Goodreads asked Mark Huntley Parsons:

How do you get inspired to write?

Mark Huntley Parsons
For me, it’s all about catch-and-release jellyfishing…

But first, it might be easier to say what I don’t do… I don’t sit around and think about plot ideas. At least not initially. (This is subjective as hell, but I generally feel that character should drive plot, not the other way around. But in reality this is along a continuum, not an either/or choice.)

So what do I do?

If I had to describe this very fuzzy, right-brained process in a rational, left-brain fashion, I’d say that some version of the following might apply:

1. I get the desire to portray a certain vibe or feeling or emotion.

2. From that vibe comes some high-level ideas… more on the order of setting (if physical) or thematic (if philosophical) than specific plot points.

3. I chew on those and try to imagine what sort of person (or persons) might do an interesting job of exploring these themes in this setting.

4. Then I start thinking about what story elements might be an interesting way for this character to experience the emotions and conflicts inherent in those themes. (Not necessarily a whole book’s worth… just some interesting initial scenes to get things moving, and hopefully a possible endpoint.)

So maybe: vibe… setting… theme… character… plot.

Not that this is always (or even usually) a linear process. I might bounce from vibe to character to plot and back to vibe, and my brain might work on various aspects in parallel. The point is, it’s an organic, somewhat random process. Especially at first, where I see myself like SpongeBob, just ambling along with my jellyfish net, seeing what I might catch. We get ideas and feelings all the time, but we’re looking for the ones that seem to resonate with us on some level.

Let’s try to create an example…

Let’s say that somewhere during my day I stumble across the feeling I get when I recall the smell of my 4th grade classroom, and the flood of emotions that comes with that. And for some reason my brain says “Hey, wait a minute!” and this feeling seems to carry some weight with me. So I mull on that and try to figure out why, and what I come up with is that this memory recalls a mixture of security (maybe I liked my 4th grade teacher and felt comfortable with her), fear (maybe I moved during the summer before 4th grade and the new environment was stressful), and romantic attraction (let’s say I had a big crush on someone during 4th grade). Then I get the feeling that I want the viewpoint character to be, say, fifteen instead of nine. But I really like the vibe of the 4th grade classroom smell and what it evokes in the boy (somewhere I’ve decided the POV character is a boy). Maybe because in his current situation he DOESN’T have security or romance, just fear. Why? What’s he afraid of? And how can he address this and get (or get back) the feeling of belonging… of being unafraid... and maybe even of being in love?

As I’ve mentioned before, these sorts of “what if?” internal discussions seem to happen best for me when I’m running or driving or sweeping the garage or some other low-concentration task. Almost never when I’m sitting at the computer. So I don’t sit at the computer. Not until I have a kernel of an idea, maybe something like what I’ve described above. Then I feel like I can sit down and start writing, because I have a few guiding lights: the vibe, the character, a rough setting, and maybe the themes I want to explore. And from that, as I write, comes the specifics of the story… the plot.

So the short answer is: I go through my day, catching and examining jellyfish, and almost always releasing them unharmed. (Who knows? Maybe another writer can find them and use them.) And occasionally I’ll catch one and decide to keep it for a while, and see if we get along. And if we do, then maybe… just maybe… we have the beginnings of a story.

That's how I get inspired. What about you?

About Goodreads Q&A

Ask and answer questions about books!

You can pose questions to the Goodreads community with Reader Q&A, or ask your favorite author a question with Ask the Author.

See Featured Authors Answering Questions

Learn more