I’ve been thinking about this question as I begin my fourth novel.
Usually when folks ask me this question, I tell them nature. In many ways, the biology, geology, geography and weather of a place is like another main character, such as the pecan farms and salty bayside breezes of southwest Alabama in How Sweet the Sound; blustery winter in Ukraine and the sunswept Michigan lakeshore in Then Sings My Soul. I tend to imagine myself living in the places we travel to, soaking in the local flavor and scents, terrain and sounds, and I can’t help but share all that in my stories.
Lots and lots and lots of books.
Nonfiction books about settng and time periods.
Fiction books in and out of the genre I’m considering.
Other books completely unrelated to what I’m writing about.
Stacks of books sit on my nightstand. The dining room table sags with the weight of a giant collection of books fresh from the library. Books pile on the floor and on my desk, in the bathroom and in the kitchen.
Even the dogs can be caught reading…or trying to chew on…books.
Someone once said there are no new stories, just new ways of telling them. And indeed, not only do I read because I love to, I read to study plot, to absorb the way a character is developed, to dissect detail and style, rules other authors follow and rules they break.
The more I read, the more I fill my writing tank, so to speak. Soon, brand new characters start revealing themselves in my mind, and (at the risk of someone thinking I ought to be committed) they begin to speak.
Stephen King refers to this phenomenon as a muse, or, “the boys in the basement:”
“There is a muse, but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement kind of guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in. You have to do all the grunt labor, in other words, while the muse sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling trophies and pretends to ignore you. Do you think it’s fair? I think it’s fair. He may not be much to look at, that muse-guy, and he may not be much of a conversationalist, but he’s got inspiration. It’s right that you should do all the work and burn all the mid-night oil, because the guy with the cigar and the little wings has got a bag of magic. There’s stuff in there that can change your life. Believe me, I know.”
I completely agree with Mr. King.
The basement guys are hungry.
A library is to the muse what Costco is to my teenage boys.
What about you? If you’re a writer, how do books play in to your writing process?
How do you feed your basement boys?