Sunday Salon

Sunday Salon: Author Inspirations


Young children seem to have this capacity for asking questions that appear simple yet feel impossible to answer.  Like “Why is yellow? ” What is yellow I could manage but I’d be stumped to find an explanation of why yellow is yellow and not green or red.  Another one that threw me a few years ago came when I was  coaching some slow readers in my local primary school. One child stopped in the middle of reading, looked up at me and asked: “where do ideas come from?” I tried my best but at the end she simply repeated the question.

It was a conversation I remembered two nights ago during an uncomfortable flight squashed in an economy class seat next to a stranger  who fell asleep almost immediately we took off and then proceeded to snore loudly while listing ever closer to ‘my’ space. Unable to sleep but yet too tired to cope with a lengthy flim I flicked through all the entertainment options in the hope of finding something to distract me. And then I discovered some wonderful bite size entertainment in the form of Ted talks. Even better, one featured Tracy Chevalier .

Now one thing that I’ve often wondered about is how authors get ideas for their stories. What ignites their interest and gives them the initial spark for their plot? Through Chevalier’s talk I  discovered one way in which the creative process can work.

Chevalier gets ideas by visiting art galleries and asking questions about the paintings that most interest her. Not the usual questions about the techniques used or when the painting was created. But questions about what is happening in the painting, looking for the story behind the story in a sense. It’s a practice that made her a household name – seeing Vermeer’s painting Girl With a Pearl Earring (also known aGirl In A Turban caused her to wonder …..” what Vermeer did to her to make her look like that. Now there’s a story worth writing.”. The result, one can say is history for it resulted in her award-winning book of the same name and later an award-winning film. She seems to have used the same approach when looking at other works of art – a book on tapestries for example, gave her the inspiration for The Lady and the Unicorn.

In the TED talk she gives another  practical example of the technique in action. One day, seeing a painting of a young man dressed in a sumptuous Elizabethan doublet, she began to speculate why he was blushing. I won’t spoil this by revealing the story she spun from this exercise -just listen to her TED Talk here to find out.

it got me thinking whether other authors follow similar practices? I can’t think of another book inspired by a work of art. Does anyone have a suggestion??


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

7 thoughts on “Sunday Salon: Author Inspirations

  • Well, in Josephine Tey’s classic The Daughter of Time, the detective (flat on his back in hospital) is so intrigued by a portrait of Richard III, whom he would have classified by looking at him as a judge rather than a criminal, that he (the detective) joins forces with a young researcher to examine the contemporary accounts and evidence against Richard. What they discover surprises both of them. Tey was referring to a specific portrait; she also did her research, or at least had read works by those had. It’s a fascinating book, and guarantees you’ll never look at history in quite the same way again.

  • She has others that I imagine are also like this: Girl with a Pearl Earring Comes to Mind. Also poets have often done this. Auden’s Pictures from Brueghel is a prime example. I think it became the basis for a poetry writing exercise in many creative writing classes.

    • I remember studying the Brueghel painting Landscape on the Fall of Icarus for an art appreciation course but we didn’t look at that for creative writing – it would have been an interesting one though

  • I don’t know if there are any books QUITE like that one, but there ARE books that delve into art history. I can’t think of any I particularly loved – but if I do I’ll come back and tell you. 🙂

    My Sunday Salon

  • That sounds really interesting. It’s like a twist on the historical novel. I used to do it as a child, use pictures from magazines as inspiration to write stories. I think the idea came from a teacher at school. But of course a bestselling novel never came out of my efforts!

    • Maybe you should have persevered Nose in a Book…… I like the idea of using magazine photos. Much more accessible than galleries for those of us who don’t live in the city


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