We’ve all been asked the question lots of times, but recently I’ve been giving it actual thought. Where DO ideas come from?
Just about every guide to writing, panel discussion, or advice at the bar eventually comes down to “Make sure you use all the five senses in your scene. Not just what your character sees, but what she smells, hears, feels. The spicy scent of lemons on a Tuscany hillside, the feel of the coarse grains of sea salt as she rubs it into a roast. The faint toll of the warning bell from a distant lighthouse.
We all know this about our writing, and sometimes we remember to use those senses.
But today I’m thinking about us, the authors. Do we remember to use our own five senses? Can ideas grow from a sound? A smell? A touch? Do they spring half formed from your subconscious?
And this is the “when you least expect it” comes in. At least for me. When I’m having trouble with a plot or a beginning or an ending. Or a character’s motivation . . . it isn’t usually because I’ve run out of ideas. It’s because I’m only thinking with half my senses.
I was in the hospital recently for minor surgery. I had to stay overnight. I needed to get work done. I was not happy. But I was also drugged. I was vaguely aware of people coming and going. But not much else.
Then in my foggy state I heard a distant tune. Elusive. Recognizable. Brahms lullaby. If I had been on my mettle I would have realized what it meant. Especially when I heard it play again sometime later. Every time a baby was born in this hospital, they play the lullaby. It must not have been a busy night because I only heard it twice or maybe three times (and I suppose it could drive you crazy if there was a rush on deliveries.) But this melody, distant sounding and emerging from the fog, made me start thinking about themes. Especially secondary themes, those quiet ones, the ones that envelope the reader without beating them over the head. The ones that I as a writer know I sometimes miss.
Sometimes we are so busy hammering out a perfect pitch, a grab ‘em hook, the highest concept, I wonder how much we miss. That night in the hospital with my brain relaxed, that melody was like a subtle elusive secondary thread, leading and calling and weaving itself into a story without fanfare. Close or far away, but always returning.
Secondary themes should weave though our narrative’s seamlessly, like that elusive tune. It’s what I think gives a story depth, texture, a sense of mystery or wonder.
Will I ever use Brahms Lullaby as a theme or motif in a story? Maybe, maybe not. But more important it reminded me that in the frenzy of writing, publishing, marketing, publicizing, book tours and blog tours, and the unrelenting word count, it’s easy to miss an idea coming your way. Thank goodness for that small quiet place that is the receptor. And which refuses to be filled up or shut up even when we’re not paying attention.
You can’t push the mountain . . . or an idea.
A few weeks ago I was down the shore with a friend and colleague. I’ve been looking for a new apartment and wanted to get a place closer to the beach. I was having a good time, but in the back of my mind, I was thinking about how I needed to find an apartment so I could really spend my time writing my next novel. I had turned in my 2014 women’s fiction novel a couple of weeks before, but I’d promised myself not to take too much time off, like I did last year and had to blitz toward two deadlines.
I had spent the past couple of weeks trying hard to force an idea for the 2015 story. And we all now how that goes. The harder I thought, the more I internalized, and the more times I followed paths that invariably led to a dead end, the more frustrated I got.
And that’s where I was on my visit down the shore. Enjoying but not really seeing or listening or feeling, as part of my mind was stuck in the why can’t I get this right stage of writing.
We’d had dinner and were walking along the boardwalk, and my friend says, “See that old building over on the pier?”
I came out of my preoccupation to look at the weather beaten structure, listing to the left with its windows boarded over. It had somehow survived Sandy, but barely.
She said, “I used to work there every summer. All the kids did through high school and college. There was a hotel right across the street where the college kids stayed. And if you couldn’t go home, or your parents threw you out, the head waitress always took you in and gave you a place to stay.”
I stopped, mid stride, and just looked at her. Because there was my story. Lurking in the old boarded-over restaurant and the hotel that was no more. I’d walked down that boardwalk many times before. Never paid too much attention to the old restaurant. Didn’t even know there had been a hotel. I saw it all in one momentary flash.
I turned to her and said. “That’s my next story.”
Really? You’re saying. Just like that? And it was somebody else’s idea.
Well, I still don’t have a plot. The characters are only beginning to morph into ‘real’ people. I have no idea what has brought these women back to the shore, or if they even come back to this beach town. But I think they will, because that deserted restaurant and torn-down hotel are a powerful, lingering, tenacious image in my mind.
I almost missed it.
It was my friend’s memory, not mine. But I so it so clearly that I knew I had to explore it. I could have walked right past. She might have been thinking about her own wiring and not mentioned it. We might have had dinner at a different restaurant, or walked on a different boardwalk. Maybe there would have been a story there, too. If I had been paying attention.
I know ideas come when you least expect them. I wish I could just remember that.
Ever find yourself trying too hard instead of letting the inspiration find you?
Shelly Noble is the NEW YORK TIMES Bestselling Author of the women’s fiction novel BEACH COLORS, a #1 Nook bestseller, STARGAZEY POINT (July 2013) three novellas, Holidays at Crescent Cove and Stargazey Nights, and the upcoming novel Breakwater Bay.
As SHELLEY FREYDONT she is the author of the Liv Montgomery, CELEBRATION BAY FESTIVAL MYSTERIES (Berkley Prime Crime). Foul Play at the Fair, Silent Knife, and Cold Turkey as well at the Katie McDonald and Lindy Haggerty mystery series.
She has written several romance novels under the pseudonym Gemma Bruce. Her novella Bah Humbug, Baby appeared in a USA Today bestselling anthology.
A former professional dancer and choreographer, she most recently worked on the films, Mona Lisa Smile and The Game Plan. Shelley lives near the New Jersey shore where she loves to discover new beaches and indulge her passion for lighthouses and vintage carousels.
For more about Shelley, please visit her websites www.shelleynoble.com & www.shelleyfreydont.com.
Devastated by tragedy during her last project, documentarist Abbie Sinclair seeks refuge with three octogenarian siblings, Millie, Marnie and Beau Crispin, who live in a looming plantation house at the edge of the world—Stargazey Point.
Once a popular South Carolina family beach resort, the Point’s beaches have eroded, businesses have closed, and skyrocketing taxes are driving the locals away. Stargazey Point, like Abbie, is fighting to survive.
Abbie thinks she has nothing left to give, but slowly she’s drawn into the lives of the people around her: the Crispin siblings, with their own secret fears, Cabot Reynolds, who left his work as an industrial architect to refurbish his uncle’s antique carousel in hopes of breathing new life into his childhood sanctuary. Ervina, an old Gullah wise woman, who can guide Abbie to a new life and her true self, if only she’ll let her. And a motley crew of children whom Abbie can’t ignore.
She came for a safe haven but receives much more. Stargazey Point is magic place—a place for dreamers. It is also a place that can lead you home.