It’s no secret that I am a fan of Water for Elephants. Sara Gruen’s novel about a Depression-era circus, which you should definitely read if you haven’t already, captivated me long before Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon were ever involved in a movie deal.
I think a lot of my love for the book stems from my budding appreciation for historical fiction. The idea that an author can transplant us to a way of life we never experienced and, at the same time, create characters and underlying themes that are still relatable in present day.
With WFE, I was also impressed by the massive amount of research that Gruen poured into the novel before ever putting a word down on paper. She bought books, visited the Ringling Circus Museum in Sarasota, and spoke with elephant handlers at the Kansas City Zoo, to name a few.
But how on Earth did she decide to write about the circus?
How did J.K. Rowling create a seven-book series about a boy wizard?
How does any bestselling author, for that matter, come up with a bestselling idea?
If you’ve ever read something and said to yourself, “I wish I would have thought of that,” then you’ve probably also pondered where book ideas come from. It’s a question I’d want to ask all of my favorite authors if I could, though in many ways, I would feel like a kid asking her parents where babies come from. You’re not going to fully understand the explanation until you experience it yourself.
Still, it’s helpful to learn from their stories. Sara Gruen was in the midst of writing a completely different book when she stumbled upon an article in the Chicago Tribune about a photographer who followed traveling circuses around America in the 1920s and 30s. J.K. Rowling discovered Harry Potter while on a train from Manchester to London. And for all you Twilight fans out there, Stephenie Meyer was inspired to write her first book of the vampire series after dreaming about a girl and her sparkling, blood-loving boyfriend lying together in a field.
If you’re noticing a pattern, you’re not alone. It seems that for many of the authors I love, inspiration strikes when they are out there, living their lives, rather than when they are sitting at home with a piece of paper and pen, trying to brainstorm the next great read.
To use another romance adage: Love strikes when you least expect it.
I’m a believer in things like fate, so you’d think this would be enough for me. But it isn’t. Sara Gruen could have skimmed over the newspaper article. J.K. Rowling could have been immersed in someone else’s book while riding that train. Stephenie Meyer could have woken up from her dream and fallen right back asleep, rather than dwelling on it for hours, days, weeks, months, years…
Book ideas may come when we least expect them, but it’s our job to recognize and run with them.
Maybe you’re at the ATM and the $20 bill you pull out has a phone number written on it. Instead of briefly wondering who it could belong to before stuffing it into your wallet, think about what would cause a person to write their number on money in the first place (Serendipity, anyone?). Better yet, call the number and see what happens. This is important research.
Maybe you’re watching the news and catch an absolutely outrageous or terrifying story. Instead of changing the channel because it’s too depressing, put yourself in that person’s shoes.
Maybe just visit this website. If those pictures do not inspire a hilarious story, I don’t know what will.
In short, just become more observant. This is the advice I give myself every day.
My current book idea came to be after reading about a gigantic rose bush. I kid you not. Since then, I have bought four books, checked out countless others from the library and spent more hours than I care to admit typing searches into Google and Wikipedia.
I’ve loved every minute of it. I’m officially 40,000 words into the second book idea – here we go!
(I promise the gigantic rose bush did not make its way into the final plot line.)
Have you ever encountered a person, place, thing or situation that intrigued you?
Feel free to share – or keep it to yourself and get started on the next great American novel.