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Spark, flicker, zap: Using catalysts to jump-start your fiction

How authors can best harness inspirational "sparks" and turn them into full-fledged works of fiction.

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Some fiction authors do little or no initial planning in advance of writing; they depend instead on their imagination, writing their way “into” a story or novel, discovering – without conscious deliberation – their characters, their plot, their whole fictional world. For them, drafting a story or novel is much like automatic writing.

They say they begin, basically, with nothing.

But do they?

“I don’t think it’s possible to begin with nothing in mind,” says Stephanie Dickinson, author of Flashlight Girls Run and The Emily Fables. “While we might face a blank screen or a blank page, our brains never are blank. We’re steeped in memory implants, interests, likes, dislikes, what we read, and our cultural moment.”

“I don’t believe for a single moment that any writer sits down beginning with nothing in mind at all,” says Sophie Perinot, an author of multiple historical novels. “They have a spark of some sort.”

Amanda Skenandore, author of Between Earth and Sky, states: “I’m not a ‘discovery writer,’ but I imagine all writers begin with something – an idea they’re itching to explore, the silhouette of a character they’re eager to flesh out, a nagging question they’re desperate to answer.”

Wherever you stand on this issue, at least we can all probably agree these “sparks,” or catalysts, buried in your subconscious and surfacing while writing are good. And, if you’re not depending entirely on discovery in at least some of your work, catalysts can be quite beneficial.

“When it comes to writing prompts, think of a dead, frozen car battery in the middle of winter: that’s my brain, lying inert between stories,” says David Abrams, author of Fobbit. “Now, grab a pair of jumper cables, open the hood, and clamp the metal jaws of those cables to the battery terminal. See the spark that leaps between the battery and the jumper cables with a flicker and a zap? That’s the catalyst that gets me onto the page. My stories are kindled by these sparks, these catalysts.”

What about you? What do catalysts do for your writing? Or: What more could they do?

 

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Writing from different catalysts

According to Abrams, “A story can come to me in a multitude of ways: from something I read in a book, or from a billboard I pass on the highway, or in the early-morning solitude of the shower when my mind is at its most open, ready-for-anything state.”

What are some other useful catalysts?

Naturally, one is memory – a staple starting place for many writers. Whether or not you’re writing autobiographical fiction, personal experiences can invigorate storytelling by making it specific and concrete. Perhaps certain memories have lingered in your conscious mind for years, or perhaps you have uncovered some valuable ones in different pre-writing activities, like brainstorming or freewriting. 

For Robert Garner McBrearty, author of three story collections and a novella, memories tend to be rather “fragmentary” – striking at times but mere starting points for stories, not complete storylines. To take them further, he must rely, as fiction writers must do, on his creative imagination.

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“Memory is a particularly rich source, though the memories usually spin around in my mind for quite a while, sometimes for years, as in a story, ‘A Morning Swim,’ that I recently published in The Missouri Review.” That story “was based on a real incident where I almost drowned, and I felt immense relief and gratitude when I arrived safely on shore.” But that was a scene, not a story. He needed to introduce other elements, ones that would create a plot with a beginning, middle, and end.

To do so, he fit his memory of near drowning into a completely different context: “In the story, I imagined the aftermath when the main character tells his wife about the incident but it leads, unexpectedly, to a devastating revelation about their relationship. I needed that element of surprise to make the story work.” But using the memory gave this story not only a palpable concreteness but also an interesting plot mechanism that resulted in a successful story.

Look for compelling figures from the past, ones you’re not familiar with. These rare finds that can spark a work that will truly grab readers.

Family memories are another fruitful source to draw on. Here memories are filtered through the voices and perspectives of others, enlarging the writer’s own life experiences. Certain family memories were useful for Ellen Marie Wiseman’s debut novel, The Plum Tree, catalyzed, in part, from her mother’s childhood experience of being hidden away in a bomb shelter in Germany during World War II, as were family stories about “what it was like on the German home front during that time.” Wiseman also came to the novel wanting to show “that being German during WWII didn’t make you a Nazi, that collective guilt as opposed to individual guilt is senseless, and that retrospective condemnation is easy.” And so family memories, together with her own beliefs, acted as a set of catalysts for this novel. Oftentimes it works this way: not just one catalyst but two or more combine to get a writer moving on a work.

If you’re into writing historical fiction, you’ll surely find plenty of catalysts in your research. Just be open to casting a wide net to collect as many as you can find. Look for compelling figures from the past, ones you’re not familiar with. These rare finds that can spark a work that will truly grab readers.

As Sophie Perinot, author of Médicis Daughter: A Novel of Marguerite de Valois; A Day of Fire: A Novel of Pompeii; and The Sister Queens, says, “I like to rediscover and share compelling individuals that history has either maligned or neglected. Quite often, I stumble on these characters in out-of-the-way places.” For example, she met the medieval sisters at the center of her novel The Sister Queens in a footnote in a research book on Notre-Dame de Paris. For her, this was a provocative find: “I was rankled by the fact that I’d never heard of either Marguerite or Eleanor of Provence, despite the fact they’d been queens of the two most powerful kingdoms of their era. I was stunned that these women had been largely forgotten in the telling of history, so I started a research file. It didn’t take me long to become convinced that theirs was a story worth telling, full of political influence, international adventure, and sisterhood.”

Details related to historical eras sometimes catch historical novelist Skenandore off guard: “‘Hey, I don’t remember learning about that in history class.’ Then I dig deeper, and characters and storylines emerge from the details I discover.” With her work in progress, her fascination with post-Civil War New Orleans merged with a seemingly unrelated idea after she read an article in The New Republic comparing modern and historical funerary customs. She states, “Though the practice of embalming had been around for centuries, it took hold in the United States during the Civil War because people wanted the bodies of their loved ones killed during battle sent home to be buried in the family plot. These two catalysts – Post-Civil War New Orleans and embalming – intertwined, and my story grew around an undertaker’s assistant in 1870s New Orleans.”

Websites dealing with significant historical issues can be particularly good fodder for research and imagination. Dickinson visited the Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America website, “where faded sepia snapshots capture image after image of hanging and mutilated bodies, mostly black males.” She was particularly galvanized by one picture: “Among them there is one female – a barefoot woman named Laura Clark hanging from a train trestle above a river. A searing image. I wanted to tell the story of someone like that barefoot woman who woke up one morning and put on a calico dress.” This grisly material became the basis for her story “A Lynching in Stereoscope,” published by African American Review and reprinted in the Best American Nonrequired Reading Series.

Newspaper articles have typically been a valuable resource for fiction writers of all stamps. Many writers store up clippings or save digital files for later use. Abrams’ second novel, Brave Deeds, stems from an article by David Finkel in a 2007 issue of the Washington Post. Finkel, says Abrams, “told of a nail-biting march across Baghdad by 27 soldiers from the 1st Infantry Division.” This newspaper account really got Abrams’ attention: “I was struck by the apparent simplicity of the mission (‘get 27 soldiers from Point A to Point B, from their neighborhood combat outpost to an Army base four miles away,’ as Finkel wrote) counterbalanced by its deadly nature – venturing into an area ‘twitching with daily gunfire, mortars, rockets, grenades and, most of all, roadside bombs, all targeting U.S. soldiers.’”

For Abrams, this article was worth keeping: “I saved that article and scribbled a note to myself in the margin: ‘There is definitely a story – if not a novel – in this.’” Eventually he was ready to write: “I re-read the Washington Post article, refreshed my memory, then plunged ahead into a story that in the end only vaguely resembled its real-life inspiration.”

Any article can prompt a story, but especially those that rise above the mundane. Watch for the surprising, the story-worthy: Will it grab a reader’s attention? Julie Kibler, author of Calling Me Home, was intrigued by an internet article on the 10 most haunted places in Arlington, Texas, where she had lived for more than 20 years. Her novel Home for Erring and Outcast Girls, to be published by Crown in 2019, originated in the last item in that article – “a tiny cemetery at the edge of the University of Texas at Arlington campus, on the former site of a home for ‘fallen women.’” This odd place sparked her imagination. But she wasn’t ready to write – not yet. Research, she knew, was the absolute next step: “I fell headfirst into a deep, dark hole of research for months and months before I even started writing.” It’s hard to say what the catalyst really was, says Kibler. The newspaper article got her going, “but the setting seems more like the real catalyst.” But more than either of these, “the stories of the girls I found in the archives clinched the deal. Real women with heartbreaking histories.”

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