We started a discussion on creativity and reality intervened. A good reality: we released a new book. Even better for this post, I had the opportunity to discuss creative processes with my wife, Amy Houston Oler. She is a designer and illustrator, which you may know.
Creating a Concept
A moment of dual inspiration led to Molly and the Magic Suitcase. As we packed for a trip to Florida, our daughter crawled into my suitcase. She made a scooting motion as if she expected the suitcase to take her somewhere. I said, “Look! It’s Molly and her magic suitcase!” and snapped a photo. Amy immediately seized on my offhand remark as a concept for children’s stories.
What does this mean? It means, first of all, you have to be open to creation. Amy wanted to illustrate a children’s book since age ten. I gave it some thought years ago when a friend and I tried to develop a concept called “Dickie Matrix.” You may hear about that some day. Otherwise, I hadn’t thought about it, and wasn’t thinking about it in that moment.
Being open to creation means you recognize moments like this for what they are or what they can be. You must recognize opportunity when it presents itself. That is easier said than done. We all have experiences where, in hindsight, we missed the signal. Sometimes it is obvious, but not often. Other times, it hits you subconsciously. Three or four times in my life, I had dreams that were fully scripted movies or plays. I didn’t write anything down. The dreams were interesting to me, but I didn’t recognize the opportunity to create.
Inspiration, more often, is subtle. You sit in a coffee shop and idly wonder about a group of three people discussing something at a nearby table. You see a road that disappears over a hill and consider what is on the other side. A headline conjures images in your head that may or may not have anything to do with the story. You read a passage in a story that stirs curiosity because its information is incomplete.
“Secret negotiations in Norway”
Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat signed a “Declaration of Principles” that was to govern negotiations between Israel and the (then) Palestinian Liberation Organization. It was an unlikely breakthrough. I was in college at the time, studying political science. Several news stories referred to “secret negotiations in Norway,” but nothing elaborated on it. It stirred my curiosity. So much so that I researched and wrote a 20 page paper on what happened.
It was simple: there was a question that needed an answer. There was a story to tell. It was a story something inside of me had to tell.
A Legend of Rome
I grew up reading mysteries (and comic books). After we finished the first two books in the Molly and the Magic Suitcase series, it was time to try something new. We wanted to reach older readers, but use some of the same elements: introducing language, food, and different aspects of culture. It was a simple concept to flesh out. I aged the characters and led them back to a destination they previously visited. I had the setting, the characters, and the idea it would be a mystery.
The setting, of course, was Rome. There is history on every corner, and, quite literally, in every wall. For example, today there is a restaurant on the Aventine Hill, just west of the Circus Maximus. Part of its walls are the ruins of an old Roman temple. I wanted to incorporate things like this, wanted to tie the history of the city into the mystery. It wasn’t a creative decision for me, it just made sense. When you have a concept, creativity often feels like common sense.
The next step was a simple Google search: “legends of Rome.” This led me to Publius Horatius Cocles, the famed defender of a bridge. It was a modern day mystery so I made the story a lost artifact. The survival of any shield from that era (508 BC) is much less than likely, but I had the concept, and at least two questions that needed answering: where is the artifact now and how did it survive to present day?
This was the story I had to tell. A hundred more questions arose and were answered. How did the kids’ friend connect with the concept? Why do Molly and Michael get involved? How did the shield survive the first sacking of Rome in 390 BC? What about the subsequent sackings? What were the antagonist’s motivations? I knew the right questions were asked because I had fun doing the historical research to come up with believable answers.
The key is recognition of creative opportunities. Many writers and songwriters keep a journal close at all times. They expect inspiration at any time. My approach to The Shield of Horatius was much more structured because some of the parameters were already set. The second mystery is a work currently in progress, and I sometimes wonder if the concept wasn’t somewhat forced. Still, I’ve written close to half the book and my editor eagerly awaits more (not because of a deadline). Perhaps I need to take my own advice and recognize the opportunity.
This is just the first step. By no means does it represent the total creativity needed for the book. Each sentence requires it, but, first, you need a story to tell!