Whenever someone learns I’m a writer, they’re always quick to offer suggestions on what I should be writing about. As if I’m ever at a loss for subject matter. In fact, I’m rarely lacking for story ideas. I’m more taxed by how to tell the story than what the story should be. I can’t think of a single writer who’s ever heard a story suggestion and leapt up proclaiming “Of course! Why didn’t I think of that?”
Even inspired stories take much work to bring into fruition. A muse only provides inspiration, not the nuts and bolts of how a story actually works. The writer still must frame out the tale, provide convincing details, craft realistic dialogue, and make tough choices on what to show and tell and, most importantly, what to leave out of each work. Often, the devil is in the details.
One morning, while walking in the woods at Stone Mountain, I tasked myself with the job of developing the back story on Claire Belmonte, a minor character from my play Rebecca Too. The background I came up with formed the basis for the story “Phoenix” in Fables of the New South, which became the main narrative of the play, Phoenix Rising: Christine that I adapted from Fables. When I started writing “Phoenix” I knew where the story needed to go, but still encountered problems, such as how to deal with the description of an assault on the main character, and the details of an investigation a teacher does into the main character’s life. In both situations, I found that less was more. Claire grew from a peripheral character defined by her relationship with someone else to a fully fleshed out and important figure in the universe I was creating and I have expanded on her story ever since.
This is not to say writers don’t get inspiration from outside sources. I’m influenced by the news, other fictional and non-fictional stories, artwork, poems, songs, and even snippets of conversations I hear around me. I have a collection of poetry written by contemporary poets that was used as a textbook in a class from my undergraduate studies and more than a few of the verses stuck with me and formed the rough outline of characters I’d like to develop. Inspired by a line in King Lear, Robert Browning wrote his epic poem, “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” which Stephen King read in college. It inspired him to write The Gunslinger, the first volume in his Dark Tower series, which became an inspiration for me in writing Worthy. Browning and King’s works are very different from one another and from mine, but that’s the nature of inspiration. There’s no telling where it will lead.
So, one shouldn’t be surprised if an author responds to a writing suggestion with a knowing smile and a quick dismissal. Most writers have enough stories in their heads to fill volumes if only they can figure out how to write them. Writers’ block often manifests itself not in a lack of ideas, but the execution of putting it all “on paper”. Still, it’s difficult to say what might inspire a writer, especially if research into a subject is necessary. On occasions, a well-timed suggestion is just the ticket.