It’s the question all writers are asked, and one we rarely know the answer to: “Where do you find your inspiration?” Erm…
We don’t like to admit that inspiration often feels more akin to desperation. We conveniently ignore the fifteen ideas we tossed aside before stumbling across the one that stuck. So, where do we find our inspiration? The real answer is that inspiration can come from anywhere, or from nowhere. Sometimes we have to wrestle an idea to the ground. Sometimes we fall in and out of love with an idea several times before we commit to writing it. Rarely does inspiration strike with the certainty of a cartoon lightning bolt or tied up in a bow, ready for us to unwrap the bestselling novel waiting inside.
And there’s another school of thought on inspiration: It isn’t the writer who finds the idea at all, but rather, the idea that finds the writer. I call this the theory of connectivity—author and idea, coming together at exactly the right time to make magic happen.
I love the notion of ideas circling in a holding pattern, waiting for permission to land on the writing desk where they know they’ll be nurtured. It’s a theory Elizabeth Gilbert discusses in Big Magic. She talks about an idea she had for a novel but never did anything with, only to discover, years later, that Ann Patchett was writing a book with remarkable similarities. Gilbert believes that because she’d ignored the idea it wandered off to find the right person to write it. “[T]his novel really wanted to be written, and it didn’t stop its rolling search until it finally found the author who was ready, and willing, to take it on.”
It has happened to us all, right? That excruciating moment when you hear about a book which is exactly the one you’re planning to write. But you know what? That brilliant idea you had that became someone else’s bestseller was never yours to begin with. There’s no point seething with envy. Far better to move on and open yourself up to the idea that is yours. Because it is out there, waiting for you.
This was certainly my experience in writing The Cottingley Secret.
Having grown up in Yorkshire, England, I’d always known about the Cottingley fairies hoax of the 1920s, when two girls claimed to photograph fairies at the bottom of the garden. But it wasn’t until I attended a writing workshop in 2013, where the fairy photographs were used as a writing prompt, that the idea to write a novel about the events first came knocking.
But I wasn’t ready; wasn’t fully tuned into it. Although I didn’t realize it then, it wasn’t the right time for me to write the book. My notes and enthusiasm were put into my Ideas file, and I got on with other novels.
It was two years before the Cottingley idea returned, and this time it didn’t tap me politely on the shoulder. It pulled up a chair, looked me straight in the eyes, and demanded my full attention. This was the right time for me to write the book, and three curious things happened to confirm it.
First, during a conversation with my agent, while brainstorming ideas for my next book, she mentioned the Cottingley fairies. I’d never discussed it with her. She didn’t know about the writing workshop, or my Ideas file, or that I’d grown up in the area where the photographs were taken.
Then, I then realized that 2017 would mark the centenary of the first Cottingley photographs. 2017 would be my publication year for the book, if I wrote it.
Finally, during early research, I unknowingly started an email exchange with the daughter of one of the girls who took the original photographs. That daughter—now in her eighties—lived in Belfast, a two-hour drive from my home. We met. She was thrilled to hear that I was writing a novel about the Cottingley story, and especially thrilled that someone from Yorkshire was writing it.
The idea had well and truly touched down. It had come back to me at exactly the right time.
I now have an answer to the question of where I find my inspiration. My answer is that I don’t. Inspiration finds me.
As Gilbert also says in Big Magic, when commenting on the business of writing: “I sit at my desk and I work like a farmer, and that’s how it gets done. Most of it is not fairy dust in the least. But sometimes, it is fairy dust.”
And that’s why we write, because on the good days, when the perfect idea finds us as the perfect time, we can all create magic.
Hazel Gaynor is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of A Memory of Violets and The Girl Who Came Home, for which she received the 2015 RNA Historical Novel of the Year award. Her third novel The Girl from the Savoy was an Irish Times and Globe & Mail Canada bestseller, and was shortlisted for the BGE Irish Book Awards Popular Fiction Book of the Year. The Cottingley Secret and Last Christmas in Paris will be published in 2017. Hazel was selected by US Library Journal as one of ‘Ten Big Breakout Authors’ for 2015 and her work has been translated into several languages. Originally from Yorkshire, England, Hazel now lives in Ireland.