18 February 2015

Finding your inspiration: what to write about?

By nonfictioness

As I sat on a train winding its way through the flat fields of East Anglia on my way to the British Library for a research trip I began thinking about what I write about and why.light-bulbx600

I realised that ever since I was young I had an inner monologue rumbling on, collating words and creating sentences to describe the world around me. Yet I rarely use this type of descriptive writing in my work, instead filing it away for some theoretical future project.

It made me consider how many writers get stuck in the creativity void. As writers what we want to write is beautiful soaring prose, but what pays the bills or gets the publishing deal is frequently not those flowery sentences but a truly great concept.

So although it is useful to flex your writing muscles, it is also good discipline to focus that creativity on finding a really great idea first.

The idea:

The advice that is most frequently given out to writers seeking inspiration is to write about what you know. That is because it is great advice – ignore this at your peril.

When selling a book idea the key questions to ask yourself are: who cares? So what? And why are you the best person to write this book? This approach can help you to find an idea.

Think carefully about the stories you have to tell, the knowledge you could pass on, or the quirky angle with which to tackle a hackneyed subject. By looking at ideas or starting points through this prism it will help you to find your own voice or a fresh approach.

That said I think this can be qualified. Much of my writing career has been based on writing about something I previously had no knowledge of. Sometimes having too much knowledge of a subject can make it hard to communicate with a beginner. But by coming at a subject from the position of a learner thorough research can help you to communicate its essence to the reader.

For example, Stef Penney set her wonderful novel The Tenderness of Wolves in Canada in 1860. At the time of her writing she was suffering from agoraphobia so never visited Canada herself, but created a great sense of time and place through extensive library research.

When searching for your inspiration think about not only what you know about but also what you are interested in, this may help you to find that elusive niche.

Say for example you are writing a novel but finding it hard to get it published perhaps think about other areas you know about. Perhaps your day job is in digital marketing and you have a lot of useful specialist knowledge that could make a valuable non-fiction book.

Perhaps you have an interest in local history, have travelled extensively or play an unusual musical instrument to a high standard? These passions could all be avenues to explore in the search for inspiration.

Reading widely is also a great way to find an idea. Whether reading through newspapers, blogs, Twitter, leaflets I always keep my eye out for an interesting fact or story that could grow into an idea.

My friend and former colleague Bess Lovejoy came up with a great book idea after finding a small news item in the Guardian about the artist Francis Bacon’s strange request to friends in the event of his death: ‘When I’m dead, put me in a plastic bag and throw me in the gutter.’

From there she researched and wrote a short item on the subject for Schott’s Almanac and realised there was a lot of scope to tell some great stories on the fate of famous bodies. The resulting book Rest in Pieces was published by Simon & Schuster in 2013.

Likewise I am constantly clipping out interesting articles or collecting nuggets of information that I think are worth exploring. When researching The Georgian Art of Gambling I began to think about how different life was in the Georgian era.

That led me to think about the skills that many people once knew (such as riding side saddle) that have now been lost, and it was this small idea that grew into my book How to Skin a Lion.

Be curious. Be interested. Listen, read, consume. Find your quirk, your niche, your expertise and you will find your idea.