This week’s post is the transcript of my introductory speech at Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival’s HULF Talk on Research & Inspiration last Saturday. held at the Bethesda Chapel, Hawkesbury Upton, Gloucestershire
As those of you who regular guests at the HULF Talks will know, I choose a different topic for each one, and this time I chose “Research and Inspiration”.
Research and inspiration are issues affecting all books and all authors, whether they are writers of fiction or non-fiction. It’s a phrase that trips off the tongue easily, like “chicken and egg”, and, like that proverbial pair, the order they arrive in is questionable.
Inspiration for a story can lead to research, and research can lead to a new story idea.
Before I introduce today’s first guest speaker, I’d like to set the context for the afternoon with a few of my own thoughts on these topics.
To get the ball rolling, because we’re in a place of worship, I thought we’d have a bit of fun with how the Bible has inspired book titles, although not necessarily the whole book. Can you name the author of each of these Biblically-inspired novels? (Answers are at the foot of this post.)
Kane and Abel
The Sun Also Rises
Go Set a Watchman
Moab is my Washpot
Can anyone think of any others?
The Bible, mythology, legend and history may be a source of inspiration and at least a starting point for story ideas.
But actually ideas are all around us, like CCTV and speed cameras, if only you’re on the lookout for them.
The best writers have an inbuilt alert system to story ideas. You read a news report on a crime and immediately you start working out the back story.
If you’re a writer, you tend to think, ‘Doesn’t everyone have this?’ But people often ask where I get my ideas, and are sometimes incredulous that I keep coming up with them.
My problem is not shortage of ideas but shortage of time/life to write all the ideas down and turn into stories – especially now that friends suggest starting points for stories, such as when I’m at bell ringing practice or choir practice at our parish church of St Mary, Hawkesbury. Yes, stories about bell ringing and church choirs are in the pipeline!
Should I be disconcerted that at bell ringing practice, people keep telling me different ways to murder people in a bell tower?
At risk of sounding pretentious, I confess these opening lines of a poem by Keats are often in my mind:
When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starred face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows with the magic hand of chance…
But if you’re an aspiring writer still wondering where to get ideas, here are my top tips:
- Read a newspaper
- Keep a scrapbook/ideas/commonplace book
- Ride on public transport
- Stand in a supermarket queue/trolleywatch or public car park
- Examine your hobbies and interests
- Go to a museum or art gallery
- Travel further afield
My favourite example of a writer finding inspiration is W H Auden‘s ekphrastic poem Muséee des Beaux Arts, written in 1938 after viewing Bruegel’s painting The Fall of Icarus – you can read it here on The Poetry Foundation’s website. (Not reproducing it here for copyright reasons, but huge thanks to Gerard Boyce for reading it so beautifully at the HULF Talk.)
More prosaically, my novelette The Clutch of Eggs, about the crime of collecting wild birds’ eggs, was inspired by a trip to the excellent Bristol City Museum’s exhibition about birds’ nests and birds’ eggs. My interest and knowledge was deepened by research, namely reading The Most Perfect Thing by Tim Birkhead, a fascinating book about birds’ eggs, and Birdwatching Watching by Alex Horne, about the habits of birdwatchers. Google was useful for highlighting historic cases of crimes to do with wild bird egg collecting.
While I was preparing for this HULF Talk, I also collected examples of other ways authors find inspiration, and was particularly taken with this trio’s very different approaches:
- Barbara Cartland used to pray the night before (listen to her interview by Dr Anthony Clare on BBC Sounds here)
- John Le Carré was quoted in The Times yesterday as saying “”His pursuit of women was a key to unlock his fiction,” states the biographer. John Le Carre himself said: “My infidelities produced in my life a duality and a tension that became almost a necessary drug for my writing… separate from the high literary calling… but integral to it…”
- Ray Bradbury made a list of nouns – The House, The Book etc – as starting points for numerous short stories, as described in his memoir, Zen in the Art of Writing
That latter approach is very trendy at the moment as bestselling author and previous HULF speaker Valerie Keogh knows, as bestselling author of thrillers with titles such as The Librarian and The Nurse
So, in summary, ideas are out there, all around us, all the time. Writers just develop the mindset to spot them, claim them and polish them up. It’s like the starting point of the metal detectorist. You just need the metal detector in your hand, and you need to be looking down and listening, ready to pick up those potential treasures, dust them off and give them a new shine…
If you haven’t already seen it – or even if you have – I highly recommend the television series, Detectorists.
NEXT WEEK: I’ll share a follow-up talk on Originality and Ideas – written for the HULF Talk but which I didn’t present on the day due to lack of time!
ANSWERS TO THE BOOK TITLE QUIZ
- Kane and Abel – Jeffrey Archer
- East of Eden – John Steinbeck
- The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway
- Vile Bodies – Evelyn Waugh
- Go Set a Watchman – Harper Lee
- Moab is my Washpot – Stephen Fry
For more Biblically-inspired book titles, and for the Bible reference to where they first appear, read this article in The Independent:
For more information about Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival and to book tickets for the next HULF Talk, a Christmas Special on Saturday 2nd December, visit HULF’s website at www.hulitfest.com.