How To Write A Book - Chapter One: Inspiration
“If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.” ― Toni Morrison
Despite the ambitious title of this article, I have absolutely no idea what I'm talking about.
Is this the face of authority?
For context I began my dubious, misguided dream of becoming an author at age ten. My Mom, possessed by some bizarre wisdom, read The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit to me the year before. That was immediately followed by the release of the film version of The Fellowship of the Ring. I wore out the VHS copy of that movie, which dates me in a lot of remarkable ways as both much too young and old at the same time.
I was carried swiftly away into the realm of Middle Earth and it was there that I found my calling. At first I would dubiously characterize what I was writing as Tolkien fan fiction, though I had no concept of what that was at the time. Hindsight is 20/20.
For the rest of my adolescence I struggled to find my voice. In the beginning it was simply throwing new labels onto old ideas. Later I began creating original plots that were not quite fleshed out enough to blossom into something. It was a frustrating decade. I was honestly disappointed with myself when I was not a published author by eighteen (I wanted to beat Christopher Paolini of Eragon fame by a year but c'est la vie). Looking back I'm glad that I did not make it that far. Writing is one of those talents that get infinitely better the more of life you have experienced and, though my teenage self would have refuted this, I had (and still have) much to learn.
The author at around the age she started to write.
So how did I turn ten years of struggle with nothing to show for it into a (approx) ninety chapter 100,000 word novel in two and half years? I wish I could say that it was by diligence or divine intervention but it was neither of those things.
It all began in the middle of a crossroads. A metaphorical one, though, not a literal one where I sell my soul to the devil and become a brilliant, blind, blues legend. My crossroads was an impulsive move to Minneapolis that I legitimized to my family by transferring into the University of Minnesota. I had taken a year off, changed majors twice, and just generally did not know what life possibly could have in store for me. On a whim I took "The Story of King Arthur" a course at the U of MN put on by the miraculous, the quirky, the generally under appreciated Professor Rebecca Krug. It was to fulfill, at the time, what would have been a generals course. Little did I know I was about to meet my destiny at 9AM every Tuesday and Thursday in the cold, grey lecture rooms of Rapson Hall.
The Author's infamous writing notebook.
I had always been intrigued by Arthurian Literature. Which, as a Tolkien fan, shouldn't be surprising. Tolkien was writing a mythology for Britain based largely on medieval texts and damn near plagiarized some Arthur related materials. But my knowledge of the myth was cursory at best. Over that semester I found myself immersed in something that I can only describe as the literary equivalent of "home". I devoured every text we were required to read. I became the Hermoine of that class, if you will, constantly raising my hand and offering my opinion, dominating discussions, and just general making a pretentious nerd out of myself. Arthur, Lancelot, Mordred, Guinevere...they had all captured my attentions like nothing since The Lord of the Rings. We read Sword at Sunset by Rosmary Sutcliff. A minimalist, eloquent book that set the King Arthur story not as fantasy, but as Historical Fiction. I felt the stir of something deep in the corners of my imagination.
I can't speak for all other writers, but when I'm feeling the beginnings of an idea it is like an itch I can't quite scratch. It lingers at the edges of my day to day, whispering to me. But it takes days, weeks, months sometimes for that whisper to become intelligible. I knew I needed to write about Arthur, but I did not know how to do it yet. Around this time I met someone who identified as non-binary who used they/them for their pronouns. Though I was already fairly educated on the fluidity of gender identity, making this friend inspired a character and the thought of a culture without gender construction. I've loved British history for most of my adolescence and into adulthood. I began to think about the Druids. How we know nothing, really, about their language, who they were, or their culture. They only left behind ominous stone circles and vague mysteries about their lives. At the edges of this hovered a female character who had been a part of my writings from the very beginning. I did not have a name for her yet, just a handful of unfinished stories. I knew she lived alone on a farm, I knew she met a mysterious stranger to begin her journey, but none of my previous attempts at creating a story around her had stuck.
Early concept art of Riona (by Maddy Haynes)
These four pieces: Arthurian Britain, Druids, A non-binary character, and young ostracized female protagonist - all hovered around each other in my thoughts. They danced in strange combinations. My muse was working overtime trying to figure out a way to tie all of these themes together. Finally, during a shift at a grocery store customer service desk, I scribbled down the first chapter on a piece of scrap paper (bless my supervisor who ignored this breach of conduct). The girl who had been haunting me for ten years became Riona. The non-binary character became Aidan, a Druid. I knew the setting was Arthurian Britain but I had no idea, yet, what their story was going to be. I titled it The Hawthorn Crown (yes, I had a working title before I had a plot, I warned you). Initially I was surprised at how easily the words came. The years I had spent toiling over the same stubborn narrative were nothing like this.
You hear authors say this all the time and, it's almost cliche at this point but that does not make it any less true. The characters told me the story, they wrote the beginning, I just filled in the stuff in between. As I wrote I flushed out the plot. I knew if I just kept writing scenes for these two characters it would work itself out and it did. I thought more about the history of British myth. What if Druid's were where we got the idea of Elves? What if they were simply another species that died out like the neanderthal? What if they did not observe gender? What if Guinevere was the daughter of a Pictish war lord? What if Merlin was really a Druid? Gradually themes and characters presented themselves to me. My love for the world of Arthur leaked onto almost every page. I peppered the text with characters and references to medieval text. I guess even in my firmest originality I cannot escape Tolkien's influence.
Every Old English text book is a long side-eye at Tolkien.
When I was around twelve years old I wrote Christopher Paolini and told him about how I had started writing my own book. He wrote back and gave me a piece of advice that I've held to ever since: "Write about what you love. Only then will it ring true." The first step for writing any book is an idea. You have to hold it gently. Let it take shape on its own. Don't force it. Let yourself explore all the nooks and crannies of that inspiration, even if some of them are silly, cliche, or inconceivable. Talk to someone. I can't count the number of times that I've been trying desperately to work out some plot point until, finally, I confide in someone only to find that if I had simply spoken it out loud I would have come to the solution that much sooner. Don't worry about whether your idea is original or exciting. This comic illustrates exactly what I'm talking about:
Books are as numerous and versatile as the people who read them. Someone out there is waiting for your story. All you have to do is have the courage to tell it.
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