One Word From You is All I Need to be Inspired*

Writing InspirationIn Agatha Christie’s Hallowe’en Party, detective story novelist Ariadne Oliver is talking to Hercule Poirot about how she gets inspired for her stories:

‘It does happen that way. I mean, you see a fat woman sitting on a bus…And you look at her and you study her shoes and the skirt she’s wearing and her hat and guess her age and whether she’s got a wedding ring on and a few other things. And then you get off the bus. You don’t want ever to see her again, but you’ve got a story in your mind…’

Later in the conversation, Mrs. Oliver points out (and I think, rightly, at least for me) that it would ruin the inspiration if she actually knew the woman she describes. Then the woman she created wouldn’t really be, well, her own creation.

Lots of fiction writers get asked if they base their stories on real people. And of course, there are plenty of authors who write fiction about real people (Hilary Mantel, Martin Edwards and Truman Capote, to name just three). But a lot of writers don’t quite do that.

What happens instead (well, at least for me) is that the writer may see an event, or read or hear about it. Or, perhaps the writer notices a stranger in a grocery store or restaurant or park. Whether it’s a person or event, it sparks the writer’s imagination. Then, the ‘what if questions’ happen: ‘That guy in the baseball cap is so wrapped up in his ‘phone that he’s not paying attention to anything. There could be a murder right behind him and he might not even notice! What would that be like?’  And the story starts to come together, just from that one scene.

Agatha Christie is said to have been inspired for Murder on the Orient Express by a personal experience in which she was caught on a train that was stopped because of snow. Of course, there wasn’t a murder on the train, and it wasn’t for three days, and…  But that one incident sparked her imagination. I can’t speak for her, of course, but my guess would be that she didn’t base the characters in that novel on specific people she knew. It’s possible that no-one on the train with her that day resembled any of the characters. Instead, it was the experience that got her thinking.

In October of 1999, two trains collided more or less head-on near Ladbroke Grove, a few miles from Paddington Station. There were 31 deaths and hundreds of injuries, and the incident left permanent scars. Ruth Rendell used that incident as the setting for her novel Adam and Eve and Pinch Me, in which three women’s lives intersect as a result of the crash. Two lose their partners in the wreck; the third meets her fiancé because of it. When these three discover that they’ve all been duped by the same con artist (who was ostensibly killed in the crash) the result leads to some dark places. Rendell didn’t, as far as I know, base those characters directly on people she actually knew who survived the crash. Rather, the event itself sparked the story.

You might say the same sort of thing about Michael Connelly. As he has told the story, he was at a baseball game and got to talking with another person who was there. That man was a lawyer who didn’t have an office in the conventional sense of that word. Rather, he used his car as an office. If you’ve read Connelly’s work and that sounds familiar, it should. Connelly used this person he met as the inspiration for Mickey Haller, whom he introduced in The Lincoln Lawyer. Fans of Haller will know that he uses his car as an office, and travels all over Los Angeles to pursue his cases. The man Connelly met at the baseball game wasn’t named Mickey Haller, and very likely didn’t resemble Haller either in character or appearance. My guess is that instead, Connelly was inspired to imagine a lawyer who works out of his car, and the kind of cases he might encounter.

In discussing the creation of his John Rebus series, Ian Rankin has said that Rebus came to him as a fully-formed fictional character. But he (Rankin) was inspired by the place where he was living at the time he was writing Knots and Crosses, the first Rebus novel. He has said that he wrote the story on a typewriter, sitting at a table by a window. From that window, he could see the tenement opposite, and decided that Rebus would live there – across the way. His living situation inspired the sort of home environment Rebus would have. Fans of this series will also know that Rankin has been inspired for several stories by other places in Edinburgh.

Here’s what Val McDermid says about the inspiration for her novel The Vanishing Point:

‘‘I was travelling with my son when he was about six,’ she says. ‘I’ve got replacement knees so I set off the detectors, and they literally put you in a box. While I was there, my boy was standing by the luggage belt waiting for our bags to come through and I thought that someone could just take him by the hand and walk away with him.’’

She took that moment of fear, with which any parent can identify, and used it to spark the story, even though fortunately, the events of the story didn’t happen in her personal life.

Some writers do use real people, of course. And if you’re interested in the legalities of that, please check out this fascinating post by Bill Selnes at Mysteries and More From Saskatchewan. That’s a great crime fiction blog, by the way, that deserves a place on any crime fiction fan’s blog roll.

A lot of writers, though, take those little ideas that come from people they see, events they watch (or learn about) or experiences, and use them to spark fictional stories. Admittedly it can be a bit difficult to explain the process. But when it happens to you, there’s nothing quite like it.


ps  It’s not just authors who do this. So do those who write songs. For instance, Billy Joel was, so it is said, inspired to write New York State of Mind by a bus ride he took to West Point. And Allentown was inspired by a comment he heard from a fan.

Wait, what? You wonder why I’d mention a rock star in a crime fiction blog post? But it’s Billy Joel!! And it’s his birthday. So happy birthday, Mr. Joel. And now I’m off to celebrate this important international holiday. Problem with that? Good! 😉


*NOTE: the title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Blonde Over Blue.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Hilary Mantel, Ian Rankin, Martin Edwards, Michael Connelly, Ruth Rendell, Truman Capote, Val McDermid

29 responses to “One Word From You is All I Need to be Inspired*

  1. I’ve also read Ian Rankin keeps a folder of crime stories he’s cut from the paper that he thinks may, in the future, provide inspiration. One of his recent books – based loosely on the murder of an anti-nuclear lawyer in Scotland: despite there being dreadful disparities in the crime scene, like the gun being 20+ feet away, it was ruled a suicide – came from that folder (the name of the book escapes me!) It happened in the 80s – scary times! I agree with you about Mysteries And More From Saskatchewan – great blog!

    • Yes, indeed, Crimeworm, Mysteries and More… is fantastic. As to the Rankin novel, are you possibly referring to The Impossible Dead? I think that has that premise. I could be wrong though. I’m not in the least surprised that Rankin keeps such a folder. I think news stories often do inspire writers.

      • I think you’re right – it’s one of the most recent ones. The true story is in itself one of the most bizarre I’ve ever heard – truly chilling, for something that happened in the UK. Cleo makes an excellent point too, about inspiration coming from real life crimes, but twisting the story to make it a bit different.

        • A chilling crime indeed, Crimeworm. Even worse knowing that it really happened. You and Cleo do make a good point too. Sometimes authors are inspired by real events, but add their own twist to the events. That’s what Damien Seaman did in The Killing of Emma Gross. He started with the real-life murder of a Düsseldorf prostitute in 1929. The murder was never solved. Seaman took what is known about that event and added his own characters and twists to the story. The result follows the timeline, but adds Seaman’s unique take on the topic.

  2. Another knowledgeable post Margot and as you say it is often what readers wonder, what does inspire a story, some links to true crimes but taking a different direction are obvious (like The Perfect Mother & Humber Boy B) but most are far less so.

    • Glad you enjoyed the post, Cleo. It’s true that some connections are clear (like Humber Boy B). Those are ‘ripped from the headline’ kinds of stories where you can see what has inspired the author. Other times, as you say, it’s not so obvious. And sometimes, even the writer isn’t entirely sure (at least at first) where the inspiration came from originally. And it can be as subtle as a glimpse of a person.

  3. I’m never very comfortable when authors use real-life crimes in their stories, or make the plot or a character recognisable as being based on a real person. (I’m excluding historical crime – so long as it’s long enough ago to not directly affect living people.) I’m happier when they take the inspiration but change it enough so that parallels with real events aren’t obvious. Two reasons – I think it must be very upsetting for victims or relatives to see their tragedy fictionalised and sold for entertainment, and secondly, as a reader, I get bogged down in making comparisons. Interesting you mentioned Val McDermid’s ‘The Vanishing Point’ – one of the main characters in that book was so closely based on a real young woman, a B-list celebrity who had died tragically and very recently of cancer, that it was impossible to miss (though perhaps only for UK readers). And McDermid twisted the story to make her a baddie, which I felt was totally unfair and extremely distasteful.

    • Oh, I didn’t know that (about the baddie in Vanishing Point) FictionFan. Goes to show how ignorant I am. I think you do have a well-taken point about the impact on loved ones if a real-life crime is an obvious inspiration for a novel. They go through enough with the crime itself. So I do understand why you don’t want to read that sort of crime novel. It’s true, too, that if you know about a real-life crime, it’s hard not to compare what you know with the novel. And that may not do the novel justice, or the memory of the crime victim justice. It’s challenging, I think.

  4. I remember Diane Mott Davidson at a mystery fan convention telling her audience about a rude clerk that made her think “You are so dead,” so I assume he was destined to be a victim in a future mystery. And I built a whole novel around a character I met in a dream. Ideas for stories and characters come from all kinds of interesting places.

    • They certainly do, Pat! I know I’ve certainly had those ‘rude grocery store clerk’ moments myself! I think that’s fascinating that you were inspired by a dream. Interesting way to tune in on, well, yourself.

  5. Margot: Thanks for the kind words and mention of my blog. You are a generous person. I admire how you read my post and then created an intriguing exploration of inspiration for writers.

  6. Happy birthday, Mr. Billy Joel, and thank you, Margot, for another fascinating insight into crime writers’ minds.

  7. Col

    I think James Ellroy weaves fact and fiction incredibly well into his complex novels. I never always knew whether I was reading about real or invented people, so would google them afterwards.

    • Oh, you’re quite right about that, Col. And Ellroy is another author I keep meaning to put in the spotlight, but haven’t (yet)! Shame on me! I need to do that.

  8. Ellroy is a fascinating example where the murder of his own mother led him to write fiction about other real-life crimes.

  9. I think it’s inevitable that we base our characters on people we know or observe. How else can you do it? It might be called crime fiction but it needs to be grounded in reality – otherwise it’s crossed the line into fantasy, and even there you still need to base your characters on what you know about people and how they behave. My friends all think they’re in my books – they just don’t want to be identified as the villain – but that character has to be based on someone 🙂

    • That’s quite true, Peter. 🙂 And in a larger sense, you’re right that authors have to get their inspiration from somewhere, and there’s no other really good place to get it than from real life. A character may not be exactly like a person we know; it might be as small a matter as a hairstyle, a mannerism or something like that. But reality does inspire writers. As you say, how else could it really be?

  10. I think it’s a sign of reading too much crime fiction, but I quite often think ‘now THAT would make a good clue, or misdirection’ as I go about normal life – over some misunderstanding, or mishearing, or way that a person seems to be in one place when they’re elsewhere (alibi!). And I ALWAYS think it would be Agatha Christie putting my item in one of her books – only the best for me and my imaginings!

    • I love it, Moira! So it’s not just crime writers who do that sort of thing! And (at least for me), it’s those little things (a facial expression, a misheard comment, etc.) that get me thinking. It’s never the really big things. You know, you ought to try your hand at crime writing…

  11. I took a little me time yesterday and missed this post. First time in three years, so I was way overdue. I didn’t know it was Billy Joel’s birthday, or the interesting facts about his songs. He’s fantastic. Hope you had fun celebrating!

  12. Some interesting examples there, Margot. It amazes me how writers are inspired, and how they develop their ideas into good stories.

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