Sing to me, oh Muse, and through me tell the story, part 2

Last week, I wrote about several discoveries that Wench Merit and I made when we investigated the inspirations behind some of our favorite stories and characters. We found so many interesting little tidbits that I couldn't type them all up before our deadline, so we're picking up this week where we left off.

Rube Goldberg's alarm clock
We all know that a single, often unnoticed incident can set into motion a contorted, far-reaching chain of events, reminiscent of a Rube Goldberg device, which perfectly illustrates this concept. Just ask the guy whose electricity goes out during the night: his alarm clock fails to go off, so he oversleeps, rushes out the door half dressed, arrives late to his big meeting, realizes he has forgotten both his pants and his presentation (and his lunch, his phone, his evening theater tickets), and sees his day go completely down the toilet from that point. A key element in many movies is that one tiny misstep, that one overlooked detail, resurfacing at the end to bring down a career, a partnership, or an empire. But has one discrete, identifiable element, like an image or idea that caught their attention, ever set the inspirational gears in motion, so to speak, for an author to write a whole book? 

We also hear tales of enterprising sleepers who awake with an idea they dreamed to solve a stubborn problem or create a new invention.  But has anyone dreamed the inspiration for a book, and remembered enough of the details to write it?

As it turns out, yes. We found a surprising (to us) number of authors who were inspired in just these ways to create not just one book, but an entire series. 

"A picture is worth a (hundred) thousand words" 
~Ikea customers
We were astonished to find authors who based an entire book or series around a single image, sentence, or scene that popped into their head.

Nalini Singh says in an interview  that Angel's Blood, and subsequently the Guild Hunter book series, 
"began with an image of an angel — strong, beautiful, with an edge of cruelty — high on a tower in New York, with a cell phone to his ear. Who was he? Why was he there? And what kind of New York was this?" 

Singh has such a talent for looking at all sorts of things from a slightly different angle than the rest of us, just to see where that might lead, and it often leads directly into her stories.
We couldn't find a copy of the image Nalini envisioned, but the cover of Archangel's Kiss shows heroine Elena surveying New York City from atop a tower herself.

According to a letter he wrote W. H. Auden in 1955, J. R. R. Tolkien scribbled a sentence on a blank page in a college student's paper he was marking in the early 1930s. He said he did this for "no particular reason," and then felt compelled to figure out what it meant. "What it meant" resulted in what he considered a children's book, which then spawned his masterpiece trilogy, Lord of the Rings. What was the sentence?
"In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit."
However, he noted that "long before I wrote The Hobbit…, I had constructed this world mythology." So the sentence sparked a book, but conveniently he was able to steer it into a new niche within a world he had already envisioned, replete with details from his vast stores of knowledge about history, mythology, theology, literature, and fairy tales.

George R. R. Martin  told a Comic-Con 2011 audience that Game of Thrones, and subsequently the entire A Song of Ice and Fire series, began with an idea for a single scene:
"I started with a vision of a scene where some wolf pups are discovered being born with a dead mother in the snow. It just came to me very vividly, and I wrote it. I didn't know what story it was part of or what world it was part of. I didn't know anything. But by the time I finished writing that chapter, I knew the second chapter. And once I was 50-60 pages into it, I decided I had a novel — or maybe more than a novel — so I thought I'd better draw a map and think about who these people were …." 
Since then, he has spent more than 20 years working on the first five books, with the sixth in progress and a seventh planned. Which helps explain why we need a directory to watch HBO's televised version of the series.

"A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is"…a great book series
~apologies to John Lennon for taking a few liberties with his words

"If one is lucky, a solitary fantasy can totally transform one million realities." ~Maya Angelou
We hit the jackpot with this category! There is a lengthy list of popular authors of fantasy, science fiction, and horror who were inspired to create scenes, stories, and entire worlds based on their dreams.
Two centuries ago, 18-year-old Mary Shelley famously dreamed up Frankenstein after participating in a friendly competition, at the estate of Lord Byron, to see who could invent the best ghost story. At some point, the conversation turned to the topic of reanimating corpses with electricity. During the same fireside chat, Byron told a tale later published by John Polidori as The Vampyre, which some believe was the original vampire-human love story.

Dreams continued to inspire many classics from authors such as Edgar Allan Poe, H. P. Lovecraft, and H. G. Wells. More recently Stephen King credits dreams with ideas for many of his stories. Here is how he explains the dream that inspired Misery during a 1998 interview

"Like the ideas for some of my other novels, that came to me in a dream. In fact, it happened when I was on Concord, flying over here, to Brown's." [Brown's is an exclusive London hotel.] "I fell asleep on the plane," he recalls, "and dreamt about a woman who held a writer prisoner and killed him, skinned him, fed the remains to her pig and bound his novel in human skin. His skin, the writer's skin. I said to myself, 'I have to write this story.' Of course, the plot changed quite a bit in the telling. But I wrote the first forty or fifty pages right on the landing here, between the ground floor and the first floor of the hotel." The desk he sat at was the same one often used by Rudyard Kipling when he stayed at Brown's.
In a 1993 interview, King explains that dreams often steer the direction that some of his stories take, and he inserts bits of his dreams into his books to "create that feeling of weirdness in the real world":
"I've always used dreams the way you'd use mirrors to look at something you couldn't see head-on, the way that you use a mirror to look at your hair in the back. To me that's what dreams are supposed to do. I think that dreams are a way that people's minds illustrate the nature of their problems. Or maybe even illustrate the answers to their problems in symbolic language.

With such illustrious precedents, it's no surprise that some of our favorite paranormal romance and urban fantasy series are based on dreams.

In 2003, Stephenie Meyer dreamed about a human girl and a sparkly vampire in a meadow, talking about how their love was doomed because no matter how much he loved her he could not overcome his predatory nature to feed from her. This became the Twilight series and catapulted Meyer, her human girl, and her sparkly vampire into the international spotlight. 

Jeaniene Frost started writing down her vivid dreams and creating stories from them when she was 12.  She says in an interview that her Night Huntress series was inspired by a dream: 
"In my dream, I saw a man and a woman arguing. Somehow I knew the woman was a half-vampire, the man was a full vampire, and they were arguing because he was angry that she'd left him." 

Cat and Bones from
This Side of the Grave
Frost then began writing the story of Cat and Bones, and eventually realized that the dream was actually the second part of their tale, which appeared in One Foot in the Grave. So she had to back up and figure out how they got to that point, and that became Halfway to the Grave, the first book in the Night Huntress series. And by then she also had ideas for books 3 and 4. 

Quick note: In the same interview, she explains which celebrities she had in mind when she described Bones' physical appearance to her readers: Viggo Mortensen's cheekbones, Billy Idol's bleached hair (remember, Bones was blonde in the first book), and Bruce Campbell's dark eyebrows, "all mixed with a body that came straight from my naughty imagination." Just a little update to last week's discussion of basing characters on celebrities.  

Dreams only go so far for her, though. She tells the Frost Fans site that dreams are "excellent for getting main characters, what they are (vampire, demon, werewolf, etc), and a sliver of a plot." But beyond that, it's old-fashioned hard work.

Frost has a little fun with her readers when her dream-inspired character pays homage to Meyer's in one of my favorite quips from Bones, who has been a vampire for 217 years, in This Side of the Grave:
"Ask me if I sparkle, and I'll kill you where you stand." 

Karen Marie Moning writes at length on her blog about the dream that inspired her to take a quantum leap into the unknown by breaking away from her Highlander series to create the Fever series.
"I was reading a book, turning the pages faster and faster, being dragged along by the throat. The feeling was both exhilarating and uncomfortable. I was thrilled to be reading it. I didn't like anything keeping me so compulsively riveted. It's been a love-hate relationship from the beginning.
"When I woke up from the dream, I exclaimed without thinking — or I would have realized I was being handed one of those contracts you have to sign in blood — yes, please, yes. I want to write a story like that!
"The floodgate opened. The entire series shunted into my brain like a squirt on a Dan Simmon's fatline. Not piece by piece. Dumped. One minute I didn't have it, the next I did. Complete with names of installments, characters, plot twists and turns, even how many books it had to be and where each installment had to end."
Moning ignored the Muses for months and attempted, without success, to write another Highlander book. Then one day she picked up a marker and "wrote on the wall the titles of the five installments [for a new series]: Darkfever, Bloodfever, Faefever, Dreamfever, Shadowfever." 

Still she hesitated. There were going to be a lot of challenges in writing such a different type of series. Finally, she remembered the Bene Gesserit mantra from Frank Herbert's Dune that had served her well in life:
"I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain."
This inspired her to pick the marker back up and write, below the titles, what would become Mac's slogan in the Fever books: Hope strengthens. Fear kills. And then she began writing Darkfever.

Mac and Barrons
from Fever Moon
It began with a dream, and she tried to ignore it, but in the end she says: "The story came to me. I told it. And I'm glad I did."
And there are legions of Fever fans nodding our heads in fervent agreement, incredulous that anyone was lucky enough to dream up the inspiration for Jericho Z. Barrons. And yet, where but a dream would you expect to find such a tour de force?
As I read Moning's Highlander books last year, I recognized numerous building blocks of the Fever world popping up, threatening to evolve into something larger than the stories she was currently telling: the Seelie Hallows, the Royal Court of Queen Aoibheal, The Compact between the MacKeltars and the Tuatha Dé Danaan, and many more. So maybe her dream was an attempt by her subconscious mind to convince her conscious mind of something it wanted to ignore. After all: 
"There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you." ~Maya Angelou
I think the story of Mac and Barrons was percolating up from her creative core, the immensity of their journey too big to ignore, and Mac's voice was just itching to tell it in her own words.

"Some people feel the rain, others just get wet"
~Bob Marley and/or Bob Dylan 

Jeaniene Frost summed up what I think the bottom line is for all authors: "time at the keyboard, write, revise, repeat." It's a lot of hard work. There's no shortcut. 

But there's still some essential spark, as Mr. Cataliades might describe it to Sookie. And sometimes the spark is fanned into flame by a vision or a dream. Or a distinctive edifice or an episode of a low-budget tv show, which millions of like-minded fans see every day without even once feeling inspired to write a masterpiece.

Nalini Singh in particular often sings the praises of the ordinary, everyday events:
"Inspiration comes from everywhere, from pieces seen, life lived, and thoughts had. It's present all around us, every day, in different forms." ~The Book Smugglers 
"Something I see, hear, smell, touch or taste, the feel of a place, an article in the newspaper…anything could kick off an idea." ~The Reading Cafe

Maybe it isn't so much that their environment inspires our favorite authors, it's more that they are able to see something the rest of us can't. Or see it in a different way than we do. One of their distinguishing abilities is to see the key to an alternate reality in everyday life around them. Where you and I see a musty old building, they see a vampire fraternity house. Where we see a fleeting cameo on Dr. Who, they find the genesis for a beloved romantic hero and an epic spanning centuries and continents. Where we forget the images and words that pique our interest amid the onslaught of minutiae, and allow our dreams to recede with the light of each new day, they grab hold, root out the hidden possibilities, and craft brave new worlds for the rest of us to explore.

Do you know how your favorite authors were inspired? Do you ever recognize where a character or scene came from when you're reading? Let us know your thoughts below! 


  1. Mary Shelley's story of how Frankenstein came about is one of my childhood favorites!

    And I always love reading about everything that inspires Stephen King.

    Great post!

  2. Thanks,Zee. How cool would it have been to sit around the fire with famous authors and tell ghost stories! I had no idea Frost had dreamed her inspiration for Cat and Bones, and I've been fascinated with the way Moning came up with the Fever books ever since I heard about that. I'm feeling inspired to write my dreams down, since it paid off so well for Frost! Now I just need to figure out how to dream about a character like Bones. :-)

  3. This is a wonderful set of posts...which hopefully will inspire more people to write great fiction. (I'm already assuming, of course, that this blog will touch and influence those writers.) Not only has your research enhanced many of my favorite series, I loved the reference to (and reminder of) one of my most all-time favorite sci-fi books, Frank Herbert's Dune. And, since this post also reminded me so much of Tracy Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring, I thought I'd add her inspiration for that book: "I have had a copy of that painting for a long time. I love it because it is so beautiful and mysterious. The expression on the girl’s face is ambiguous – sometimes she looks happy, sometimes sad, sometimes innocent, sometimes seductive. I was always curious about what she was thinking, and one day I wondered what Vermeer did to her to make her look like that. I began to understand that the painting is more than a picture of the girl, but also a portrait of the relationship between the painter and the model. I thought there must be a story behind her look, but when I found out that we don’t know who the model for the painting was, I realized I would have to make up the story myself."

    1. Thank you! I am so glad you enjoyed the posts! Merit and I had fun Googling our favorite authors for "research" purposes.

      I thoroughly enjoyed The Girl with the Pearl Earring several years ago when I read it, and I completely forgot about it when researching this post. Of course, it is the perfect example of a book inspired by a single image! I thought the author did an amazing job of bringing to life the artist Vermeer, the time and place in which he lived and worked, and what life might have been like for a young woman coming of age then. I love books that not only enthrall me with their storytelling, but also teach me something about times and places very different from my own. It sounds like you do, too!

    2. Oh, forgot to mention, Dune has also been one of my very favorite books for decades. I was thrilled to find out the slogan from the Fever books was inspired by Dune! It's exciting when a long-standing favorite inspires a new favorite!

  4. Great post Kathi! So interesting!

  5. I loved it, Kathi and Merit! The first part was great, this one is fabulous! I enjoyed it so much!

    1. Thanks, Olga! I'm glad you enjoyed it. Or are you just buttering us up for Outlander spoilers? ;-)

  6. Fantastic post Kathi and Merit. Very informative and I love that you mentioned George R.R. Martin.


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