you can give me as a yet unpublished writer?

  11. Alan Rinzler

    Mary,

    Self-publishing is often the best option available these days for an unpublished writer with no platform. Having read your comment here about your subject, my first piece of advice would be not to rewrite the book entirely on your own but rather consult a well qualified developmental editor to work with you on the focus, narrative structure, and literary style of the manuscript. It’s essential for a self-published book to have the highest professional standards in order to stand out among the many new titles from traditional and independent publishers.

    If you search my blog, you’ll find other posts with advice about finding a good editor.

    Secondly, commit yourself to self-marketing the book. Create a website, start blogging, build a social network that gradually becomes engaged in your compelling story and follows your pursuit of the truth about your uncle. Share free chapters of your book and have fun posting some of the letters from the mystery woman. You could also consider making a video for YouTube, recruiting virtual and conventional print and broadcast media, or whatever else you would enjoy.

    Good luck!

  12. Gloria Williams Lupo

    Friends of the Washington Parish Library, here in Louisiana, needed a funny story for our anthology of tales about our local rural community. So, I wrote about my experience in third grade when a new boy in class told me his puppies were cocker spaniels, although they had short straight hair and tiny ears. He said they were rare cocker spaniels whose hair would grow long and curly and whose ears would get long and floppy later. It was an outrageous lie, but I wanted to believe, so I took one of the puppies. Of course, he was a mutt who never changed, but he was a good dog who lived to a very old age. I titled my story “Jenny Maybelle and the Cocker Spaniel Who Needed a Perm” and later expanded it to a screenplay and a middle-grade novel with the same title. I self-published it and have presented it at libraries and schools. It has been fun but not profitable.

  13. Neville Frankel | Alan Rinzler: From Spark to Story - Neville Frankel

    [...] am absolutely THRILLED to be interviewed in a blog post by Alan Rinzler, renowned book editor and publishing insider. This brilliant editor worked with me on my [...]

  14. lily malone

    Hello Alan
    I always enjoy your posts. I did have a nice inspiration spark for my current story, now in the submission process. It’s a romance based on a guy and a girl who have noticed the same Ducati bike for sale in a front yard. Both want it and as the story starts, we’re about to see who gets it.
    The inspiration came from hubby. We were driving one afternoon when he nearly gave us all whiplash braking so hard to stop by the side of the road so he could check out a Ducati for sale. It made me think, what if two people wanted it… why might they want it, what would they do for it, etc etc.
    Cheers
    Lily Malone

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