A couple weeks ago, just prior to publication, I was at my parents’ house chatting with my mom when my dad picked up my proof copy of What Boys Are Made Of and began to read.
I sort of froze up, frantically gesturing to my mother at what was happening in an attempt to indicate that I was having a minor heart-attack. This wasn’t supposed to happen. In a conversation a few weeks previously, my dad made it clear that the only thing he knew about my book was the title, from which he’d assumed that my book was some sort of romance novel, possibly graphic. With that in mind, I’d figured he’d tell his friends I’d written it but not pick it up himself. Fair enough.
He read the first two chapters there at the kitchen table, eyebrows at his hairline, and then put it down without comment. I was relieved we weren’t going to talk about it.
Nope again. Fast forward a week and a half. I’d been recruited to give a talk to my dad’s Kiwanis club, and prior to that was consulting with him as to what the club might enjoy hearing about. The publishing process? Editing? Blogging?
Well, he replied, how about where you get your inspiration?
Now, I know this is the traditional question one asks an author. I also happen to think, from the bottom of my heart, that it’s stupid. You know where I get my inspiration? Excellent, now you know one more thing than I do. I can say, “Gosh, well, just things around me,” but the truth is that some of my ideas might come from the fluff between my toes for all I know.
“No no,” my dad continued. “Like, that knife-fight club thing you had going in chapter one. Where did that come from?”
In one question, his hand had been revealed: it wasn’t the Kiwanis who wanted to know this, it was him.
When I gave my mother a copy of my book to read, I did so with great trepidation. What if it made her think differently of me? Strangely? “How did my little baby grow up to write about people bashing in each other’s skulls with a baseball bat?”
If my mother had been perturbed by my writing, she’d kept it to herself. My dad, on the other hand, was searching for answers.
I replied in my usual eloquent way. “Uh, dunno, really.”
Yet he persisted. Where did I get this idea? Why is my book set in Southeast Ohio?
The latter I actually could answer. Back in 2010 or so I was riding in the passenger’s seat down the main road out of my area, through the section where the four-lane highway narrowed to a two-lane bit that wound between the river and a steep ridge. It struck me that this was the perfect place for a bandit ambush. In another country, another time, we’d be riding in a convoy with a Humvee to the front and gun nests above.
“Yes, but the knife-fight club. Why is the first chapter of you book this teenager accidentally killing someone?”
That, too, I conceded that I know the origin of. It came from writing Harry Potter fanfiction in my teens and noticing that of everything being written, no one seemed to be paying attention to what death costs the killer. In Westerns, too, there’s a sort of bravado to killing people.
In real life, some people aren’t perturbed, sure, but most are, at least at first. This gap made me want to write a character who was falling apart at the seams from what everyone thought he should be able to handle.
As most of the Westerns I’ve watched were because my dad had them on TV, this interested him. We chatted for a moment, and then the question returned, in the form of, “But times were different out West, and people treated death differently. So why have a knife-fight club?”
Well, I conceded, things were different then, but that doesn’t mean society can’t return to that stage. That’s why my story is set after a future civil war, to show how quickly the mores of society can come loose. It’s an idea that’s been knocking around my head since 2008, when I was an International Studies major reading about Kenya falling apart over an election crisis. Those articles about the country’s decent into chaos got me to thinking, “What does it take to make people cut off their neighbors’ heads? How does one go back to regular life after that?”
So I’d set my kid who’d never killed among people who had and therefore might have trouble understanding why it scared him so much.
My dad nodded sagely, made a comment on the American Civil War, and said, “Yes, but the knife-fight club.” Clearly we would not be done until I explained myself.
Too bad I honestly don’t know where that comes from. Maybe it was floating in the air, maybe it arrived from toe jam.
“Not a clue,” I replied, and he let it drop, though he seemed disappointed.
Perhaps that’s why people ask authors where their inspiration comes from: they think we’ve found the answer to where creativity comes from. Truth is, we haven’t; all we’ve done is figure out how to harness it. We’ve turned a runaway imagination into a plodding workhorse that’s going in the direction we want to go, only it’s a horse of a different color and seriously, just go with it.
I’ve written six books now and yet the process remains, in some ways, veiled in mystery. I can mostly articulate why one sentence is better than another, but not always. I can usually trace back my though process, but not every time. I can often pinpoint what people will like, but if I had a formula, I’d be a millionaire, so we must conclude that I don’t.
But I do have a knife-fight club that isn’t, in fact, a knife-fight club, it’s an unofficial fight league where two people fight until one of them can’t, period. Which is a pretty darn cool book premise, I think. And possibly, just possibly, why I’d used it.
Whether it came from toe jam or not.
Do you always know where your thoughts come from? Do your ideas have a definitely origin, or do they seem to pop from nowhere? Are you often inspired by real life, or prefer to take your cues from books and movies? Let us know in the comments below!
If you enjoyed this post, you might enjoy my post on what happened when my mom read my book here: My Mother Is Reading My Book, And This Is Terrifying.
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