Saturday, April 18, 2009

Story Flares

Ear Flare, 700-900 A.D.
Moche/Chimú, North Coast, Peru
Copper, clay, turquoise or chrysocolla, mother of pearl, spondylus shell
3-1/4 X 3-1/2 X 1/2 inches
(Scanned postcard; click on image to see larger version)

"Elite or high-ranking individual within the Chimú culture wore ear flares or ear ornaments like this one. The figure on this piece is a warrior holding his shield and club." -- description of object by OMA

You'd never think what amounts to an ancient earring could inspire an entire novel, but this one did.

When I first saw this tiny relic, it was in a glass display case of Ancient Americas Collection of artifacts at the Orlando Museum of Art (where it's still in display until the end of 2009, if you're ever in that part of the city.) To me it stood out from the other beautiful artifacts for a couple of reasons: the craftsmanship, which is tiny, precise and exquisite, the colors, which a millenia have not really faded, and the thing the figure is holding in his right hand.

The museum's description says it's a shield. My first impression from the shape of the object (two eyes, a nose piece and either a golden beard or hair) and the way the figure is holding it was "that's a mask." Which led me to wonder (if I were right and the experts were wrong) how a warrior would use a mask as a weapon.

I took that impression home with me, let it percolate for a while, and then started shaping it into a workable idea. For a mask to work as a weapon, it would have to make the beholder think the warrior was someone else -- someone who would never scare or harm them; someone they wanted to be around; someone they would absolutely trust. On the flip side, what sort of person would you have to be in order to use that kind of weapon? When wouldn't it work? What would be the consequences? It all came together and I had the plot, the conflict, and the book.

Very often in writing how-to books we're given situations, characters, and other ready-made ideas and prompts, which are all good writing practice. These are the story sparks we always hear about. But sparks fade quickly, and for an idea to endure and illuminate the path ahead of you, it has to burn a little brighter and longer. So to borrow the word from this Chimú jewel and use it in a sifferent context, what you want aren't story sparks, but story flares.

I think the best flares for your stories have to come from within, from some emotional reaction you have to a person, place, situation or object, because then you're dealing with inspiration born inside your head -- something no one but you can know or tap. This is how you stay original, too -- while everyone else is writing variations of ideas they've picked up from proven bestsellers, you're working from a new place where no one has been. Even if another writer uses the same story flare as you do at the same time (which has been known to happen) unless the two of you share your impressions their interpretation is most likely going to be very different.

Finding your own unique story flare is as simple or as complicated as you want it to be. You may hear a song on the radio, notice a gorgeous painting for sale at an art show, or notice something about house you drive past. You can make day trips to places like art museums, parks or the seashore to look for specific types of story flares (and I find art and relics fascinating, which is why I haunt art museums) but all you really need to do is open yourself up whenever you are outside your writing space and take in everything and everyone around you. Story flares are all around you, just waiting for you to notice them so they can light up the way through your story.

Now, your turn -- have you ever used something as a story flare, or have a dependable source of them? What's the most unusual story flare you've ever found? Let us know in comments.


  1. Sometimes I really feel like you read my mind and I pop over here and read exactly what I want/need to hear just when I need it. LOL! Thanks for keeping such an inspiring blog, Lynn.

  2. Oh, I didn't answer the question..duh! :) For me, when I need inspiration, music and movies do the trick, though I've come up with ideas when I'm most relaxed too, like on vacation.

  3. Looks like a chopped-off head to me :).

    I love the way the figure on the ear flare is himself wearing ear flares. That is marvellous work.

  4. Anonymous7:35 AM

    I work in a museum - in the science part, but we have an art part.

    In the Asian Art gallery, we have two smiling statues carved from stone. They're Korean and used to guard the temple.

    They became guardians of the Temple of Relden, visual prophecies of two wizards who would protect and uphold the temple during a Wizards' Duel. The written prophecy wasn't very detailed, but the carvings and the drawings depicted two men who wouldn't be born for hundreds of years.

    And what book did this ear mask inspire? (sorry I haven't read everything of yours - you've written a LOT)

  5. Keita Haruka8:44 AM

    Mmm...interesting question. I have two reliable story flares that never fail me: music, and "snapshots in time"...photographs. Often, I find myself staring at photos or paintings, wondering what could have caused that particular pose, that facial expression...why are they standing in that place...what are those people in the background doing...? That sort of thing. Sometimes I may take such an image and imagine it happening elsewhere, in a different time, or a different world. It's interesting to see how the story you drea up changes depending on the new places nd backgrounds you replace the original with.

    Most often though...I draw from music. For some reason, instrumental jazz and neo-classical music (sometimes also heavy metal if my mood is dark) just does it for me. I have an entire fantasy series that I drew form one single contemporary instrumental jazz CD. I've drawn a LOT from this specific musician's work. her music just touches parts of my creative spirit that nothing else can. I can't explain it.

    Between music and visual art, I have a multitude of story ideas that's likely to keep me writing till the day I die. :P

  6. Ha. I wrote a book that flared from Viking jewelery and art designs. Sometimes it's a thing, sometime it's a place. I love story flares. I think writers have to be a little OCD, unable to let a thing go.

  7. I watched one of those "When Weather Changed the World" programs on the weather channel. It was an hour long on the Galveston flood of 1900. A story started as I watched it and it's been brewing. I've got notes, the heroine just screamed at me through the program so the opening paragraph is done, the hero is there but he's being a bit elusive, though with his background, I can understand why...fascinating this thing called imagination, isn't it?

  8. Actually, my first thought was that it was Perseus and Medusa. Interesting.

    Beautiful art often does it for me too. We have a wonderful museum here.
    Snippets of conversations, especially when I haven't heard them from the beginning, will often set me off.
    Latest story flare? An old photo of a Mexican wedding ring with a center section that flicks open to become a curved knife.
    That's all I'm sayin'. :)

  9. That shield looks like a head to me, the head of a Norse warrior (Vikings in Peru??).

    Story flares: Gosh, there have been quite a few.

    The song "Kryptonite" by 3 Doors Down inspired an as-yet-unwritten manga-ish story, complete with post-apocalyptic future and dark gothic cities.

    Another very different song inspired a story about magic ships in a Regency-esque fantasy setting.

    News stories, blog posts, pictures and photos, my kids, my hobbies: inspiration seems to be always waiting around to ambush me and drive up my blood pressure. :D

    I wish I wrote faster to keep up with all the ideas I have.

  10. Latest story flare? An old photo of a Mexican wedding ring with a center section that flicks open to become a curved knife.
    That's all I'm sayin'. :)
    raine, that is so weird and wonderful. :D

  11. It hasn't come to anything yet, but it's brewing with a couple of other flares. But two flares that are rubbing up against each other are: the black blizzards of the Dust Bowl and the rabbit invasions. And the other is the rituals for death that involve shaving off all the hair of a person and burning it so that the person can go on to the next life/world/state of being.

    That will be the next proposal for my agent once I'm done with the current epic series. I figure by then I'll have added in a few more ingredients and figured out what the story is.

  12. Anonymous4:25 PM

    I'm with Buffysquirrel; I thought it was a head too! Do you ever wonder if the scienists got it wrong? :)

    I'd also like to know what this flare inspired when you can tell us.

    I get a lot of ideas from reading the newspapers and seeing names on gravestones. I also love to go to the museum. I'm still enough of a novice at this that I don't think any of them have "flared" for me yet though. It's more often though that I'll see something and think "Oh, that goes in story X..."


  13. Happens to me all the time, just wish I had enough time to write them all. Happens a lot for me with news stories and pictures. I saw a picture of Muammar Quadaffi's all-female bodyguard. The story practically wrote itself.

  14. For me, it's never visual - really. Pictures do nothing for me. I love photography, but I don't get flares from them.

    For me, it's words. Snippets, here and there, that I pick up and worry over. Movies that move me (though I have to be careful with) and then I take that emotion and shove it into a story. Books, too; I'll see a character do something and that will spark an idea.

    I just had a line pop into my head that flared a short story - she slept within her skin. That's all I had, but out of it I've got a 20 page short story.

  15. Oh I always do this actually I like to use that to create my characters and then write profiles and histories for my characters even before I write the first page.. To me thats just a blast figureing out the personaly of someone and how they got the mentality they did.

    My oddest one though was about a woman who was made of poison that whatever she touched drained them of empathy in which she fed off of and thrived on. I got that idea from watching this chronic complainer I know.. It was actually pretty funny...

  16. I get some great flares off of objects. One of my favorite stories came from a rocks, specifically, my daughter's rock collection which she decided to stash in the car. Dozens of rocks stacked on the floor, on the seats, in the side pockets of the door.

    Can you imagine the kind of gas mileage I'd be getting I I hadn't looked in the back seat?


  17. Like Suelder and Anonymous, I asked myself what book of yours did the mask inspire. It was Blade Dancer, wasn't it? Still one of my favorites, read at least once a year.

    Story flares that work best for me are items from our family history, such as the pioneer-era family Bible - a wedding gift from the bride's father and mother with subsequent births, deaths and marriages listed in it. It flared the characters and opening scene of my first Nano book. Art galleries and museum items work for me too.

    The oldest story flare I can remember was a picture of an Indian woman on the wall of my fifth grade classroom. Perhaps it was an otherwise boring year, because I remember spending more time imagining her life than on any other subject.

  18. Chiming in late, but that's a neat piece of art and archeology. Makes me want to go to a museum right now.

    My oddest one is "Out of the Mouth of Babes." It's an old piece of scripture, but I think I heard a song with that line on the radio.

    It turned into a considerably less biblical but probably not that much more bloody science fiction short story that I really need to re-edit one of these days :D.


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