Sing to me, oh Muse, and through me tell the story

Apollo plays the lute while the nine Muses dance
"Who knows where inspiration comes from. Perhaps it arises from desperation. Perhaps it comes from the flukes of the universe, the kindness of the muses." ~Amy Tan
"He who approaches the temple of the Muses without inspiration, in the belief that craftsmanship alone suffices, will remain a bungler and his presumptuous poetry will be obscured by the songs of the maniacs." ~Plato

"And thanks also to my favourite band, the very aptly named Muse, for providing a saga's worth of inspiration." ~Stephenie Meyer

Merit and I were gushing about the Outlander books one day, and she told me the story she shared in her post last week about Diana Gabaldon's inspiration for Outlander and Jamie Fraser. I was absolutely flabbergasted! I had just assumed 18th-century Scotland was near and dear to Gabaldon's heart, and that the fabulous Jamie was based on a real-life historical figure, or someone she knew, or someone in a dream – you know, someone she felt a special connection with! 

I could not believe my favorite books were inspired by such a random thing. They could so easily have been completely different!!! Or never existed at all!!! What if she had read a magazine that night? What if she had watched a different channel? What if Dr. Who had aired a different episode? I'm practically panicked just considering the possibilities here.

It's like the time Chris Isaak said he wrote the song Wicked Game because a blind date was 15 minutes late one night. How could such a minor event spark the song that made him famous, a deeply haunting song, evocative of hopeless longing and unrequited love? Because really, I can't imagine the guy had any problem at all lining up other dates.

Image sources: Dr. Who and Crazy Horse Woman blog
Being an avid reader, connoisseur of book boyfriends, and dabbler in the digital inkwell myself, I can't help but wonder what inspires those who create our favorite books. I have assumed their influences were deeply personal, gleaned from people they have known, places they have visited or lived, and fantasies they have cherished since childhood. But discovering Gabaldon's seemingly impulsive decision to base a book series on a chance encounter with an arbitrary guest appearance made me curious as to what really fires up our favorite authors. Where do they seek their Muses? So Merit and I started looking for clues…

First off...we found no shocking revelations. Many authors are hesitant to divulge their secrets, other than to say they find inspiration in the everyday events and people all around them. Those secrets are the key to their livelihood, after all. 

Most authors acknowledge a tremendous inspiration from reading books by other authors. More than one says the fastest cure for writer's block is to pick up someone else's book and dive in. 

But beyond that, a few also acknowledge a thing or two that provided a creative nudge or helped them more clearly visualize a few of the people, places, and plots we love.

 Location, location, location

"You remind me of a poem I can't remember, and a song that may never have existed, and a place I'm not sure I've ever been to."  ~The Simpsons
It isn't surprising that some authors include local landmarks in their books, and readers expect famous features to show up. If I read a story set in Paris that didn't include at least a brief mention of the Eiffel Tower, it would probably pull me right out of the story wondering whether aliens had destroyed it. So it seems natural for authors to slip variations of the manmade and natural features they see every day into stories set in their hometowns.

Chloe Neill uses Chicago landmarks as inspiration for the settings in her Chicagoland Vampires series. She modeled the exterior of Cadogan House, home to 86 (or 87, after Merit's Commendation) of Ethan Sullivan's 308 (or 320...) Cadogan vampires, on the U.S. Soccer House in Chicago's Prairie Avenue Historic District. Photos of it and other locations around Chicago that appear in the books are posted on her website

Patricia Briggs sets her Mercy Thompson series in the Tri-Cities area, located in more or less the middle of the state of Washington. She has a strong emotional bond with the geographical features and community where she lives, which helps her identify the places that Mercy and her friends would be likely to hang out. Easy access to wide open, sparsely populated terrain at the fringes of town is ideal for shifters, and the shoreline at the confluence of three rivers (Columbia, Snake, and Yakima) attracts loners like Mercy, looking for an isolated spot to contemplate life's challenges and seek solutions, perhaps even the  assistance of ghosts and vampires. In several filmed online interviews, Briggs takes her fans to some of the local businesses and talks about the proprietors who inspired her, including a kind-hearted, old-technology Volkswagen repairman, who became Mercy's mentor, and his humble repair shop, which became her garage.

All Charlaine Harris' books are set in small towns in the southern U.S., where she has lived her whole life. The settings, such as Bon Temps, are based on "lots of experience with southern small towns," and her affection for them is obvious. Her characters talk and behave like typical, small-town southerners, observing regional customs of propriety and courtesy, and I just love these things about her books. I grew up not so awfully far from Sookie's stomping grounds, and reading a Sookie book is like taking a quick trip back to visit the old neighborhood. Sookie's Gran reminds me of my own: unfailingly gracious and ever prepared with a fresh pitcher of iced tea on hand.

Amber (Amer) Fort in northern India
(from Singh's travel diary)
By contrast, Nalini Singh has lived in widely scattered locations around New Zealand, Asia, and the Pacific Basin, and says that travel inspires her in many ways.
"Sometimes, it's the environment or the location…other times the people or the culture. I just find such joy in exploring, and that feeds into my passion for writing." 
She posts photographs of her travels in an online travel diary, including an entire page dedicated to the forts that inspired Archangel Fort in Archangel's Storm. She says she enjoys taking photos 
"especially of the everyday moments I glimpse as I travel. It's fascinating to capture an instant of life, and when I look back on my photos, I can recall the sensory experience of the moment." 
Despite the immensity of her global stage, she still gets much inspiration from the small details of daily life around her, wherever she might be.

"Music is the wine that fills the cup of silence"
~Robert Fripp

Music is a huge inspiration to many authors. Some credit music they listened to as they wrote – Stephanie Meyer has repeatedly thanked British rock band Muse for their inspiration in her writing the Twilight series.
"And, finally, thank you to the talented musicians who inspire me, particularly the band Muse - there are emotions, scenes, and plot threads in this novel that were born from Muse songs and would not exist without their genius." ~Stephenie Meyer

Some liberally sprinkle song titles and lyrics around their books, helping to define the setting, mood, or theme, then post convenient soundtracks online for their fans (E. L. James with Fifty Shades of Grey and Stacia Kane with Downside Ghosts). 
"I'm always trying, you see, to evoke what musicians can evoke. I'm always trying to take that raw feeling and find a way to…to pin it down with words, to transmit it in a silent medium. I want to distill that emotion and sensation, and make the reader hear music even when there is none." ~Stacia Kane

Some post soundtracks of the songs they listened to while writing their books (Megan Hart's iTunes playlists for each book), or the songs that helped them visualize each specific scene in their books (Madeleine Urban's scene-by-scene song list for Cut & Run). Some books inspire musicians to create music that gives voice to the characters. Karen Marie Moning's husband at the time, Neil Dover, wrote music for the Fever books that helped her understand some of her own characters better. In fact, we found so much musically inspired writing going on out there that we decided to save that for a completely separate post. 

 All the world's a stage...or a runway

David Gandy in Phoenix Magazine,
"Oh, well, pardon me, Mr. Perfect!" ~Dumb and Dumber

Starting out, I thought lots of authors modeled characters on celebrities, or roles from movies and television shows, but our research didn't pan out. Several of the Wenches' favorite characters are paired indelibly with celebrity faces in our minds (or they are all paired with David Gandy's face, for some of the Wenches). What we found, though, is that the author typically creates the character and then fans find the celebrity who helps put a face on the character as they read. 

For example, there seem to be a lot of Fever fans who think Karen Marie Moning based Jericho Z. Barrons on Eric Etebari's portrayal of Ian Nottingham in the Witchblade television series. But on her website, she says she had already created Barrons when she realized how much Etebari's character reminded her of him.
"…at the time of writing the Fever series, I'd only seen the first ten episodes of WB, before it went off the air--before E.E. started dressing like his benefactor, Irons in the latter half.
"When you all started discussing what JZB looked like, I began hunting for some actor that I felt came close to him. At some points EE in WB does. He's a little primitive, I find him intensely sexual, and in the latter half of the series he becomes this dark, sexy, unpredictable force in sleek suits spouting cryptic dialogue. I finally saw the last half of WB last month and was startled by how well the character evolved into almost fitting JZB."

You can judge for yourself how well Etebari fits your own picture of Barrons by checking the photos and interview Moning posted on her blog.

Gabriel Aubry as
Jamie Fraser (fan art)
Similarly, there are fans who base artwork for Gabaldon's Jamie Fraser on Gabriel Aubry, with a few modifications to color the hair, widen the mouth, and add slanted blue eyes. Diana Gabaldon says these do look a lot like she pictured Jamie, but Aubry (who by my calculation was 14 when Outlander was published) was called to her attention after she'd already created the character who inspired the artwork. Fan videos often cast Gerard Butler or Chris Hemsworth as Jamie, since both have many fine physical attributes and starred in period films that are easy to copy footage from. But Sony recently obtained the rights to create a cable television series based on Outlander, so we are keeping our fingers crossed that these online "casting wars" will be resolved soon, and we can't wait to see who appears in the key roles. 

Salma Hayek in
From Dusk Til Dawn
We found a couple of instances where authors admit to basing a character's physical appearance on a celebrity. In Chloe Neill's Some Girls Bite, Merit mentions that Ethan Sullivan is a David Beckham look-alike. (A few Saucy Wenches choose to disregard that sentence as they read and picture whomever they please, depending on how they feel about Becks!)

Jeaniene Frost says the side character Francesca in Halfway to the Grave was "flat-out inspired" by Salma Hayek's appearance in the movie From Dusk Til Dawn. But that is the only character she ever based on a real person.

I think Diana Gabaldon wins the prize in this category, though, for admitting she based her entire Outlander series on a single Dr. Who guest appearance. 

What's a nice guy like you doin' in a place like this?

"Uh, I can't quite place you...but you remind me of someone I know."  ~The Munsters
I would suspect that many writers tuck little bits and pieces of real-life people, including some they know and maybe even love into their book characters, whether intentionally or not. But we're not finding a great deal of evidence that they're admitting specifics. (I began to realize at this point in our research that there might be a few legal issues involved with announcing you've based your creation on a particular person or someone else's creation.)

Stacia Kane says she sometimes sees bits of someone she used to know in the character Lex from her Downside Ghosts series, but otherwise she makes up all her characters. And it sounds like she didn't base Lex on her acquaintance; she simply notices a few similarities in a character who is in essence revealing himself to Kane as part of the creative process. By contrast, she says troubled heroine Chess "jumped into my head fully formed," inspired by the fact there were no heroines like her, deeply flawed and battling a number of personal demons that other authors shy away from.

Jack from Megan Hart's Dirty seems to have been based on some intriguing personal experiences. On her blog, Hart says that Jack "was in fact based upon a real person whose real name I do not know but who sure knew how to dance." Maryse's Book Blog did some investigating and got this explanation from Hart: 

"Jack is based on a real person I met twice. Both times he ended up naked. I did not. Let your imaginations do the work, m'kay? Oh and yes, he did have the piercings. For real."

Jeaniene Frost used historical records for Vlad the Impaler to help craft the character of Vlad Tepesch, who recently emerged from the Night Huntress series with his own Night Prince series. She says that despite her intention to never touch the Dracula legend, it insinuated itself into her novels when Vlad insisted on being what Bones described as a "bloody showhound" who mocked our beloved Bones and anyone who dared call Vlad by his legendary name of Dracula. According to Frost:

"My version of Vlad is a combination of artistic license and historical records of Vlad the Impaler, especially the Russian and Romanian accounts. Those don't paint Vlad as the abhorrently cruel tyrant that inspired Stoker's Count Dracula. They showed Vlad as a staunch defender of Romania and not much crueler than other leaders of his time. During his reign, Vlad even bucked tradition by promoting "commoners" into positions of power. This is the background I drew inspiration from with his character. My Vlad also isn't melancholy, hung up on the past, or seeking the reincarnation of his lost love, unlike other retellings of Dracula. Instead, he's arrogant, dangerous, mocking, sexy, and only cruel to those who threaten his people. He's also convinced that he's immune to love, something my heroine is about to challenge him on."

An Académie
I was amused to discover that Diana Gabaldon's daughters have not read her Outlander series because they do not want to read sex scenes written by their mother. My daughter would probably feel the same way. The Outlandish Observations blog also notes that their father is a tall redhead, whose body from the neck down might possibly share some similarities with a certain tall redhead in the books. That's why I originally added this tidbit as an example of inspiration from real people.

However, Gabaldon told fans at DragonCon 2010 that she saw "what Jamie's naked behind would look like" in a nude painting she discovered on a tour of London's National Gallery of Art. She was so impressed by what she described as "a very tidy bottom," she sent a picture postcard to the illustrator of her graphic novel, The Exile, for use as a model. The Blue Moon Magnolia blog followed up with some questions on Gabaldon's blog, did some sleuthing, and posted the painting, called An Académie. Now fans can see for themselves that the many hours Claire spent admiring the elegance of Jamie's backside were not unwarranted. 

Jamie Fraser in The Exile graphic novel
And sometimes it's life that imitates fiction... Though Gabaldon had never been to Scotland when she became inspired to set Outlander there, her youngest daughter Jenny was recently inspired to marry a Scottish man named Iain. In Scotland. (In Outlander, Jamie's sister Jenny is married to Jamie's lifelong friend Ian. In Scotland.) Sometimes you just can't make this stuff up!!!

Believe it or not, we also discovered some authors who say they based their books on one image or sentence that came to them. Or a dream! I'll talk about those next week in another post about author inspirations. See you then...same bat time, same bat channel! And in the meantime, here's hoping we all find inspiration ourselves in the many things we see and do every day!

So were you surprised about any of these author inspirations? Have you ever heard of an inspiration more (as far as I know) random than Gabaldon's for Outlander? Do you know how your favorite books and characters were inspired?


  1. Wow! This was quite...surprising! And entertaining! Loved it, ladies!

    And I sure as hell should read Outlander.

    1. Thanks! It was fun to have an excuse to Google so many different authors and their creations and some of the fan art. There's a lot of good stuff out there!

      And yes, you sure as hell should read Outlander!!! Before you get spoilers for the entire storyline!!!

  2. Excellent post! I really enjoyed reading what inspired some of our favorite authors when creating some of our favorite characters and stories. I'm planning to do a post on why Claire Beauchamp Randall Fraser is my favorite character ever, so Olga you really should read Outlander.

    1. Thanks, Donna! I can't wait to read your post. I think she is my favorite female character, too. I didn't find any information about how Gabaldon was inspired to write her. Claire appeared to take over the narrative and tell Gabaldon how to write her. She was such a strong person, so resourceful and clever, and of course wise. I cheer for her wielding 18th-century "medical" implements the same way I cheer for Mac or Merit wielding their swords.

  3. This was so awesome! I love reading stuff like this.

    1. Thank you, Anne. I'm glad you enjoyed it. I had fun writing it.

  4. Beautiful post! I love learning about this stuff. Even when there may not be real-life inspiration for a character or storyline, I'm always curious about what parts of themselves, however tiny, an author has inserted into a story.

    1. Thank you, Veronica! I'm curious about the same thing, and I learned things about some of the authors I hadn't read yet that make me want to investigate their books. It's always a good thing to add to the reading list!

  5. Wow Kathi. Your post was amazing. I learnt a lot about how some authors got their inspiration and it interesting to read how people are inspired by different things. Well done.


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