Author Paul Stansfield on Inspiration

Goading Inspiration Into Hitting You


Getting an inspiration for a story (and I imagine, for other creative things, like songs, sculptures, etc.) can often be maddening.  It puts me in mind of a funny part from the Douglas Adams “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe” series, about directions on learning how to fly.  Basically, it was throwing yourself at the ground and missing, mostly by completely distracting yourself while you fell.  To continue the comparison, I find consciously trying to think of an idea seldom works.  It would be wonderful—“Today I’ll think of ten new story ideas,” you might say.  But for me, anyway, I find ideas typically spring up when I’m doing something else, especially things that are slightly physical, but not complicated enough to require complete, total attention.  Or they come when I think about something I’ve read, seen, or experienced previously, and it spreads from there.

I went back and thought about every story or book I’ve written, and tried to remember the basic impetus for the original idea.  Probably the richest source was a set of reference encyclopedias in my local library called “Man, Myth and Magic.”  I read through each one, writing down notes about supernatural folklore which interested me, and this sparked my story ideas.  Works of (definite, admitted) fiction provided inspiration as well—Dalton Trumbo’s anti-war novel (and later movie) “Johnny Got His Gun” gave me fodder for a nasty horror tale.  Movies helped too—“Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” got me thinking about the Thuggee, and John Water’s “Pink Flamingos” made me think about, of course, utter grossness.  Other sources were an anthropology lecture about people who mutilated children as a grotesque form of art, and a middle school educational film about the nature of blood called “Hemo the Magnificent.”  And finally, real life historical oddities, like the details surrounding the bizarre Winchester House, or Genghis Khan’s brutalities, or various bits about famous criminals have proven productive.

I’ve heard some creative people discuss how mind altering substances have helped them come up with ideas, but I can’t say they’ve helped me.  The one time I got high off marijuana it was a repellent and terrifying experience, but sadly it prompted no story ideas.  Similarly, drunken musings haven’t been useful, either.  I suspect many or most revelations incurred during these states probably seem stupid and inappropriate once they’re considered while sober.

I’ve found sleep to be a potentially effective prompter, occasionally.  Oftentimes, if I’m thinking about a story, and then I lay down to drift off, ideas suddenly spring to mind during that half-asleep period.  It can be both beneficial yet annoying—it’s nice to get a good solution to a plot problem, say, but it’s irritating to have to get up and write it down.  Especially if, as so often occurs, a series of ideas happen in a row, forcing me to keep getting up over and over again, delaying precious sleep.  Because I’ve found if I don’t write these nuggets down, I almost always forget them.  And then, actually being fully asleep, and dreaming sometimes bears the metaphorical fruit.  Again, the trick is remembering it when you wake.  I’ve learned that keeping a pad of paper and pen by the bed helps, and the simple act of keeping one’s eyes closed when you awaken helps keep these delicate memories more intact.  Sometimes, a la the chemical induced ideas, dream ideas turn out to be useless and dumb when you think about them while awake, but every so often they’re helpful, I find.

While I was watching the special features on the DVD for “Return of the Living Dead” (RIP Dan O’Bannon) a special effects guy mentioned a method he uses to get ideas on how to solve problems—taking a shower.  He heard it was something like ionization in the water or something.  He also later admitted it might not be that, but just the fact that the hot water relaxes you.  I’ve also found this to be a helpful hint.  (Also, if nothing else, at least you’ll get yourself clean.)

Keeping track of ideas/inspiration can be a challenge, too.  As I alluded to, I’m a huge note taker—if I don’t it often gets lost or forgotten.  This can be a pain when I come up with something while driving.  I have to locate a pen, and some scrap paper, and manage to scrawl out semi-legible reminder words or sentence fragments on the steering wheel while not crashing.  If I come up with thoughts on a long walk (as I often do) this is less potentially dangerous, but just as frustrating.   I try to keep repeating the ideas to myself as I go, and hope to recall them once I’m back inside.  At work I frequently jot down ideas (sometimes story ideas, sometimes just topics that have come up in conversation with fellow employees) on my left hand, in Sharpie marker.  I sometimes notice people doing double takes when they notice stuff like, “parasitic worms,” or “Abe Vigoda—dead?” or “Syphilis symptoms” printed on my hand, like some weird non sequitur tattoos.  I probably should invest in a pocket tape recorder, but so far I’ve neglected to.  (This would involve other issues.  Like most people I hate the sound of my voice on tape.  I think it sounds dreadfully monotone, like someone somehow recorded a corpse speaking.)

For my story, “Kaishaku,” (synopsis and excerpt are below) I was inspired by a lifelong interest in serial killers and the like.  I also find state sponsored executions to be interesting, especially the feelings and motivations of the executioners themselves.  Two museum exhibits about torture/execution implements also spurred the story—one was a travelling exhibition in an Atlantic City casino, sponsored by Amnesty International (!), and the other was a permanent, small museum in a Medieval Times restaurant (the one where you see folks jousting for entertainment as you eat allegedly old timey meals).

So, to sum up, inspiration is a funny thing.  It’s hard to predict what will spark something in you.  One final personal example—my first novel was ultimately prompted by my seeing calves brains for sale in a Maquoketa, Iowa supermarket.  Hopefully I’ve given people a couple of clues on how to get those mind engines churning.  Do whatever it is that causes you to come up with those creative impulses.  And good luck.



After receiving a DUI, Dustin Dempster is working off some community service hours at a hospital.  While there he’s asked to do some amateur counseling of sometimes difficult patients.  He thinks this a waste of time, but he reluctantly agrees.

One of these difficult patients is Levon Howard, a man paralyzed from the neck down because of a car accident.  He’s initially uncooperative, but after being charmed by Dustin’s brutal honesty and willingness to break some small hospital rules, he agrees to participate.  Soon he’s revealing his biggest secrets to Dustin…

For Levon is an obsessed and unrepentant killer of the worst sort, only with a personal quirk.  Despite his revulsion, Dustin finds himself intrigued by Levon’s story.  Soon he finds himself doing what was once unthinkable, and realizes that he’s being affected by what he’s learned.  Will Howard’s madness claim yet another victim, or even another perpetuator?

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About karenkennedysamoranos

I am an author based in Northern California, and co-manage a small music education business specializing in jazz performance for students ages 5 through 18.
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2 Responses to Author Paul Stansfield on Inspiration

  1. Vonnie says:

    Now there’s an interesting premise for a book. The mastermind killer, so to speak. Not sure that calves’ brains would help with inspiration for me though. Monkeys’ brains as in Indiana Jones might though.

  2. One time, years ago, while on a job in West Virginia, outside a restaurant the crew and I saw a cooler full of brains. It took us suburban, non-hunters a while before we recognized that they were squirrels’ brains, considered a delicacy to some. I think the town’s name was something like Walking Stereotype. (To be fair, I didn’t get a chance to try the tiny squirrel brains–maybe they’re delicious.)

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