Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Idea or Inspiration?

"People sleep peaceably in their beds at night because rough men stand ready to do violence in their behalf."

by Mary Margret Daughtridge

Michelle talked about inspiration yesterday. It isn’t only writers who are asked where we get our ideas. As an artist, I’ve frequently been asked. The first time it happened, I was totally bollixed. Where did I get ideas for a painting? They’re there, the ground is littered with them. I stumble over them. As long as the physical world exists and I can see it, I’ll have ideas. How could a person who said they wanted to paint not have more ideas than they knew what to do with?

The same is true with writing. As long as there are people, I’ll have ideas for stories. I’m deeply fascinated by people—what makes them tick, what makes them change. To me essence of an idea for a story is to put two people in a situation that, in order for it to turn out happily, the people will have to grow. Like many writers, my ideas for stories often start with “what if?”

But to me the idea for a story isn’t the same thing as inspiration. I know how to turn on the idea generator for a story. In fact, like the magic spell in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, it seems to always be on, churning out ideas that crowd me out of bed, distract me at the grocery store, and make me spend large amounts of time staring into space.

Inspiration is something else. Let me see if I can show you the difference.

The idea for SEALed With A Promise is one of the first that came to me, way back when I first began my research on SEALs. SEALs have extremely high standards, and a strong code of honor, but when they are operating, they are not using the same moral standards as middle America’s.

A the risk of stating the obvious, people in the military are taught to kill. SEALs are taught to be very, very good at it. They are also taught to lie, cheat and steal. Here are some of a SEAL's words to live by: Never fight fair. Never tell the truth when a lie will do as well. Winning is the objective, losing is acceptable, quitting is unthinkable. A SEAL is a guy who is willing to do whatever is necessary to get the job done.

What if, I asked myself, a man came to the SEALs already tough—a man whose only morality was expediency based on the need to care for himself and his mother. No stranger to violence or hardship, he was already good at lying, and stealing, and already experienced at doing whatever he had to do.

Do-Lord, looking a little like Matthew McConaughy with reddish hair, changeable hazel eyes, and tan over freckles skin appeared fully developed in my mind. A man temperamentally designed to be a hero, but with no model for heroic behavior until he met some SEALs. A man for whom concepts like loyalty to a group, honor, and accountability were novel. He was Jax’s best friend, hiding his near-genius IQ behind a good-natured smiles and country-boy charm.

Do-Lord stole my heart, and I don’t know if it was when, at seventeen, he found his mother dead of heart disease and thought about how pretty she looked in the red glow of the westering sun—like a mythic lady in a pre-Raphaelite painting, or if it was when, at ten, he stole an already-decorated Christmas tree from a display in a hardware store.

Oh yes, I knew who he was and where he came from. The idea generator would take care of that. I knew what kind of woman to match him with. But I didn’t have that spark that ignites an idea into flame. The root of inspire is from the Greek, to breathe, and it is the same word as spirit. My idea lacked that breath, that spirit makes an idea live. I waited. I wrote another book about another SEAL, Master Chief, Lonny Swales. (Lon is an absolute sweetheart.) Again, Do-Lord was a secondary character. I tried. I designed several perfectly good plots for him. I couldn’t get past thirty or forty pages.

One day a sentence popped into my mind:

Chief Petty Officer Caleb “Do-Lord” Dulaude always said if he ever saw Teague Calhoun again, he’d kill him. Do-Lord huffed a mirthless chuckle and shook his head. Wouldn’t you know fate would test his resolve when he had an M14 rifle in his hand?

Here’s the funny thing about inspiration. I can describe to you the stages of thought that led to Do-Lord. I have no idea where that sentence came from. But that was it. Do-Lord begins the book by making a truly moral decision for the first time in his life, and for the first time as an adult meets a situation that he can’t turn to another SEAL for help with. And that’s where Emelina Caddington, PhD, nerd extraordinaire, comes in. He has to trust her to have his back.

SEALed With A Promise will be on the shelves in the Spring of 2009.

So, is inspiration the same as idea for you? What makes a story come alive?


  1. What a wonderful, post, Mary Margaret. I love how you said you can explain inspiration but how to explain where that perfect line came from? That's where our special gift as writers comes into play. Sure, other people may get these bits of inspiration, but we have trained ourselves to know what to do with them. I can't wait to read Do-Lord's story!

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  3. A SEAL and a nerdy PhD. Now THAT'S inspiration!

  4. Wonderful Post, MM!

    Yes, I agree, ideas are everywhere, but it takes an extra something to develop them into a full-blown story. For me, that something is usually (but not always) characters. Once I get a "handle" on my characters, then the story ideas can take off.

    Congrats on another great SEAL story! I'll be first in line to pick up SEALed with a Promise.


  5. This was fascinating, MM. I can tell this character is as real to you as anyone you have ever met, maybe more so because he is yours. I can't wait to hear more. There is good reason why men in uniform are so attractive.

  6. It's been one of those days, and I'm just getting around to responding.
    Marie, you're right. I hadn't thought about people who might have an incredible sentence float through their mind, but not understand what it's for.

  7. "A SEAL and a nerdy PhD. Now THAT'S inspiration!"

    Cheryl, it's funny you say that--other people have made similar remarks, and yet, as soon as I thought about Do-Lord, I knew that was what he needed--IF as Marie reminds us, he had the wit to figure out what to do with her.

  8. Christina.He's special, all right. Interesting that it comes through in just a few lines.

    I love all my characters--even the ones who are messing up really, really bad--but Do-Lord? He's got a hold of my heart.

  9. Wow, I so get it. One sentence from out of the blue and the story unfolds. That sentence tells so much about your character and his dilemma.
    Can't wait to read the story.

  10. Wow, I so get it. One sentence from out of the blue and the story unfolds. That sentence tells so much about your character and his dilemma.
    Can't wait to read the story.

  11. Amazing post, Mary Margaret. I've honestly never thought about the difference between inspiration and ideas in a concrete way. You make the ability to come up with both and use them effectively sound so cerebral. I think my IQ just went up 10 points!

    I'm so looking forward to reading SEALed With A Promise. Do-Lord fascinates me.

    Robin :)