Fortunate are the writers whose first germ of a novel is a plotline, a concept, a scene, or a theme – ideas that provide a starting point, the bare bones, a guide. Then there’s me. Having grown up in Wisconsin with what I now recognize as a touch of Grapheme-color synesthesia, I was treated to the full range of seasonal expression. To this day, nothing gets under my skin like the seasons.
Hence, my inspiration manifests as what I like to call an “atmospheric flash”; a brief image infused with seasonal flavor. A boy and a girl sitting on a dewy lawn under a mid-summer moon; two women sewing in a shadowy room in the dead of winter, their hands stiff with cold; a girl shivering in an apple orchard at sunset during harvest time.
I suppose these “atmospheric flashes” would be a fine way to begin if I were nimble enough to instantly spin them into the outlines of story. But I’m so entranced by the tone and taste of this image, that I focus on evoking that feeling to the detriment of anything else that is necessary for a novel – you know, things like plot, motivation, dialogue. Thus, my first stab at a draft is without fail filled with page after moody page of special seasony words. It’s only after the inevitable feedback that my characters lack motivation, the plot is foggy, and the timeline is confusing that I get down to outlining, planning, and building. While this sort of brick laying is ultimately rewarding, it’s hard, tireless work that doesn’t provide the same rush as reveling in atmosphere.
The even harder part comes when I have to face the fact that the original image as written on the page no longer serves my story. I’m always loathed to kill it, because this is the darling that sparked it all. Eliminating it feels like a betrayal, akin to omitting a collaborator in the acknowledgements. But I never really say goodbye to these “atmospheric flashes” – I tuck them away in the back of my mind, to draw on when I’m in a particularly bad dry spell or a scene could use a little mood. It’s a tricky tightrope walk – holding on to that original germ of inspiration just enough to get you through the tough times without clinging to it to the detriment of the novel.
With winter now upon us, I find myself mulling over this balancing act more than ever. For me, no season is more ‘seasony’ than the end of December, with the delightful chill in the air, the magic of the solstice, and the ruby red promise of the holidays. I know I’ll be inundated with bursts of inspiration in the coming weeks; the key is to be disciplined enough to squirrel away these little nuggets for later and in the meantime stay focused on my current work. Like all people with creative aspirations, the ultimate challenge is finding the right combination of inspiration and discipline.