The fascinating inspirations behind some of your favorite novels
Have you ever read a book that made you wonder: How on earth did the author think this story up? Sometimes, bizarre circumstances, quirky characters, and unique plotlines feel too specific and powerful to have only emerged from a person’s head. Writers are often influenced by their environments, the people around them, and the strange circumstances of everyday life. Some authors have an “ah-ha!” moment or a fleeting interaction that permanently alters the course of their writing. Either way, real life finds its way into fiction more often than not. These are a few of the memorable inspirations behind some of the novels you know and love.
‘Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children’ (2011) by Ransom Riggs: A collection of old photographs
The ‘Miss Peregrine’s’ series is five books into its publication, and it is one of the most delightful and vibrant young-adult fantasies that has hit the market in the last decade. The original novel is told from the P.O.V. of sixteen-year-old Jacob Portman as he tries to prove that his grandfather’s tales of a house filled with peculiar children are true. Jacob goes on the adventure of a lifetime, navigating time travel, alternate realities, and a peculiar ability of his own. Each character is bursting with personality, life, and passion. Perhaps, this is what makes the inspiration behind the novel so surprising: dead people.
When the writer, Ransom Riggs, was a child, he enjoyed collecting old photographs. As an adult writer, the photographs (all of which fell under the same Victorian-esque umbrella) made Riggs wonder if he could write a narrative related to the pictures. While he initially imagined creating a book of nonfiction work, his editor suggested he try his hand at fiction. ‘Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children’ was born. Each book in the series is filled with photographs that Riggs carefully curated across his life and career, helping the audience fully envision the quirky cast of characters.
Riggs told Deseret News, “I started collecting these pictures because I’ve always loved old photography but I never could afford anything from a photographer of note. It was at a big swap meet that I discovered you could buy other people’s old discarded family photos and vacation pictures for pretty cheap...I was struck with how interesting and evocative and emotive these pictures could be.”
‘10:04’ (2014) by Ben Lerner: A trip to the dentist
Ben Lerner’s novels like ‘10:04’ and ‘The Topeka School’ (2019) have fascinating structures, leaping between time, genres, and narrative focus. These unique reads are not only engaging for the way they approach social topics through dynamic lenses, but also for the unique quality of their inspirations. Lerner was first inspired to write the apocalyptic ‘10:04’ during a visit to the dentist. He had a bad tooth that needed to be pulled, and, as he imagined telling a close friend about the experience, he was knocked out by the anesthesia. He found himself drifting back into the office in what felt like moments. This strange shift of time and awareness gave Lerner the initial desire to write what would become his first novel.
Lerner told Believer Magazine, “I went to the dentist, and then the dentist said I had to have a tooth pulled right away because it was infected. Before he gave me the laughing gas, I imagined telling Yarrow about what happened. And then as I inhaled the delicious N20 I had the sensation that I was already telling Yarrow—that I’d floated away from the office back into his presence. And this minor experience did eventually get transposed into my fiction...I’m aware of narrating certain experiences as they happen or obliterating those experiences with narrative and then those stories—not the experiences themselves—might become material for art. This kind of transformation shows up a lot in ‘10:04’ because the book tracks the transposition of fact into fiction...The heart condition becomes the brain tumor; Alex becomes Liza, etc. And I guess my dream about fireflies entered a poem.”
‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’ (2003) by Mark Haddon: A literary root
This novel is touching, hilarious, and deeply moving. ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’ is about a young boy named Christopher who struggles with emotions, can’t stand the color yellow, and hates to be touched. The narrative centers Christopher’s investigation of the death of a neighborhood dog, all the while, allowing the audience to explore the mind of one of the most dynamic characters to emerge in modern literature. Where did Haddon draw on his inspiration for the book? Jane Austen. Specifically, ‘Pride and Prejudice’. He found it fascinating that Austen was able to take the everyday lives of her characters and create such compassion and understanding for each player in the book that you couldn’t help but find their ordinary lives interesting. He told the Free Library of Philadelphia, “This was what I was trying to do in Curious Incident. To take a life that seemed horribly constrained, to write about it in the kind of book that the hero would read—a murder mystery—and hopefully show that if you viewed this life with sufficient imagination it would seem infinite.”
Haddon also seems to have drawn some inspiration from his youth as he crafted Christopher. Although Christopher is recognized as having Aspergers, Haddon’s only goal in creating Christopher was to make him feel like a real person. “As it happens, when I was putting Christopher together I drew upon a long list of beliefs, habits, quirks and behaviours which I borrowed from friends and acquaintances and members of my own family,” he wrote on a Penguin blog. “It would be unfair of me to name the person who can’t eat a plate of food if the broccoli and salmon are touching, or the person who can’t use a toilet if a stranger has used it. Suffice to say that neither of them would be labelled as having a disability. Which is only to say that Christopher is not that different from the rest of us. It’s the number and combination of his eccentricities which cause him difficulties.”
‘A Visit from the Goon Squad’ (2010) by Jennifer Egan: A trip to the ladies’ room
Author Jennifer Egan has experienced great success with the handful of writings she has published, including her latest read, ‘Manhattan Beach’ (2017). However, her first novel, ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad’, is the book that gained her real notoriety as an author. The musical novel follows a record executive and a troubled employee whose intersecting lives unravel dark truths and hidden hopes in their individual lives. The book is as much about destruction as it is about redemption, two concepts that drove the creation of the novel. But what was the moment that lit the creative spark? A trip to a hotel bathroom. When she walked into the restroom, Egan noticed that a woman’s purse was out on the counter and that her wallet was peeking out of the top. She immediately worried that someone might try to take it. That got her thinking: What type of person would steal that wallet?
In an interview with CNN, Egan said, “The entry point for me was very much what it is for the reader; I was in a hotel bathroom, looked down and saw a wallet lying exposed in a woman's bag. I've had my wallet stolen many times and ways in my life...and when I saw that wallet, I thought, ‘Oh, no! Someone will take it!’ Since I was the only person in a position to do so, my mind made one of the fictional leaps that I live for: Someone would take the wallet. Who? And why? I began writing from that moment, and the rest followed fairly intuitively; a peripheral character in one chapter would catch my eye, and I'd think, ‘Who is that person? What does his or her inner world look like?’”
‘When All is Said’ (2019) by Anne Griffin: A night at the bar
This book first became uber-popular in Europe. By the time it reached the U.S., it was a bestseller from Ireland to the U.K. The narrative of ‘When All is Said’ strikes at its audiences in more ways than one, forcing them to not only feel deep empathy for the central character but also to examine their own mortality. The novel follows an old man as he gets wasted at a bar and reflects on five important people in his life, unwrapping webs of memories, secrets, and revelations along the way. The main character is so familiar that he feels like someone you might walk into a bar and run into...which is exactly what happened with Anne Griffin. She admitted that she didn’t pluck the inspiration for the 84-year-old man from thin air, but rather, she brought him to life on paper after a short yet touching interaction.
Griffin told The Irish Times, “A few years back, while cycling the Mayo Greenway, I met an elderly man at a hotel bar. He had a head of white hair and a voice that was deep and melodious...He enchanted me…My time with this man was to be brief. We spoke only for a few minutes before he began to say his goodbyes. But just as he finally turned away he said these words: ‘I’ll not see the morning.’ It was then he left. Too late to pull him back to ask what he had meant, his words seeped into the heart of me as I watched the spot he had vacated...this man with his kindly worn face, his openness, had just given me a precious gift no writer could ignore...the inspiration for a story.”
Grab your own copy of ‘When All is Said,’ here.