Wednesday, July 28, 2010


So, what inspires the story teller? Why do we put pen to paper (a phrase that may go the way of the Dodo in a not too distant future)? Personally, I write stories because I feel guilty not using one of the few unique talents I have. But, I also write because I enjoy the process.

    Inspiration has come to me in many forms. I first started writing when I was in eighth grade. I wrote my version of "Red Dawn" based in my hometown. In it, my school is invaded by the Russians (who, by that time, were in the process of totally ruining my plot by becoming our "friends") and the main character is left alone in an abandoned town, where he happens to find a Corvette with keys in it, which he then drives to the nearest military base (we all have one nearby, right?) and finds a state-of-the-art helicopter with an instruction manual on the seat. Horribly cliché and unbelievable? Yes. But, just thinking about it now, I can remember the excitement with which I initially approached the idea. I was a bored high school kid who wanted something to happen to him. It never did. So, I turned out my fantasy onto the page. Who cares that I didn't finish it…it was, after all, pretty much crap. That isn't the point. The point is that I was able to write an escape. The sad part is that I didn't pick up writing again for another six or seven years. And it would be several more years before I wrote anything substantial (in length) again.
    When I started writing short fiction, I loved nothing better than setting up for a twist ending. I had a very Hitchcockian ending to each story. I enjoyed building up the lie only to have it exposed at the last possible moment (you had me fooled, you sneaky sneaky writer you!). My early inspirations were two extremely different authors: Stephen King and J.R.R. Tolkien. I loved the gruesomeness of King and it was the first time I had seen curse words in print (they can publish that?...yes, I was [and sometimes still am] a naïve young lad). I also loved the depth of Tolkien. He created this sprawling world of magic and monsters that you could lose yourself in. I mean, the man created his own language for cryin' out loud! Later, I became fairly obsessed with Tom Clancy and Clive Cussler (Tom Clancy lite). Clancy was like ready an operations manual .He had so many details about crap no one cared about, and yet here he was, writing political thriller tomes. Cussler had a charismatic character (James Bond lite?) that propelled his novels. Dirk Pitt got shot in almost every book, which means his enemies really needed some target practice.
    My next inspiration came from a place my wife and I visited while we were dating. We used to just drive around and find places to go hiking. Lo and behold, we stumbled upon this trail up near Walpack that led to what must have been a camp of some sort at one time or another. We walked around this large pond and you could see the remnants of foundations and such. My mind played with the idea that it had once been a colony where "special" people were kept. I wrote a story about two hikers who stumble into this place in the middle of the night. The one ends up sacrificed in some gory fashion and the other is left to think about it. I had big plans for that story, but it never took hold once I'd written about 40 pages.
    The novel I finished last year was inspired by a single scene that played out in my mind, of a young man, living alone in the house he grew up in roused from sleep by someone calling his name on the first floor. The idea gave me the chills and I thought, if I'm getting this sort of emotional response, I should try and write it out. And so I started asking questions. Why is he alone? Who's the guy at the bottom of the stairs? What does he want? Eventually, I wrote a whole book on the answers to those questions. All from that one little scene.
    I used to stop myself from writing when I didn’t know the subject matter. You may have heard the mantra, "Write what you know." Well, don't take that too much to heart. I know nothing about killing someone. Doesn't mean I can't write a thriller that's got a dead body every other chapter. I mean, you'll never see a Tom Clancy or Dan Brown come from me. I'm just not that interested in all of those types of details. I don't know military strategy nor do I wish to. What I do know is people. And who doesn't? As writers, that's usually our primary subject (unless your writing your own Animal Farm or Charlotte's Web…but, personifying animals is really just writing about people, but I digress). So, then, yes…write what you know. And, if you don't think you know enough…well, then learn. My finished novel includes a doctor who's a geneticist. I knew nothing (or next to nothing) about genetics before I wrote the book. But, the fact is, he doesn't go around spouting facts every other sentence. There's essentially one scene where I had to scrounge up some lines with regards to genetics. I made him say just enough to be believable in his role.
    So, what does this all mean? Well, for me, it shows me that I'm inspired by a broad range of things; other writers, movies, places I've been, daydreams, ummm…night dreams, I guess. For me, inspiration is all around. I've often had people say, "Oh, that'll be something you can use in a book." Well, yes…and no. Art often imitates life, but no one wants to see the carbon copy. I've met many people I refer to as "Cartoon Characters." People so over the top that you think perhaps they were drawn into being. I would never dream of making them into characters. For one thing, they'd probably figure it out and I'd get sued for millions that I don't have. For another, cartoon characters don't inspire me. There's nothing interesting about the overt for me. It's a cover, and I should know. I used to play that card all the time (if I make the most noise, I won't notice the laughter around me). What interests me are the quiet people and what happens to them when things stop being quiet around them. I love nothing better than to throw a regular guy into an extraordinary situation. Probably because I see myself as that regular guy. Nothing fancy. Can't start a fire without a match, but never had to either.
    I hope that this little self-centered diatribe on inspiration was interesting. To hope that it was inspiring assumes way too much. I'd like to think that if you have difficulty finding inspiration, this might open your mind to the possibilities. Inspiration lies in many forms. It doesn't have to be a journey of biblical proportions. It can be something small like a seed that you nurture and care about that grows into this fantastic blossoming tree in your mind (no evergreens…needles can poke your brain). Anyway, go out, be inspired, write until you cry, get chills, fall on the floor laughing, or just smile, knowing that you've let the inspiration out onto the page.


  1. You write out of guilt? Must be a Catholic.

  2. Take a look at the classic authors, stories that have stood the test of time, they're all character studies: Dickens, Austin, Twain, Shakespeare. They're all students of human nature which is constant. People are proud, ridiculous, greedy, kind, selfish and loving. How you take all of these ingredients and mix them together is what will make your "soup" good or something Gordon Ramsey will say "What the @&%#@!!!"

  3. @Anon - Haha! Good call...but, the more correct phrase would be "have been." I no longer profess faith in a man-made church. But, guilt's a hard stain to wash out.

    @Carolyn - To be but an eighth of any of those authors would be a dream.