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A fickle taskmaster

Inspiration is a fickle thing. It’s not as if you can sit down at your computer, crack your knuckles and say, “right; it’s 19:00 p.m. Time for some serious inspiration.” Generally, my brain will blank out entirely when faced with an expectation to be creative. “Nope,” it will say, shrinking away to sulk in a corner, “I don’t feel like it.” Ms Inspiration is, so to say, gone AWOL.

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Ms Inspiration taking a moment (CS Lidderdale)

Instead, Ms Inspiration tends to go into overdrive in the most unsuitable situations. Like at work; there I am in an intense discussion about Accounting Standards when the female auditor breaks off to fiddle with her hair bun, and just like that I know this is exactly the posture Alex would be sitting in when Matthew enters their little bedroom, and then … Phew! It’s an effort to revert to the intricacies of warranty accounting when your whole head is ablaze with images of Matthew and Alex, snatches of their dialogue flying through the air.

Like many writers, I’m also afflicted by nightly visits from my muse. I should be sleeping, but suddenly Ms Inspiration is whispering things in my ear, her voice urgent, and I jerk awake, grope for the pad I always keep by my bed and write as she dictates. I’ve become very good at writing in the dark, as my husband protests loudly should I turn on my bedside lamp to see my scribbles.

Nowadays I trust myself to be able to carry on from where I left off the following evening, confident that at some point the creative juices will flow as needed. It didn’t use to be that way, with me so scared that the half-baked idea in my head would vanish if I didn’t commit it to paper immediately. This lead to a lot of disrupted nights, to marathon stints at my computer that had my family grumbling it was a very LONG time since I cooked them a meal.

When writing historical fiction, inspiration must be bolstered by researched facts. Ms Inspiration harrumphs and shakes out her long skirts. In her opinion, facts are BORING, placing her within restrictive frameworks. Tough. No matter how inspiring that scene with the fork is, you have to cut it if your book is set in any period prior to the seventeenth century (except if you’re in Italy) as the fork was simply not used before then. And yes, Mr Gorgeous and Ms Feisty look absolutely wonderful together on the Chesterfield – but there were no such sofas in those times when men wore hose and codpieces, so either his costume or the interior will have to go. As an avid reader of historical fiction – as well as a writer – I know just how irritating I find those little anachronisms, and so I try really hard to ensure they don’t appear in my books. Having said that, I’m sure there will be a knowledgeable reader out there who will have the kindness to inform me that beeches weren’t exactly abundant in Scotland in the seventeenth century (HA! Caught that one myself) or that … whatever.

Writers that get the inspiration and the research to match can at times create awe-inspiring, magical novels that transport the reader to this other time, other place with the minimum of effort. That is what all writers want to achieve, we want to take our readers by the hand and submerge them in a bubble of imagined reality that will allow them to share in our characters’ adventures and woes.

Henri-Lucien_Doucet_-_CarmenBack to my own personal little task master, Ms Inspiration. I have frequently tried to convince her she should keep office hours – preferably on a GM+6 time zone so as to work around my day-time job. Ms Inspiration regards me as if I am crazy – or an exceedingly nasty type of slug – whenever I suggest this. Dark eyes flash, her hands with her dark red nails flutter at head level as she reminds me in a chilly voice that she is a free spirit, not some office slave. Well excuse me… I AM an office slave, and must somehow fit my writing endeavour into my otherwise very crammed days.
“Hmph!” Ms Inspiration sniffs. “An artiste does not lower herself to menial work.” No, an artiste should starve in a garret – at least as per Ms Inspiration, who believes in honing writing skills with desperation. Personally, I do like to eat. And have a comfy bed. (See my post about garrets here)

Now and then, Ms Inspiration looks utterly dejected. She will twist her hands together and shake her head, repeating that there is no option, none at all. Sometimes she even cries – most elegantly, of course: Ms Inspiration is a firm believer in doing everything with style. When Ms Inspiration cries, my stomach tightens into painful knots, because I know she is crying over one of my characters – mostly because she has decided they have to die. At least she shares in the pain of killing them off, but by the time I’ve written it all down and am crying my eyes out – in difference to Ms Inspiration, I cry rather messily, ending up with a bloated face and red-rimmed eyes – Ms Inspiration has already moved on, gesturing for me to get over it and get moving – look, she has new things lined up for me to see!

MS Inspiration being vulnerable

Emotional roller-coasters are therefore a constant in my writing life. As are the moments of utter non-creativity because Ms Inspiration has decided she needs to catch up on her beauty sleep. Sometimes, in those moments I sneak off to find other sources of inspiration (but please don’t tell her that!) Like when I stepped outside on a moonlit winter night. The grass crunched underfoot, frost decorated the denuded trees that surrounded me. And just like that, out of nowhere, came the shadowy image of a man on a horse, and from his clothes I could see he was from the 14th century, and from the look on his face I could see he was in despair. But I have to give it to Ms Inspiration: she was the one who pointed out the woman standing to the side, her eyes locked on the unknown knight while silvered tears slid down her cheeks.
“See?” Ms Inspiration puffs up with pride. “What on earth would you do without me?”
The answer to that is I have no idea. I may find her enervating and inconstant, I roll my eyes behind her back, but wherever I go and whatever I write, I hope to have her always with me, either perched on my shoulder or dancing across my computer keys. Without her, I would be lost. Without her, life would be so much more boring. Without her, part of me would die.
“Tssss,” Ms inspiration says, sounding quite embarrassed. “No one dies through lack of inspiration.”
She’s wrong. Writers do.

2 thoughts on “A fickle taskmaster”

  1. Delightful post, Anna.

    I have elves. Some days, they sit on my shoulder while I’m typing and whisper in my ear. “See that character? Yes, the half brother. He’s the one who rescues the heroine later in the book. Keep him. And the duke’s daughter? She’s having an affair with the courtesan. That’s how the villain…” And then they disappear, off to share their ideas and observations with some other writer, leaving me with a half-baked notion of what happens next, and dialogue that starts to trudge instead of skipping.

    Then, as you say Anna, back they come at the most inconvenient moment. In the middle of a client meeting, or the early hours of the morning, or just as a grandchild asks for my help. “Look at us! Listen to us!”

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