Where Do Successful Authors Get Their Most Brilliant Writing Ideas?

Do writing ideas just fall out of the sky? Is it reasonable to sit around waiting for a great idea to land on your lap, so you can write the next big bestseller?

I don’t think so.

When it comes to developing worthwhile writing ideas, it’s either feast or famine for most of us. Some writers have so many ideas, we can’t decide which one to pursue. Other writers struggle to find something worth writing about; they don’t have enough ideas.

And even if you have a compelling idea, the idea itself might not sustain a story or a poem. It’s not enough to have a concept: you need characters, settings, plots, subplots, and themes.

When writers are at a loss for ideas, they often self-diagnose with writer’s block. I believe that’s a misdiagnosis. People struggling with writer’s block aren’t at a loss for ideas. Many are merely dismissing their own good ideas (often because they aren’t perceived as original enough), or they don’t want to put a lot of effort into looking for ideas. I also think that poor health or stress are sometimes misread as writer’s block, in which case the only cure is to take better care of oneself.

However, for the rest of us who are struggling to find the right ideas, there’s no shortage of sources we can turn to for inspiration. Why not start at the top? Why not find out where some of the most successful authors have gotten their brilliant writing ideas? If that doesn’t inspire us, I don’t know what will.
No Imagination Necessary

First, let us dispel the myth that if you want to be a writer, you must have a vivid imagination. Plenty of writers have found success by being simple observers.

Mark Twain is a shining example. His idea for Huckleberry Finn wasn’t an idea at all; he simply based the character on someone he knew from real life. It turns out that the beloved character was practically a replica of Twain’s childhood friend, Tom Blankenship:

“In Huckleberry Finn I have drawn Tom Blankenship exactly as he was. He was ignorant, unwashed, insufficiently fed; but he had as good a heart as ever any boy had. His liberties were totally unrestricted. He was the only really independent person—boy or man—in the community, and by consequence he was tranquilly and continuously happy and envied by the rest of us.” — Mark Twain

Have you ever known someone with a standout personality? Such a person can influence your work in the same way that Tom Blankenship influenced Mark Twain.

Political, Religious, and Social Commentary

Of course, Mark Twain is not the only author to successfully draw from real life. During the Great Depression, hundreds of thousands of people migrated from the Dust Bowl to California and other western states. John Steinbeck (one of my literary heroes) told their story in The Grapes of Wrath, which was developed from a series of articles that ran in the San Francisco News in 1936.

But it was more than a story about people struggling with poverty in a downtrodden economic climate:

“I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this [the Great Depression and its effects].” — John Steinbeck

Steinbeck’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel is a thoughtful commentary on social injustice and the forces behind poverty and oppression.

In today’s world, which is rampant with political, religious, and sociological commentary, one need not look far for writing ideas. If you can find an issue that matters to you, just look to the news and documentaries for true stories that you can use for inspiration.

Dreaming Things Up

Creative people from all walks of life from artists to inventors have found answers and ideas within the magical world of dreams. One of the most successful living authors of our time, Stephen King, attributes a dream as the inspiration for Misery, a novel that was also made into a film and an off-Broadway play:

“Like the ideas for some of my other novels, that came to me in a dream…I fell asleep on the plane, 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.”– Stephen King

Unfortunately, many of us don’t remember our dreams, and if we do, they’re hazy at best. Luckily, there are some proven techniques to help us learn how to remember our dreams. Try a few of them and see if you can’t get your next big writing idea while you’re sound asleep.

Making Connections

Suzanne Collins broke the mold with The Hunger Games, arguably the most successful post-Harry Potter series to date. The books captured the hearts and minds of untold millions of young adult readers, and the films turned the story into a cultural phenomenon. So how did she do it? Where did Collins get the idea for a dystopian, young adult novel set in a future where citizens are required to tune in to an annual reality show so they can watch teenagers fight to the death in an oversized arena?

“One night, I was lying in bed and I was very tired, and I was just sort of channel surfing on television. And, I was going through, flipping through images of reality television where there were these young people competing for a million dollars or a bachelor or whatever. And then I was flipping and I was seeing footage from the Iraq War. And these two things began to sort of fuse together in a very unsettling way, and that is when I, really, I think was the moment where I really got the idea for Katniss’s story.” — Suzanne Collins

Look at the world around you. There are unimaginable things happening everywhere. Some are horrific; others are endearing or bizarre. What connections can you make in the world today to prompt yourself to imagine what the world will be like tomorrow?

No Excuses! Writing Ideas Are Everywhere

So much for writer’s block — and so much for imagination. We writers need only be influenced and inspired by the world (and the people) around us.

“You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it.” — Neil Gaiman

You know what that means: no more excuses! You’re a writer, so go out there, find your writing ideas, and then write. Write your hearts out.

Source: writingforward

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The Ultimate Guide to Titles: Book Titles, Article Titles, and More

You’ve written something: a book, a blog post, an article, a listicle, some work of written art. And now you’re about ready for the world to read it, but one thing is missing: the perfect book title, article title, or novel title.

Your title will either grab your readers attention or be another phrase they glance over. It is the deciding factor of whether or not they read your work of art.

After running and working on various blogs and books over the last few years, I’ve learned a few things that grab readers’ attention. Here are my best tips to writing the perfect nonfiction book title, blog post title, or novel title.

How to Come Up With the Best Titles for Books and Blogs

Book titles and blog post titles are often very different. Depending on what genre you are titling, you’ll use different tactics. Here are strong strategies for each one:

Nonfiction Book Titles

When titling a nonfiction book, it’s best to be very clear about what your book is going to do for the reader. In nonfiction, we aim for simplicity and clarity.

Some of my favorite nonfiction book titles are Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, How to Win Friends and Influence People, and our own, Let’s Write a Short Story.

All of those bestselling books have titles that make it very clear what is inside their covers. They are upfront with what they plan to teach and offer you.

Novel Titles

With fiction, we’re allowed to have a little more fun.

Beat Writer’s Block with Grimms’ Fairy Tales

I know what a friend looks like. Friends are there to support you when you need them. If you call in desperation, they come over. If you need a laugh, they crack a joke. If you’re down, they give a helping hand.

However, I’ve concluded that the Muses are not my friends.

Those unseen forces of inspiration that gift creatives with shiny new ideas, they don’t come over when I need them. They don’t pick me up when I’m down, and they don’t crack jokes when I need a laugh. Instead, they willingly abandon me to the clutches of writer’s block.

“Help me,” I cry with desperation  into the blank scene of my laptop. “Please. I’ve got nothing. I need you.”

“I’m sorry,” the voice of the Muses’ smug personal assistant says on the other end of the line in my mind. “The Muses are busy right now. I’ll let them know you called. Please try back later when you aren’t ready to write—like during your morning commute when you are stuck in traffic with no way of taking notes, or in the middle of your next business meeting when your boss is sitting across the table watching you. They should be available then. Thank you. Bye-bye.”

If I waited on the Muses to get their lazy butts in gear, I’d never get anything written, which is why I’m happy to share with you the powerful weapon that has lessened my dependence on the Muses and helped me beat the dreaded writer’s block: Grimms’ Fairy Tales. When I get stuck for an idea and don’t know what to write, I turn to the Grimms.

4 Steps to Beating Writer’s Block with the Brothers Grimm

4 Tips for Making Time to Write

If you have trouble with it, then tough. That’s right I said it—tough! Too many writers use lack of time as an excuse not to write. When you say you don’t have the time, what you are really saying is, Something else is more important right now than writing.

Is that really true for you? Are all these other tasks you’re completing, all of them, more important to you than writing? If so, then stop beating yourself up about not writing and put this book down. Writing has to be a priority for you, at least for the next 30 days. I know you’re probably thinking, “I have to feed my kids and take care of my family! How could she say this!” To this I would respond: You absolutely cannot say you don’t have the time unless you write down all of your activities for one week and prove it!

Remember in the last chapter where I discussed how you might have some new, extenuating circumstance holding you back right now? That is not what we are talking about here. We are talking about the regular routine—your daily, weekly, monthly, and even yearly priorities. We are talking about why you may have been stuck working on one manuscript for several years, never getting to the end. Or better (worse) yet, stuck writing the beginnings of several stories but never finding the time to finish one of them.

True, if your child had an accident and you have a lot more to do right now, that is a different situation but if your father needs daily care for the rest of his life … well, that has become part of your routine now. You have to accept it and find a way to live your life.

Many parents with a thousand things on their to-do list find time to write; writing is just number one thousand and one. Seriously. Nora Roberts had a lot on her plate when she started writing—and still does—and yet she’s found the time to pen over a hundred and fifty novels. How does she, or how does any author, take on the daily duties of life and of writing at the same time?

Successful authors manage their time, pure and simple.

Get a small notebook and take it everywhere you go. Write down everything you do and how long it took you to do it. In 90 percent of cases, free moments for writing will be found.

The easiest way to create a new habit is to make it one of the first things you do each day. As each new day progresses, you can be pulled in a number of different directions. There are simply too many distractions that come on once the day is set in motion, not to mention the fatigue that can overcome you after lunch.

What you resolve to do first thing—or at least third thing—in the morning, you will do. It is so much easier to sit down and write a page or two and then conduct your daily business than it is to check e-mail, pay bills, return phone calls, wash your hair, wash your dog, and get pulled into half a dozen different tasks, before trying to write a page or two. This is why many people exercise first thing in the morning. Well, for the next 30 days your exercise is writing. Time management is really self-management.

Have you heard of the Pareto principle, or the 80-20 rule? It is the principle that 20 percent of your time and effort generates 80 percent of the results, or that 80 percent of what you accomplish is caused by 20 percent of your effort. Most things in life were found to be distributed this way (the distribution of wealth, the number of writers to the percentage of total books sold, etc.)

So, if 20 percent of your effort causes 80 of your accomplishments, wouldn’t it be great if you focused on that 20 percent of result-getting effort 100 percent of the time? Of course it would! Think of all the free time you would have if you only had to do a fraction, the most effective part, of the daily, too-often-unproductive grind. We all waste time and effort, every single day. We do things that will get us nowhere, things that won’t yield any value in our lives. This stuff takes up 80 percent of our effort, if we let it. (There are numerous books out on this principle if you want more information.) This means that as you embark on your BIAM, you must:

  • drop all that busy work that gets you nowhere;
  • drop all the clients who don’t add to your business and do eat into your writing time;
  • drop all the negative writer friends who drag you down;
  • drop the agent who is holding you back;
  • drop all the manuscripts you don’t really love, those you started just because you thought they were marketable;
  • drop all your high expectations—you don’t have to have the cleanest house on the block (one writer was spending six hours every Saturday cleaning her house, and she had no kids or pets!);
  • drop whatever you find is within that 80 percent of wasted effort. Focus on that result-getting 20 percent of effort.

When you focus on things that don’t truly matter to you, you are working within the 80 percent of effort that won’t get you the 20-percent results you want. How could it?

We have so much more time available to us now than at any other time in history; it’s just that our thinking is flawed. There was a time when women spent ten hours doing the laundry by hand; now, we just pop it into a machine. Where did those ten hours go? Get a copy of PBS’s The 1900 House and see how people used to live.

Studies show we actually have too much time available to us, and we squander it.

We fill our days with meaningless tasks. Read Living the 80/20 Way by Richard Koch (www.the8020principle.com), and your eyes will be opened:”We have never been so free, yet failed to realize the extent of our freedom. We have never had so much time, yet felt we had so little. Modern life bullies us to speed up our lives … but going faster only makes us feel like we’re always behind.”

Simplify your life and focus on the 20 percent of activity and effort that gives you 80 percent of happiness and results, at least for 30 days.

Don’t get confused here—this principle is not about being fast but about slowing down and focusing on what is important to you. If you want to go to the country (your goal), you can go via the quick, less scenic route or the longer, more picturesque one. Both routes fit in with the 80-20 principle—if you like to drive fast then take a fast route; if you like to enjoy the scenery then take the scenic route. You create your goal and then get there in the way that uses your skills and interests … your 20 percent.

If you force yourself to go via the scenic route when you really love speed, you will be unhappy because you won’t get there fast enough; thus, the scenic route becomes part of your 80 percent of wasted effort. The trick, then, is to know both your “to-do” and “not to-do” list, to know your wants as well as your don’t-wants.

Keep track of your writing time every day using the following Writing Time Tracker. Write in the number of hours you spend on each area, for each day, for one project over 30 days. You can also plug in word or page counts in “Totals.”

The final rows of each week can be customized. When you sit down to write, note the time and when you are done jot down how long you worked in each category. The “Miscellaneous” category is for research, reading, writing exercises, buying materials, and other writing-related tasks. Use the blank rows for other types of non-writing distractions that come up during your set writing time.

Find the time any way you can and take it. Of course I don’t condone lying or cheating to get the time you need, though some writers have stretched the truth a bit. Dr. Mira Kirshenbaum says: “Don’t ask for time for yourself. If you ask, people can say no. If you just do it, then you’ve done it and you’ve got it. Your being happy is the only change they’ll notice.”

The point she is making in the quote is that, while writing may be important to you, few people in your life will see it as important. Many will just see it as an unnecessary indulgence. Asking them to help you find time for writing just won’t work. Of course if you had a major circumstance or emergency these same people would give you all the time you needed, so the time is there. They just might not see writing as worthy of it.

You have to decide writing is worthy of that time, and then just take it.

One writer had more than three months of sick and personal leave saved up at his day job. His boss wanted him to use some of it before he lost it. He was afraid to take off, but he did and now has a small but steady writing career in the works.

By: Victoria Lynn Schmidt Ph.D

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12 time management tips for writers

One of the biggest challenges self-employed writers, editors, bloggers or other freelancers face is how to make the best use of your time.

If you’re a one-person shop, you’re responsible for marketing and sales (pitches and contract negotiations), creative (research, reporting, writing, editing), billing (sending invoices), collections, and promotions (Twitter, Facebook et al).

Not only do you have to figure  out how to divide your time to cover all those aspects of running a business, you also have to resist giving into to a myriad of potential distractions – after all, you can’t exactly turn off email and Twitter if you use both for work, right?

A recent WordCount Twitter chat tackled  the subject of time management for writers. Close to a dozen freelancers used the hour to share their biggest frustrations and the steps they take to stay organized and productive. They also shared tech tools they use to keep on top of work.

In this recap, I’ve included the best time management tips for writers.

Writers’ biggest time management struggles

Writers’  obstacles to using time more effectively fall into these categories:

  • Balance – Meeting current deadlines and marketing to existing and new clients to keep work coming in.
  • Focus – Switching from task to task or project to project without getting distracted.
  • Expectations – Creating realistic expectations for how much can be accomplished in an an hour, day, week or month – so you don’t take on too much and feel overloaded or too little and not be able to pay the bills. “I yo-yo between saying yes too much or too little,” says Boston freelancer Susan Johnston, who participated in the chat. “Things fall through so sometimes I end up with the right workload.”
  • Flexibility – Staying loose enough to deal with the unforeseen circumstances that inevitably crop up while maintaining enough structure to finish projects on deadline. “Someone asked, ‘What’s your typical day like?’ San Diego freelancer Louise Julig says. “I said, ‘What’s a typical day?’”
  • Multitasking – Working on multiple projects simultaneously, a normal part of a freelancer’s life.

Strategies for boosting productivity

Writers say they use a wide range of strategies to stay productive. Here are some suggestions they made during the chat:

1. Turn off distractions.

Disconnect the phone. Don’t check email. Log off Facebook. Don’t answer the doorbell. If you absolutely must stay online, close all but one tab on your browser. I use a Chrome extension called StayFocusd to limit the number of minutes I can spend during work hours on sites like Facebook and Pinterest where I like to goof off.

2. Use a timer.

Set an egg timer or an online timer for 30 minutes or another specific period of time and don’t do anything but write. Give yourself a short break, then set it again, and again until you finished what you’re doing.

3. Use a goal buddy.

Some freelancers team up with a writing partner and schedule regular check ins to keep each other accountable for how they’re using their time. Some writing buddies check in with each other every hour, others once a day, once a week or once a quarter.

4. Set goals.

Laura Vanderkam, a New York freelance writer and author of 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, says she writes out big priorities for week. It’s a short list, “but they have to all get done. Schedule ’em in. Leave floater days open for flotsam,” she says.

5. Reward yourself.

Many writers set daily or weekly goals and reward themselves for finishing tasks or meeting deadlines. Rewards don’t have to be big – a walk with the dog, an afternoon nap, coffee with a friend, a glass of wine at the end of the day. The point is to treat yourself for getting the job done. Other writers say the only reward they need is the one that counts the most – the paycheck that comes after they’ve filed a story.

6. Break up the day into chunks.

“I try to block out my time and schedule 1-2 hours dedicated to each project, and not do work for anything else during that time,” says Denver freelancer Nicole Relyea. “I use a whiteboard that has sections for each day of the week,” says Portland freelancer Jennifer Willis. “I map out my daily activities for the week, and try to stick to it.”

7. Follow a formal productivity regime.

Some writers swear by productivity regimes such as David Allen’s Getting Things Done, The Artist’s Way or Tim Ferris’ The Four-Hour Work Week. Others say they’re turned off, especially by Ferris, who suggests only checking email twice a day. “I felt like it was based on a faulty premise. Some emails DO require immediate answers,” Johnston says.

8. Use to-do lists.

Some writers swear by to-do lists — myself included — and are hooked on the immense satisfaction that comes with crossing things off the list once they’re finished. “I stick with a to-do list that I accomplish in any order. I’m not restricted and feel accomplished at the end of the day,” says Florida writer Sakura Chica.

9. Work when nobody else is.

Some writers get up early or work late, so they can write without interruption. Friday afternoons are great for writing — if you still have energy after almost an entire work week — because everyone who’d normally be calling, emailing or texting is trying to wrap up work and head out the door for the weekend. The same’s true of any day before a three-day weekend, or holidays.

10. Work when you’re “on.”

Use the time of day when you have the most energy to tackle the hardest tasks on your to-do list.

11. Tackle the hardest stuff first.

Some writers call this “eating the frog.” Pick the one thing you’re dreading and do it first – getting it out of the way can be enough of a psychological boost to carry you through the rest of the day.

12. Hire help.

Use a virtual assistant to take care of administrative tasks, or off load non-work chores such as housecleaning, yard maintenance, grocery shopping to carve out more time for work. “I hired a virtual assistant to handle some of my administrative tasks, freeing me up for big picture thinking,” Johnston says. “She proofreads, researches, formats guest blog posts, searches for images on Flickr, etc.”

By Michelle V. Rafter

Source: michellerafter

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Why Write A Book?

Today I have a guest post from the lovely Andrea Mara, whose debut, The Other Side of the Wall, was published recently. Dublin is a busy place for book launches during the summer, and unfortunately Andrea and Carmel, a friend of mine, had theirs on the same night, and without some sort of cloning machine I couldn’t make both. I like to support other authors (because I know, quite well, the horrible, gnawing fear that no one will show up to your book launch!) so to make up for the fact that I couldn’t physically go to her launch, I invited Andrea on here instead. Take it away, Andrea! 

Why did you want to write a book?

That the question that came today from my five-year-old, as only the simplest questions with the most complex answers do. (How does sound come out of the radio? How do gears in a car work?)

Why did I want to write a book? It’s a good question, and I don’t know if I have the answer. If the question is simply why do you write? the answer is easy – it’s one a writing friend often gives when she’s asked the same question. I can’t not write.

But that refers to blogging, or general navel-gazing type writing.

If I break the kinds of writing I do into compartments – blogging, features, and fiction – then blogging is the one I truly, truly enjoy and do willingly, or even more than that, do compulsively.

And perhaps that’s logical – blogging is not paid, I have no boss, no word count, no timer, no rules, no deadlines. I’m not beholden to anyone. I can write about anything that comes into my head – how much I hate driving, saying goodbye to my old couch (four of us cried, so it got its own memorial blog post), or the time I got my brows tinted and ended up looking like someone Sellotaped a caterpillar to my forehead.

It is said that if you can make your hobby your job, you’ll be happy for life, and for sure, if you’re lucky enough to do that, work is likely to be a lot more fulfilling than doing a job you hate.

But at the same time, once anything becomes work, it becomes, well, work. If you have to complete it by a certain time, to a certain standard, ready for judgement by one or many people, it takes on a new dimension and might not be quite as much fun. And that’s all very well when it’s a 1,200 word feature for a newspaper, something that can be completed in a few days or weeks, but what about a book? 100, 000 words; life-suspending deadlines; Christmas-cancelling pressure, and no idea if in the end anyone will like it – who would willingly do that? I can see where my five-year-old is coming from.

I don’t think anyone does it for the money. Unless you’re selling seven million copies, you’re probably not doing it for the money, and there have been many newspaper articles recently on just how little Irish authors earn.

I don’t think anyone does it to be famous – most authors aren’t famous.

And I doubt anyone does it because it’s easy – we can unanimously agree it’s not easy.

Perhaps some people do it because they love writing fiction, and they don’t mind whether or not their work is ever published. But most authors and aspiring authors I know (with some exceptions) would like to be published.

Maybe some write because it’s enjoyable. I think it’s enjoyable when you’re in the zone – when you’re knee-deep in a scene and feeling every emotion the characters are feeling and tapping out the drama with your fingers flying on the keys; furiously flurrying, needing to get it all down. But for every day like that, there are days when you sit down and stare at a blank screen, looking for any distraction possible to avoid having to come up with the words.

So why do it?

For me, having turned it over in my mind since my son asked me the question, I think it’s because I wondered what if this is something I can do, and what if I don’t try? What if it’s my thing, but I never find out?

I had a story rattling around in my head – prompted by the many night wakings of my babies, wondering what would happen if I saw something in the middle of the night. I wanted to try writing down the story and see where it would go. What if it was terrible? But then, what if it wasn’t?

And in the end, doing it was easier than not doing it, and wondering what might have been.

Thanks, Andrea!


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3 Clever Ways to Write What You Know

The advice “write what you know” can be disheartening. If you’re like me, you probably feel like you don’t “know” much. How can we write what we know if what we know has been mundane and ordinary?

I’ve got good news for you. You know more than you think.

3 Things You Know

I think we can take the phrase “write what you know” too literally. We allow it to constrain us and we end up writing fictionalized memoirs. We tell ourselves that because we’ve never done something, we can’t write about it realistically.

I was guilty of this with my first novel, a wandering story about a young southern pastor trying to adapt to life in inner city Baltimore. When I went to write my second novel, I was trapped. I’d explored all my exciting experiences already. The well was dry.

Then I realized that I could use the phrase “write what you know” in different ways. Rather than writing versions of experiences I’d had, I could take smaller components of what I knew (knowledge from study, locations I’d been, and people I’ve met) as inspiration for my work.


1. Write WHAT You Know

Sometimes when we write we can find inspiration from topics we’ve invested in.

Before writing thirty-two books and becoming the father of the techno-thriller genre, Michael Crichton was deeply invested in scientific pursuits. After receiving an undergraduate degree in biological anthropology at Harvard College, he received an MD from Harvard Medical School, did clinical rotations at Boston City Hospital, and completed a post-doctoral fellowship at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.

It should be no surprise then that Crichton’s work is filled with scientific quandaries. For example, his breakout novel, The Andromeda Strain, is about a team of scientists investigating a viral outbreak.

Writing from the knowledge we have of professions we’ve practiced or areas we studied can give us a launching point for stories that will pull our readers in. Recalling details from personal experience will save us time and energy we might otherwise spend researching.

2. Write WHERE You Know

Sometimes the thing that can bring us inspiration is a place.

While John Grisham is known in his for writing “what” he knows, he was a lawyer before he defined the legal thriller genre. He also writes “where” he knew. Grisham grew up and lived a large part of his life in the American south, specifically in Mississippi. It should be no surprise then that his early works like A Time to Kill, The Firm, and Pelican Brief, occur in the American south.

As Grisham found success as a writer, he began to travel more frequently. In interviews, he has discussed his love for the Italian people and culture. His 2005 novel The Brooker and his 2007 novel Playing for Pizza both center on Americans learning about the culture of rural Italy.

Choosing a place that you love and are familiar with as the setting for your story can inspire your writing and make one aspect of the work—describing the setting—far easier.

3. Write WHO You Know

Sometimes the inspiration we need is people.

Leaning on his skills as a journalist, author Jon Ronson has leveraged his deep knowledge and understanding of people to pen his ten books. Filled with conversations and observations of the people he meets, Ronson’s books investigate fascinating and troubling aspects of modern life.

For example, in his book The Psychopath Test, Ronson’s exploration of the subject contains multiple conversations with the psychologist Robert B. Hare and with a patient Ronson calls “Tony” who is in Broadmoor Psychiatric Hospital. These fascinating interactions create a narrative backbone for the book that take readers on a journey through the topic of psychopathy.

Using interesting people we’ve met as inspiration for our work can make our characters seem larger than life. Additionally, writing people we know or have met into our stories will give us a foundation to work from so we aren’t trying to create complex characters in our work from scratch.

The Power of Writing What You Know

“Write what you know” shouldn’t be constraining. You don’t need to have lived the life your main characters live. Rather, allow the phrase make your job as a writer easier. By writing what, where, and who we know, we can bring realism and life to our stories in a way our imaginations may not be capable of if forced to work from scratch.

How do you write what you know? Let us know in the comments.

by Jeff Elkins

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How to Write A Creative Brief So Your Graphic Designer Creates An Amazing Book Cover

If you’re an indie author on the journey of producing your own book, one of the roles you get to play is the Art Director of your book’s cover. Professional cover designers are trained in typography, photo editing, and design—but they’re not expected to know anything about your book or your visual preferences.

Communicating your vision is your responsibility. Luckily, a document called a Creative Brief exists to help you convey your intentions to your graphic designer. If you’ve never heard of a Creative Brief, no worries. Here’s all you need to know to create a document that communicates your wants and needs to a graphic artist so you’ll get a professional, attention-grabbing, hard-to-resist cover.

Anatomy of a Creative Brief

Below is a list of the elements of a Creative Brief. You can use this article as a template for creating your own document to communicate with your graphic designer.

Part 1: Administrative Info

Working name of project: Let the graphic designer know the  way you refer to your book, if you have a nickname that’s different from the exact title. Otherwise, you may spend some money undoing a silly mistake.

Project Due Dates: List the kick-off date (the date the project starts) the dates that your final materials are due, and the dates of all intermediary deadlines. I like to schedule 3 rounds of edits.

Project Goals: List the overall goals of your project simply and clearly. For example, your goal may be to create a series of 3 attractive, powerful covers to “brand” your line of instructional books about flower arranging. Be explicit that the books are part of a series and should share the same format, font, etc. Perhaps each book should have its own unique color but they all need to feel like they are in the same family.

“Must Have” Information: List out the content that’s included in all book covers, the title, subtitle, author and illustrator names and the series name, if it’s part of a series. If you’re an indie authors and have created a name for your publishing house, list that too. Include the logo file, if you’ve got one, in a high-resolution format.

Content: All books have certain blocks of content. Write this up and edit it before you give it to your graphic designer. Any changes you make to the text after the graphic designer has it can lead to additional expenses—so do your prep work ahead of time. The content includes:

  • Author Bio (about a paragraph)
  • Author Photo (highest quality resolution)
  • Photographer Credit
  • Book Blurb (a paragraph or two)
  • Testimonials (short quotes from other authors or experts)
  • Awards your book has won, if any, and the graphics that accompany them

Price and ISBN: It’s your responsibility to acquire an ISBN. There are many sources for this, including many of the print-on-demand resources. So look into the options available to you. You are going to want to instruct the designer not to print a price on your book so you can have pricing flexibility as your book sales grow and change in the future. Also, when you order your ISBN, opt not to include the price in the bar code.

Part 2: Creative Info

Visual ideas: Think about which character and objects represent the spirit of your book and list them for the designer. If you have a preference about other elements, such as you prefer images from nature or love the style of certain artist, list it here. You may want to copy-and-paste covers of books you admire. Or if you’ve already got a book or two that’s for sale, make sure the designer sees them so they can all share a visual theme.

Mood of Cover: Define the mood of your books because you can’t expect the designer to read them. Put on paper the aspects you want to convey with the design, for example: “I want these covers to reflect the high quality of these books.  We want readers to feel confident and assured that these books are professional, that the books will guide them in an approachable and friendly way to make the best flower arrangements for their homes.”

Genre samples. List the genre and provide some samples of book covers you like. List the elements you like and explain why. Your book should look like it fits in with other books of its genre so your potential readers can easily recognize it. (Sure, you can be creative and make your book look different from other titles in its genre, however if you do so, you will risk losing sales. If you want to sell as many books as possible, don’t stray outside your genre’s cover norms.)

If you want a book cover that reflects your vision and matches the quality of the writing inside, give your designer clear direction and thoughtful notes on your vision. Provide all the information your cover designer needs in a carefully prepared Creative Brief.

Source: digitalbookworld

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How Important Is Research to Your Work?

How important is research to writing a great novel? What if it’s not historical? Is it even necessary if it’s a fictional setting/town set in current time? Won’t your readers already have a good idea of what life is like in today’s world?

These are all questions novelists face when writing a book these days. It’s a fairly common view that if it’s historical, a writer needs to research the period for speech patterns, dress, and other aspects of the time it portrays such as food preparation methods, farming or hunting procedures, societal mores, etc.

But what if it’s set in today’s world? Can you get away with not researching if your characters live in current times in a culture that’s familiar to most of your perceived audience? While that decision rests entirely with the writer, if I were asked for my two cents, I’d have to say no–as in, “no, you shouldn’t try to get away without researching.” And my reason for that is simple. It shows when you research and it shows when you don’t.

As an example, my current series is set in rural Virginia in current times. While speech patterns are broadly consistent across our nation at this time, many of my characters are older. Their speech was formulated decades before young people today. They’re from the south, so that adds another layer of differences to be considered. They’re also nuts, but that’s a whole other post for another day. Each of these slight differences adds up to a big gap in what a younger (sane) person from the north would agree is “normal” for them. Now, keep in mind we’re not trying to make everything our characters do or everything about our setting seem “normal” to all our readers. That would be impossible, not to mention boring. Celebrating the differences in human beings, in our lifestyles, food preferences, society’s cultural expectations, language, and other things that define us is part of the mystery and appeal of books.

So what are we trying to do? We’re trying to make our work authentic. While no one will ever visit Road’s End, the fictional village in my series, I want to make them want to. In fact, I strive to make them feel as though they have visited it, that they know the residents, that they understand what World War II veterans think about world affairs today, or what things the reader and the character might agree or disagree on, and for what reasons. The little details I incorporate–whether it’s a speech  colloquialism, weather tidbit, or local plant life–makes the setting and characters that much more authentic and appealing. I want my readers to be sad to say goodbye to the characters and yearn to visit the location themselves.

Isn’t that the reason we write–to invite readers into a world we’ve created as authentically and appealingly as we can? To make them want to return again and again? To tell others about this great world (re: book) they’ve discovered that made them feel as though they were in its pages?

What about you? Do you research?

By Deborah Dee Harper

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Rebecca Solnit on a Childhood of Reading and Wandering

This essay is adapted from a talk given at California’s Novato Public Library earlier this year.

There are ecological reasons to question how books are made out of trees but metaphysical reasons to rejoice in the linkage between forests and libraries, here in this public library, in the town I grew up in, with the fiber from tens of thousands of trees rolled out into paper, printed and then bound into books, stacked up in rows on the shelves that fill this place and make narrow corridors for readers to travel through, a labyrinth of words that is also an invitation to wander inside the texts. The same kind of shade and shelter that can be found in an aisle of books and an avenue of trees, and in the longevity of both, and the mere fact that both, if not butchered or burned, may outlive us.

In the most egalitarian of European—and New Mexican—traditions, forests were public commons in which common people could roam, graze flocks, hunt and gather, and this is another way that forests when they are public land and public libraries are alike: as spaces in which everyone is welcome, as places in which we can wander and collect, get lost and find what we’re looking for.

The United States’s public libraries sometimes seem to me the last refuges of a democratic vision of equality, places in which everyone is welcome, which serve the goal of an informed public, offering services far beyond the already heady gift of free books you can take home, everything from voter registration to computer access. I’ve joked for a long time that if you walked up to people in the street and asked them whether we could own our greatest treasures collectively and trust people to walk away with them and bring them back, a lot of people would say that’s impossibly idealistic and some would say it’s socialist, but libraries have been making books free for all for a very long time. They are temples of books, fountains of narrative pleasure, and toolboxes of crucial information. My own writing has depended on public libraries and then university libraries and archives and does to this day. I last used a public library the day before yesterday.

I grew up here—the hills to the north of me and this very library to the south of me were my refuges, formative influences that are with me still, in who I am and what I write. I wander other hills and other libraries now, but this is where I started, and I’m moved to be back, and grateful for what I was given in this very building.


“To stand in this library again is a profound experience, a return to a wellspring of story and encouragement.”


So very many trees in Novato are little changed since my childhood, and in that childhood there were said to be bay trees standing at Rancho Olompali scarred by the bullets fired in the surprise raid of the Yankees on the Mexican rancho the Miwok village there had become. So let’s begin by recognizing that all this was—and in many moral ways still is—Coast Miwok land, before the Spanish came, before Spanish claims became Mexican claims, before this was considered to be part of Mexico, before it was part of the United States.

The oldest thing I own, stones aside, is a small two-volume edition of the essay-periodical The Spectator, from 1722, in which a Sophia Jones wrote her name on the flyleaf in 1780, when the United States was a four-year-old republic of thirteen eastern states, when Mission Dolores in San Francisco was also four years old, when California was claimed by Mexico but still largely populated by its myriad indigenous nations, and in this town of Novato and county of Marin that meant the Coast Miwok who left names that are still on our landscape, Olompali itself, Tamalpais, Olema, Petaluma, and names that aren’t, including Echetamal, Omioni, Gualen, and Pusaluma. There are trees still standing from when these names were spoken languages, though the paper in my 1722 book is probably the durable stuff made from the discarded linen clothes of people who died before whites had settled in California.

It was here in Novato that Mrs. San Felipe taught me to read at Lu Sutton School, here that I fell in love with books, here that in the first semester of first grade I decided I wanted to be a librarian, because librarians spend their days among books, and then by the second semester realized that someone, many someones, also wrote those books, and that rather than be a librarian I wanted to be a writer.

I’m proud and astonished and lucky that I grew up to write books, and then to make books, as I think of the books where I took a role in the design and the books with other aspects—artworks, maps, design features. The 2010 atlas of San Francisco and the Bay Area I directed and orchestrated includes the map called The Names Before the Names: The Indigenous Bay Area, 1769. The map is based on data gathered by the librarian and artist Lisa Conrad, from research done by Nick Tipon, a descendant of the Coast Miwok on this peninsula, and chair of the Sacred Sites Committee of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, Ohlone environmental historian Chuck Striplen, and ethnogeographer Randall Milliken. They estimate that these people lived in a landscape that was “an enormously detailed tapestry of 35,000 place names for every seven square miles,” Lisa wrote. Most of those names are gone, though Novato itself was named after a Miwok leader who was reportedly baptized with the name of St. Novatus.

When I was growing up here, the textbooks insisted that California’s native people were diggers, a term that referred to digging sticks, and that they were so primitive they hardly had a culture, nothing worth preserving or recollecting. That has changed, and Santa Rosa native son and novelist Greg Sarris was one of the leaders for the project of federal recognition of what is now the federated tribe of Graton Rancheria, bringing together descendants of the Coast Miwok and the Pomo.

When I was young, Novato was an erased landscape when it came to culture, and the nature there in the 1960s and 1970s was different than it is now. DDT was still ravaging birds—whitetailed kites, white and brown pelicans, eagles, osprey, hawks, falcons as well as songbirds—that have since recovered. As I write at the end of A Field Guide to Getting Lost—which ends on the Tomales Peninsula—both elephant seals and tule elk have returned to the county after being nearly driven to extinction at the turn of the 20th century. Mountain lions and coyotes have returned in abundance. This place is not what it was, and it is richer in some ways as well as poorer in others.


“Trees remind us how busy and unstable we are, and how ridiculous that is.”


To stand in this library again is a profound experience, a return to a wellspring of story and encouragement, here where many of the librarians knew me by name when I was a shy kid who’d walk home with a stack of seven books, one to devour each day before exchanging them for the next stack. Had the library not reorganized itself a little since the early 1970s, I could walk straight to where so many of the books that mattered to me between nine and fourteen were located. The single most peaceful memory I have of my father is walking with him one evening over the beautiful old arched bridge across the creek next to the library as owls floated soundlessly overhead.

Browsing, woolgathering, meandering, wandering, drifting, that state when exploring, when looking to find what it might be possible to find rather than seeking one particular goal, is the means of locomotion. I often think that hunter-gatherers must move a lot like this, seeking game or plant foods, flexible about what might show up on any given day. I was lucky that children were weeds, not hothouse flowers, in those days, left to our own devices, and my own devices led in two directions: north to the hills and the horses, south to the library.

I roamed, in walks and words, and those roamings recur in my own writing. My book on walking begins in the Marin Headlands:  

These linked paths and roads form a circuit of about six miles that I began hiking ten years ago to walk off my angst during a difficult year. I kept coming back to this route for respite from my work and for my work too, because thinking is generally thought of as doing nothing in a production-oriented culture, and doing nothing is hard to do. It’s best done by disguising it as doing something, and the something closest to doing nothing is walking. Walking itself is the intentional act closest to the unwilled rhythms of the body, to breathing and the beating of the heart. It strikes a delicate balance between working and idling, being and doing. It is a bodily labor that produces nothing but thoughts, experiences, arrivals. After all those years of walking to work out other things, it made sense to come back to work close to home, in Thoreau’s sense, and to think about walking.

Walking, ideally, is a state in which the mind, the body, and the world are aligned, as though they were three characters finally in conversation together, three notes suddenly making a chord. Walking allows us to be in our bodies and in the world without being made busy by them. It leaves us free to think without being wholly lost in our thoughts. I wasn’t sure whether I was too soon or too late for the purple lupine which can be so spectacular in these headlands, but milkmaids were growing on the shady side of the road on the way to the trail, and they recalled the hillsides of my childhood that first bloomed every year with an extravagance of these white flowers. Black butterflies fluttered around me, tossed along by wind and wings, and they called up another era of my past. Moving on foot seems to make it easier to move in time; the mind wanders from plans to recollections to observations.

I’ve seen a lot of those butterflies—pipevine swallowtails—this spring. And that question about meandering I took up again in A Field Guide to Getting Lost, which begins in the house I grew up in a few blocks from here:

The first time I got drunk was on Elijah’s wine. I was eight or so. It was Passover, the feast that celebrates the flight from Egypt and more generally celebrates freedom. I was sitting at the grown-ups’ table, because when my parents and this other couple joined forces there were five boys altogether, and the adults had decided that I was better off being ignored by their generation than mine. The tablecloth was red and orange, cluttered with glasses, plates, serving dishes, silver, and candles. I confused the stemmed goblet set out for the prophet with my own adjoining shot-glass of sweet ruby wine and drank it up. When my mother eventually noticed, I lurched and grinned a little, but when she looked upset, I imitated sobriety instead of tipsiness.

She was a lapsed Catholic, and the other woman a former Protestant, but their husbands were Jews, and the women thought it good to keep up the custom for the kids. So the glass of wine was set out for Elijah. In some versions, he will come back to earth at the end of time and answer all the unanswerable questions. In others, he wanders the earth in rags, answering difficult questions for scholars. I don’t know if the rest of the tradition was followed and a door left open for him to enter by, but I can picture the orange front door or one of the sliding glass doors into the backyard of this ranch-style house in a small valley open to the cool night air of spring. Ordinarily, we locked doors, though nothing unexpected came down our street in this northernmost subdivision in the county but wildlife, deer tap-tapping on the asphalt in the early hours, raccoons and skunks hiding in the shrubbery. This opening the door to night, prophecy, and the end of time would have been a thrilling violation of ordinary practice. Nor can I recall what the wine opened up for me—perhaps a happier detachment from the conversation going on above me, a sense of limpidness in the suddenly tangible gravity of a small body on this middle-sized planet.

Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go…

This library on Novato Boulevard has Seventh Street as its nearest cross-street, which runs through town and then runs uphill and into the country. The subdivision I grew up in from seven to fourteen was just off Seventh as it became a rural road. I wrote about it in my 1997 A Book of Migrations:

The eastern side of Seventh Street sloped down, and a quarter-horse stud farm took up much of its length. Directly behind our back yard the old stud himself was pastured, a chestnut quarter horse of dignified and incurious bearing, even on those occasions when he dutifully heaved himself atop some mare. The western side of the street rose up in a small steep hill, on whose ridgeline was a blasted oak with an enormous dead limb resembling a stag leaping against the sky (when I returned recently it surprised me by looking that way still—twenty years is not a long time in the life of an oak). Up on the ridge itself were rocky outcroppings covered with lichens, the seats on which in my first years there a brother and I devoured stolen candy and in my last, we smoked pot. The local kids occasionally went cardboard-sliding—what coastal Californians have in place of sledding—down the hill when the grass was slick and dry. The old pieces of cardboard would moulder on the hillside along with abandoned lumber and fallen limbs; under them would develop grassless dark, damp patches in which centipedes, skinks, and alligator lizards lived.

I never saw foxes or coyotes then, and I only heard rumors of mountain lions, but skunks and raccoons would wander down into the shrubbery of the subdivision. Sometimes early in the morning a deer or two would come trotting stately along the middle of the street as though on an inspection tour. There was a girl named Joy who lived near the top of Seventh Street alone with her father and a white horse in a field with a pomegranate tree I raided, past the estate whose grapevines I also raided annually, along with sundry plum trees, prickly pears, and blackberry patches. It must have been the estate which planted the tall pines that flanked a stretch of the road and under whose low branches I built less a tree house than a field nest, of gathered grasses.

I seemed always to be making little homes in the hills, finding hollowed trees in which to store treasures, rocky nooks to spend afternoons in, climbable trees. The best of all was at the top of the street, near where the pavement ended: a huge old-fashioned rosebush which had been running wild for decades until it was a mass the size of a large room; there was a low tunnel to its center, which was not a trunk but a cavernous hollow. Some nights I would lie in the still-warm grass of the hillside, my weight spread so evenly against the earth itself that gravity seemed hardly to hold me, and as I stared up at the stars the sky seemed a deep well I was hanging over and might fall into at any moment. The sensation of fearful vastness was my first introduction to the pleasures and terrors of the infinite.

Up Seventh Street I entered the natural world; I found a dead great horned owl by the side of the road once, probably shot by one of the neighbor boys, and contemplated the beauty of its feathers for a few days before it disappeared; I saw a dead luna moth there too; and many live things, from the parasitic, fascinating horsehairs swimming in the seasonal ditch-stream, to deer and skunks and raccoons and once a sort of parliament of buzzards gathered around something and spreading their enormous wings to air in the sun.

I wrote about some of these creatures in A California Bestiary (created with the artist Mona Caron and Heyday Books):

Bluebelly lizard, or Western Fence Lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis)
The official English name of this creature is the western fence lizard, but they were all over the west millennia before fences were, and the California kids I knew called them bluebellies. Bluebellies were everywhere in the California hills when I was growing up, darting away from us, sometimes—like many other lizard species—shedding their tails when one of my brothers tried to catch them, so that the tail stayed behind flapping frantically, a tactic thought to have evolved to distract the predators. I have seen countless thousands of bluebellies, held dozens, perhaps hundreds, but only twice have I seen the intensely blue males in rut fight each other, scrabbling and separating and gripping, doing pushups on the rocks in between times. (The pushups are thought to impress females and display their blue undersides.) Once they were under live oaks on Mount Tamalpais near the Golden Gate, once they were on the warm granite of the trail up Little Yosemite Canyon; both times I watched until all sense of scale fell away and I might as well have been watching sapphire dragons. But it is not the exceptional moments or exceptional beasts that are grounds for wonder. The everyday bluebelly found everywhere in California but in the deep deserts and highest mountains is, with its purifying blood, its underside of sky, its speed and its talent for survival, already a small astonishment.

If you walked all the way through Seventh Street and then through the swampy pasture where Mrs. Anderson taught me to ride western, you can walk to Mt. Burdell, as we did in summertime. I went up from the north slope a few years ago, to write about the place for Bay Nature:

Old memories of wandering the region came back, including a summer when the grass was taller than we were, and my younger brother and I trampled a labyrinth into it with an occasional overhead arch made of shocks of grass twisted together. It was just wild oats, not the native grasses, but wild oats deserve their poets too, for the wonderful pale gold they turn, for the way the chaff hangs on the plant long after the seed has gone, light and dancing in the breeze. Is there a word for that particular color that is at once pale and golden, not as yellow as grain ripe in the field, a little tawny like lions, both stark for its utter dryness and lush for its abundance, the color of much of the landscape in summer? Should there be, and would it be a phrase like hills of August? Or just summer-colored? Lion-colored?

I entered the Mount Burdell Open Space Preserve (part of the Marin Open Space District) off Simmons Lane, heading north and west from the cul-de-sac of houses, and found a stand of wild oats that was taller than my now-much-taller self, and then a stand of artichoke thistles that must have been eight feet tall. There must have been a tiny miracle in the hydrology or soil of that corner of the preserve. The weeds were this year’s crop, but the trees farther up the trail must have changed little in the 40 years in which I’d changed so much. Wordsworth wrote, “But there’s a tree, of many, one / A single field which I have looked upon / Both of them speak of something that is gone…” But the visionary gleam returns, unexpectedly, as though that familiar face you strained to see in the crowd came suddenly knocking at your door when you least expected.

This, this feeling where recognition mounts into revelation, is a friend who is not reliable, but who nevertheless shows up. There is something ordinarily marvelous about the way that some oak trees grow into hemispheres of foliage, their lowest branches trailing along the ground or elbowing into it, the way they create a shady room within, the way that the larger oaks resemble old men with their gnarled angular limbs and their sense of survivorship. That they’d sat still while I’d grown up and gone away and had various crises and revelations and 90-degree turns and ruptures and advancements, that I might’ve walked by them in 1970, and here they were again hardly changed was sublime and a little mortifying. Trees remind us how busy and unstable we are, and how ridiculous that is.

And those domes of trees and the bare trees whose branches nevertheless carve out a rough hemisphere of space must be, after cumulus clouds, one of the greatest articulators or celebrants of what three dimensions really mean—reaching in every direction, carving out volumes from the air. After clouds and trees, swallows might be best at this job when they swing and plunge through the afternoon air as they did late in my walk. Most of our pleasures—the personal ones of love and friendship, the animal embodiment of everyday activities like walking, the impersonal visual and spatial splendors of form, of scale, of color, and texture, are utterly ordinary, except when they’re not available at all.

A mountain is usually described as a form, but it can also be described as a series of viewpoints, and to walk a mountain is to have vistas appear and vanish, the landscape close around you so that you see only the near and then the far shows up around the bend; to see more and more of the world as you rise and as much as possible at the summit, if you’re not surrounded by fog, clouds, weather, trees or inattention. A less chartable series of subjective viewpoints also flows as you walk: you look at the world around you, you are lost in thought and hardly notice anything until a quail bursts from underfoot or the crack of a stick startles you, you travel back in time and then an intensity of color or the joys of the lines of a madrone bring you into absolute present.

I hike the same hills over and over, Mount Tamalpais, the Marin Headlands, and recently I’ve returned to Big Rock Ridge, the steep wall that curves around the south and west of Novato, and to the same ideas about books and libraries and forests and refuge. I want to end with a passage from The Faraway Nearby, which came out four years ago but reached back to forty years ago and more to think about what books and stories give us:

Like many others who turned into writers, I disappeared into books when I was very young, disappeared into them like someone running into the woods. What surprised and still surprises me is that there was another side to the forest of stories and the solitude, that I came out that other side and met people there. Writers are solitaries by vocation and necessity. I sometimes think the test is not so much talent, which is not as rare as people think, but purpose or vocation, which manifests in part as the ability to endure a lot of solitude and keep working. Before writers are writers they are readers, living in books, through books, in the lives of others that are also the heads of others, in that act that is so intimate and yet so alone.

These vanishing acts are a staple of children’s books, which often tell of adventures that are magical because they travel between levels and kinds of reality, and the crossing over is often an initiation into power and into responsibility. They are in a sense allegories first for the act of reading, of entering an imaginary world, and then of the way that the world we actually inhabit is made up of stories, images, collective beliefs, all the immaterial appurtenances we call ideology and culture, the pictures we wander in and out of all the time. In the children’s books there are inanimate objects that come to life, speaking statues, rings and words of power, talismans and amulets, but most of all there are doors, particularly in the series that I, like so many children, took up imaginative residence in, for some years, The Chronicles of Narnia.

I read one in fourth grade after a teacher who barely knew me handed it to me in the Marion school library; I can still picture his moustache and the wall of books. I read it and read it again and then began to save up to buy the seven books, one at a time. The paperbacks came from Amber Griffin, the enchanted bookstore in the middle of town, whose kind proprietor rewarded me with the case in which the seven books fit when I had paid for the last one. I still have the boxed set, a little tattered though I think no one has ever read them other than me. When I took one out recently, I noticed how dirty the white back of the book was from my small filthy fingers then.

Much has been written about the Christian themes, British boarding school mores, and other contentious aspects of the series, but little has been said about its doors. There is of course the wardrobe in the first book C.S. Lewis wrote, the wardrobe made of wood cut from an apple tree grown from seeds from another world that, when the four children walk into it, opens onto that world. Two of the other books feature a doorway that stands alone so that when you walk around it it is just a frame, three pieces of wood in a landscape, but when you step through it leads to another world. There’s a painting of a boat that comes to life as the children tumble over the picture frame into the sea and another world. There are books and maps that come to life as you look at them.

And there is the Wood Between the Worlds in the book The Magician’s Nephew, which tells the creation story for Narnia, a wood described so enchantingly I sometimes think of it as a vision of peace still. It’s more serene and more strange than the busy symbolism in the rest of the books, with their talking beasts, dwarves, witches, battles, enchantments, castles, and more. The young hero puts on a ring and finds himself coming up through a pool to the forest.

“It was the quietest wood you could possibly imagine. There were no birds, no insects, no animals, and no wind. You could almost feel the trees growing. The pool he had  just got out of was not the only pool. There were dozens of others—a pool every few yards as far as his eyes cold reach. You could almost feel the trees drinking the water up with their roots. This wood was very much alive.” It is the place where nothing happens, the place of perfect peace; it is itself not another world but an unending expanse of trees and small ponds, each pond like a looking glass you can go through to another world. It is a portrait of a library, just as all the magic portals are allegories for works of art, across whose threshhold we all step into other worlds.

Libraries are sanctuaries from the world and command centers onto it: here in quiet rooms are the lives of Crazy Horse and Aung San Suu Kyi, the Hundred Years War and the Opium Wars and the Dirty War, the ideas of Simone Weil and Lao Tsu, information on building your sailboat or dissolving your marriage, fictional worlds and books to equip the reader to reenter the real world. They are, ideally, places where nothing happens and where everything that has happened is stored up to be remembered and relived, the place where the world is folded up into boxes of paper. Every book is a door that opens into another world, which might be the magic that all those children’s books were alluding to, and a library is a Milky Way of worlds. All readers are Wu Daozi; all imaginative, engrossing books are landscapes into which readers vanish.

The object we call a book is not the real book, but its seed or potential, like a music score. It exists fully only in the act of being read; and its real home is inside the head of the reader, where the seed germinates, the symphony resounds. A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another. The child I once was read constantly and hardly spoke, because she was ambivalent about the merits of communication, about the risks of being mocked or punished or exposed. The idea of being understood and encouraged, of recognizing herself in another, of affirmation, had hardly occurred to her and neither had the idea that she had something to give others. So she read, taking in words in huge quantities, a children’s and then an adult’s novel a day for many years, seven books a week or so, gorging on books, fasting on speech, carrying piles of books home from the library.

Writing is saying to no one and to everyone the things it is not possible to say to someone. Or rather writing is saying to the no one who may eventually be the reader those things one has no someone to whom to say them. Matters that are so subtle, so personal, so obscure that I ordinarily can’t imagine saying them to the people to whom I’m closest. Every once in a while I try to say them aloud and find that what turns to mush in my mouth or falls short of their ears can be written down for total strangers. Said to total strangers in the silence of writing that is recuperated and heard in the solitude of reading. Is it the shared solitude of writing, is it that separately we all reside in a place deeper than society, even the society of two? Is it that the tongue fails where the fingers succeed, in telling truths so lengthy and nuanced that they are almost impossible aloud?

I had started out in silence, written as quietly as I had read, and then eventually people read some of what I had written, and some of the readers entered my world or drew me into theirs. I started out in silence and traveled until I arrived at a voice that was heard far away—first the silent voice that can only be read, and then I was asked to speak aloud and to read aloud. When I began to read aloud another voice, once I hardly recognized, emerged from my mouth. Maybe it was more relaxed, because writing is speaking to no one, and even when you’re reading to a crowd, you’re still in that conversation with the absent, the faraway, the not-yet-born, the unknown and the long-gone for whom writers write, the crowd of the absent who hover all around the desk.

Sometime in the late 19th century, a poor rural English girl who would grow up to become a writer was told by a gypsy: “You will be loved by people you’ve never met.” This is the odd compact with strangers who will lose themselves in your words and the partial recompense for the solitude that makes writers and writing. You have an intimacy with the faraway and distance from the near at hand. Like digging a hole to China and actually coming out the other side, the depth of that solitude of reading and then writing took me all the way through to connect with people again in a unexpected way. It was astonishing wealth for one who had once been so poor.

By  Rebecca Solnit

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