Inspiration : writing ideas and the subconscious

Readers are fascinated by writers’ ideas. Where do you get them from? they ask.
Over and over again.gothic fantasy woman candle mist ideas

Sometimes we writers know. And sometimes — to be frank — we don’t.

How many of us have woken up in the morning with clear ideas about a new book and no inkling about how those ideas came to be? How many of us have more ideas jostling about in our brains than we can deal with?ideas light bulb

For most of us the difficulty isn’t finding the ideas, it’s turning them into a coherent story with a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Here’s a case in point.

Ideas? Silver shreds for starters…

It began quite a long time ago. And it was all the fault of my crit partner, Sophie Weston of this parish…

shreds of silver lace gown from Hereford costume collectionI was waxing lyrical about the remnants of a Regency ballgown that I’d seen in the Hereford costume collection. The material is stunning. Even after two centuries, it gleams in the light (and the image above doesn’t do it justice). But it’s barely a heap of bits. It must once have been a hugely expensive and very impressive gown. Now it’s just an interesting wreck.

Prince Charlotte's 1816 wedding gown

Charlotte’s wedding gown

Princess Charlotte's wedding

Charlotte & Leopold

It probably hadn’t been quite as fine as Princess Charlotte’s 1816 wedding gown of silver lamé and lace over tissue, but you never know.

Sophie made some throwaway comment about creating a story round the ruined dress.

What if…? What if…?

My imagination was off and running. Who could have owned it? Why was it reduced to rags?ideas woman with "what if" think bubble

What if the wreck was a link between the modern day and the past? But who was the modern day character? And what past would he or she be linked to? To be honest, I didn’t know. Since I write mostly Regencies, there was a fair chance that the past would be in the Regency. But who would be there in the Regency to meet the modern day character?

Let your subconscious do the ideas stuff

I didn’t know. So I adopted a tactic that I’ve often used and that has worked well for me. I asked my subconscious to work on the problem and come up with a solution.

It sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? But for me, it often produces the goods.

girl asleep on fur rug, subconscious creating ideasMy approach is simple. I let my conscious mind dwell on my potential story when I’m in bed, in the dark, and on the edge of sleep. I let my mind wander around the story ideas, drifting off in all sorts of directions. And I fall asleep (usually) fantasising about it.

Sometimes, I do actually dream some of my story. Sometimes, I don’t dream it, but I wake up knowing how I’m going to write it. Of course, my subconscious sometimes goes on strike and I get nothing at all. In that case, I may try again on another day, hoping for better luck.

Sometimes, the ideas do come…

In the case of the silver ballgown, I woke up with an amazingly vivid image of a modern-day heroine meeting an enigmatic Regency hero on a beach.footprints on sandy beach Only the beach wasn’t real. And the hero melted away like the Cheshire Cat, leaving behind a ghost of a smile and a glimpse of something that might have been a naval uniform.

Perhaps I’d been watching too many repeats of Hornblower?

It was too vivid to be dismissed. I wrote it down. And as I wrote, the heroine became much clearer. She had a name (Emma), a profession (museum curator) and the beginnings of a complicated backstory.

silhouette of man in longish coatBut the hero? Nothing. In fact, I didn’t know who he was or anything about him. I told myself he would become clearer as I wrote.

I have to admit that he didn’t. Several chapters in, I knew he was reputed to be the greatest lover in London. And that was about it.

I took the opening of the story to the workshop at my local RNA Chapter. They liked it. They made helpful suggestions. And they encouraged me to keep writing because they wanted to know what happened to Emma and her vanishing lover. [As a thank-you for the Marcher Chapter’s invaluable support, the story is dedicated to them.]

bicorne hate silhouette naval officerNonetheless, it was hard to continue because my hero kept refusing to come out of the shadows. I didn’t know his name, or his background. I wasn’t even sure he was a Navy man.

A frock coat and a little bit of gold braid could have been something else, couldn’t it? Though I did know that he “smelt of fresh winds and freedom”.

Writing into the mist?

I am a pantser. I do write into the mist. But I’d never written a timeslip before and I’d never written a story where I had so few ideas about my hero at the outset. Ideas about his background simply refused to come. So I had no choice but to keep writing. And hoping for enlightenment.

silhouette of man and woman with fiery heartIn the end, the problem solved itself in the most practical fashion.

As I wrote on, I realised that the story had to be told entirely from the heroine’s point of view. She didn’t know who the hero was either, even though he knew her. Rather well, in fact…

So one key thread of the story became Emma’s attempts to unravel the mystery of the hero’s identity and what their shared past might have been. As Emma found things out, so did I — eventually.

And some of it surprised us both.

Ideas can turn into beginning, middle, & end

After a lot of angst, and some wrong turnings, the story finally had a beginning, a middle and an end. And what I had originally imagined as a 40,000-word novella had turned into a full length (90,000+) novel. That was a surprise, too. With a grateful nod to my subconscious, I published the ebook in October 2018.

alternative covers for Lady in Lace by Joanna MaitlandThere is one other wrinkle about subconscious promptings that I’d like to share.

The original dress in the Hereford museum was silver. But my subconscious had the idea that it should, in fact, be gold lace rather than silver. Not totally sure why, but it was nagging at me so I thought I should listen. I even had two different covers designed (shown here) in the hope that the solution would be obvious. But even then, I couldn’t decide between silver and gold.

In the end, I put it to a reader poll, via Twitter, where the majority went for the gold lace cover. Thank you, dear readers. I can tell you that Emma is very happy with her gold lace.

And who or what did the hero turn out to be? Um, sorry, that would be a spoiler. The only way to find the answer to that question is to read the book… 😉

Joanna Maitland, author


PS I learned recently, from BBC Radio3, that it’s not only authors who can use the subconscious in this way. Tartini‘s violin sonata, The Devil’s Trill, apparently came to him in a dream in which he was being given a violin lesson by the devil. When he woke up, he wrote it down. So, clearly, my subconscious and I are in illustrious company.

14 thoughts on “Inspiration : writing ideas and the subconscious

  1. Elizabeth Bailey

    All so evocative. I have dreamed plots too. Or songs nag at me for a story. Other times, the thing just arrives out of the blue, as you say, with no why or wherefore. There are those that germinate for years too, ticking away until you finally have to pay attention and write them.
    Am also a firm believer in listening to the inner writer who usually knows…. unless she’s sulking or asleep when I need her!

  2. Liz

    I did once dream the start of a story and rushed to the keyboard to get it down on waking. I did eventually write it, but not for a couple of years as, unfortunately, the dream stopped there and never resumed. My Muse has been sulking for a very long time. It’s mostly a suggestion from an editor and a lot of hard work these days.

    1. Liz

      Not to suggest it isn’t all hard work. Not so much flying into the mist as groping through a pea-souper would describe it better!

    2. Joanna Post author

      You’re right about the hard work, of course. And I did struggle with Lady in Lace when my subconscious refused to play ball. You just have to keep at it and keep groping forward through the pea-souper sometimes.

  3. lesley2cats

    I once dreamt a story which turned into a magazine short, but that’s the only time. Sadly, like Liz, I have to have inspiration fed to me, mostly by elder son. I think I had ideas once…

  4. Louise Allen

    The wonderful C S Forester said something to the effect that his subconscious was like a swamp. Stuff fell into it – everything from insects to great trees, rotted down and occasionally bubbles of escaping gas would reach the surface – and those were his ideas. That certainly feels like the way my mind works!

  5. Sophie

    Goodness, I didn’t realise words of mine had set you off like that. Actually, I’m sure they didn’t. I bet the What If was already swirling around or you’d never have told me about the ruined silver dress in the first place.

    1. Joanna Post author

      You may be right but what you said made me think about the dress as a story topic. Maybe it was already swirling about, but it hadn’t entered my conscious mind until you provided the spark.

  6. Sarah

    You have really touched a nerve here, Joanna. Dreams, subconscious, characters haunting you – all inspiration for the creative mind! I had a “what if” moment with my dual time book, Moonshadows: what if the rake did NOT get the girl? Boy did that Georgian hero haunt me until I had written the book.
    I am so glad you persevered with this one, Joanna, it has a super premise, very intriguing!

    1. Joanna Post author

      I’m glad to learn that other writers are haunted in the same way as me, Sarah. And thank you for the kind words about Lady in Lace.

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