But if All it Takes is Inspiration*

WriteratWorkBut the thing is, that’s not all it takes, at least not if you want to write a decent story. If you came here expecting to read one of my usual crime-fictional posts, sorry to disappoint you. This is going to be more about writing, including my own. So if that’s not what you were hoping for, please go on to the next blog on your round, and come back tomorrow.

Still here? Thanks. An interesting comment from Carol Balawyder has got me thinking about the connection between the scenes, characters and so on that make a story memorable, and the inspiration and ideas behind them. Part of what makes a story unforgettable is that in some way, the character, the plot, the setting or something else becomes very real. So real that you feel you know the characters, have been to the setting, and so on.

The question is, how does the writer create a story that has that effect? Well, I’m only one writer. But for me, the best writing starts with an inspiration – an idea that one gets from any one of dozens of sources. An experience, a story someone’s told, people-watching, particular scenery, all of it can inspire. It’s a matter of paying attention and letting something resonate. Agatha Christie’s fictional mystery novelist Mrs. Oliver gets inspired by watching a woman in a bus. And another of her fictional novelists Mr. Clancy (from Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air) gets an inspiration from the name above a shop.

Inspiration spurs the writer (well, this writer anyway) to put a story together, at least in outline form. And it’s a real ‘rush’ as the words start flowing. Trust me, there’s not much like it.

But then comes the work. The actual writing. Getting some of the story done every day, whether you want to or not, whether you’re feeling positive or not, whether you… well you get the idea. And that’s where the writer (again, at least this writer) learns whether that inspiration was really the seed of a good story or not. If the inspiration is still there after the umpteenth time you’ve re-written the same scene, it’s a good idea for a story. If it’s still there after a couple of months of re-naming characters, adding in plot threads, taking those same plot threads out again, and everything else that’s involved in making a story better, it’s a good idea,

And that, really, is the answer to how an author can make you laugh, cry, remember a character years later, and reflect on a scene in a story weeks after you’ve read it. It’s not magic. It’s taking that inspiration, letting it flow, and using it to drive the not-so-exciting parts of writing. Fellow writers, what do you think about this? I’d love your thoughts on it.

So, why am I going on about inspiration and writing? In part it’s because of Carol’s comment. But in part it’s because someone asked me recently for an update on how my writing is going these days. So here goes. My third Joel Williams novel is in the hands of a publisher and I’m awaiting news on whether it will be a go or not. My fourth one is in the hard drive/cloud in the revision phase.

In the meantime, I’ve been inspired (you can’t always tell when that will happen!) for another novel. This time it’s not a Joel Williams novel. For the moment it’s a standalone, but who knows what time will bring? I’m excited about it and still inspired after several weeks of working on it. So I think it’s a good idea. Want a sneak peek? Here’s a scene between two witnesses to something. Remember, this is a draft, so anything could happen:


‘‘Did you just see that?’ Terri asked.
‘What, the guy in the Infiniti?’
‘Yeah. What the hell was that about? He was driving crazy! He just cut you off!’
‘I don’t know. Whatever. He’s pulled over now. Maybe he’s drunk or something.’
‘This early? Maybe we should call someone. What if something’s wrong?’
‘Who are we supposed to call? The cops? He’ll wake up feeling like an idiot and then lose his license or something. Maybe he’s just asleep.’
‘What if he’s hurt? What if he needs an ambulance?’
‘Damn it, Terri, you know I don’t have my license yet. As it is we’re not in school. If I get caught with Dad’s car, we’re both f***ed.’
‘Oh, Christ, Shawn, pull over and call the damned cops! Say it’s an anonymous caller. Whatever. Just stop being such a baby!’
‘Fine! Next parking lot. Just shut up a second and let me think.’
‘Look, there’s the drugstore. Pull over there.’
Shawn nodded and pulled into the drugstore’s parking lot. He stared out the window while Terri called 9-1-1 and then he lit up a cigarette while she told the dispatcher what she’d seen. Yes, the car was pulled over. No, it wasn’t in the middle of the road. Some kind of black car. An Infiniti, she thought. No, she didn’t know the driver. She had no idea of the address. Yeah, on Lancaster Avenue. The Meridian Bank parking lot. No, that was really all she knew. No, she didn’t want to give her name. Finally she got off the phone.
‘You done now? Can we just get out of here?’


So, now that I’ve had that inspiration, I’m doing the not-so exciting things. The actual writing, re-figuring, shaping-up-the-plot things. It’s tiring and not always fun. But that’s OK. It’s what I do. And it’s the way to go from a sparkling inspiration to an actual story.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must get back to making memories, 1k-1,2k words at a time…


ps  Want more on inspiration? Check out crime writer D.S. Nelson’s blog feature Where Inspiration Lies every Wedensday. Want more about the writing process? One great source is crime writer Rebecca Bradley’s  feature What’s Your First Draft Like, where authors share how they go about writing that first draft.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Get it Right the First Time.


Filed under Agatha Christie

24 responses to “But if All it Takes is Inspiration*

  1. That sounds like a lot of hard work, Margot. Not that I ever thought it was easy. Glad to hear about the progress on the Joel Williams series, and that you are beginning another novel. That excerpt looks interesting. Eager to see where it goes.

    • Thanks, Tracy – Glad you liked the little peek. I’m actually liking this (except on days when I hate it 😉 ). That’s the way it is with writing. It is hard, but honestly, I couldn’t imagine not writing.

  2. Hey Margot. Thanks for the shout out! Love the snippet of your story. Gets you wondering who the characters are and who that guy in the car might be. Good luck with the publisher! Maybe one day I’ll be brave enough to send something to an agent. For now I’ll persevere with Blake’s mysteries 🙂

    • D.S. – Oh, it’s my pleasure to plug your excellent blog. And thanks for the kind words about the ‘sneak peek.’ Glad you liked it. Thanks for the good wishes, too; we’ll just have to wait to see what the publisher says. Personally, I’d love to see your work get picked up by a ‘big name.’ You have talent, my friend. I know. Blake told me. 🙂

      • That’s very kind thank you. I love writing Blake and I love the whole process (most of the time). I’m going to release model for murder myself and see how the full length novel goes down, try to build an audience and then see if I can get an agent interested. These things always take time 🙂

        • D.S. – They do indeed. And I think it’s wise of you to build an audience and an online presence as you go. That’s something I wish I’d known when I started my first novel. Well, lessons learned…

  3. Good luck with the next Joel Williams and I do like the sound of inspiration for the next novel! I just wish your books were easier (and less expensive) to find over here, because they sound just like my kind of thing (academic environment & sleuth).
    But I do know what you mean about the days when you feel the story is going nowhere and you are losing track of that moment of inspiration. Perhaps it makes sense to write books faster, like Simenon. I’ve been mulling so long over my current one, that I feel I’ve completely lost the will to live…

    • Marina Sofia – Thanks for the good wishes. And I’m glad you liked what you read. I think we all have those days when the story isn’t going anywhere. They can be awfully disheartening and can really sap your strength. That’s where the ‘endurance race’ part of writing comes in – working on a project every day no matter how disheartened you are. I know that’s how it works for me. Sticking with it even on THOSE DAYS is one of the toughest things about writing in my opinion.

  4. A lot of ideas come to my from incidents my friends tell me about. Some of them I feel I can use but a lot I sadly leave behind.

    • Patti – I’ve had that happen too. I’ve also deliberately chosen not to write about things people have told me. That’s usually happened when I’ve been asked to keep something confidential, or when I’ve felt that it would be too hard on the person who told me a particular story.

  5. Wow, Margot, you’ve been really productive writing. I really liked the pace of the excerpt and great dialogue.
    “I can’t explain inspiration. A writer is either compelled to write or not. And if I waited for inspiration I wouldn’t really be a writer.”
    (Toni Morrison, quoted in Time magazine, January 21, 1998).
    Sure, there’s nothing like that inspirational rush. It’s like falling in love and only a fool doesn’t expect the rush to fade. The trick is to keep it nourished and that takes work. So, good luck in all your projects.
    Thanks for the reference to my blog. 🙂

    • Carol – Thanks for the good wishes, and it’s my pleasure to mention your blog. Thanks too for sharing that excellent Toni Morrison quote. As you (and she) say, inspiration is wonderful. It gives us energy and motivation. But the real work of writing is channeling that inspiration and using it to keep you going over the long haul, so to speak. You have to need to do that to write a good story I think.

  6. Good luck with the manuscripts, Margot. I loved switching from the series to a standalone, and may write mostly standalones in the future. It’s to hard to corral all my crazy ideas and mold them into a Sylvia and WIllie story. Giving them free rein (so to speak) is more fun.

    • Thanks, Pat. It’s interesting how standalones can allow the writer to explore all sorts of themes, plots and character ideas. In a way, series do limit one. Still, I do richly enjoy writing my Joel Williams series, and I’m planning to continue with it, depending on what I hear from the publisher. We shall see. In the meantime, I hope we’ll see another Sylvia and Willie story at some point. I like them.

  7. Col

    Interesting snippet, I’d want to read on…….overall writing does seem a lot like hard work, happy to be a reader!

  8. A standalone? *excited*

  9. Really liked your inspirational snippet. It’s days like that when you realise why you love being a writer! And it makes up for those other days when nothing seems to go right!

    • Thanks, Dawn. You’re right about those ‘inspiration days’ too. They give you energy and remind you of what’s wonderful about writing. And that energy gets you through THOSE OTHER DAYS.

  10. kathy d.

    Best wishes to you and Joel. Some days are full of inspiration; some aren’t. A writer’s life is a complicated one, full of zigs and zags. I often wonder how all writers do it.
    I know when I have to write — non-fiction — I consume a lot of chocolate and other assorted treats, and then I run to the nearest crime fiction novel I have for a respite. It’s a wonder anything gets done around here.
    Hope Joel’s investigations are published.

    • Kathy – Thanks for the good wishes. I’m hoping for good news about the Joel Williams novel too. In the meantime, writing is what I do, so I’m taking advantage of the inspiration I had with this new novel. And in my opinion, there’s nothing wrong with eating chocolate, whether or not one writes. To me it’s a major food group.

  11. Margot – Well said. Inspiration and imagination are, as they say, all fine and good, even necessary as you point out, but no substitute for the discipline, experience and persistence to finally bring the thing to creation. I guess the latter qualities are what separates the writer from the dreamer.

    • Bryan – Thanks for your kind words. As you say, inspiration and imagination aren’t enough to carry a story through from idea to finished product. It’s also important to, as Michael Connelly puts it, put your head down and write. That part isn’t always fun, but it’s essential. And it’s what writers do.

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