Wednesday, August 12, 2009


by John McFetridge

(I'm on vacation with my family. Sorry this is late. I wrote it in time, I just didn't get it posted in time. My fault).

You can find inspiration in real life or you can find inspriration in art – both are equally valid. – Michel Basilieres, author of Black Bird.

A little while ago in a post on The Rap Sheet William Landy wrote about the terrific novel The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins. He wrote about Higgins, a lawyer, listening to hours of wiretaps and reading thousands of pages of police reports – hearing what would become the characters in his books in their own voices.

Also a little while ago in a blog post, Matt Rees wrote about studying literature at Oxford Unversity, “and then I read Dashiell Hammett.”

So, one gets inpriration from real life and one from art – both equally valid.

As a Canadian I tend to find inspiration in a mix of both – we Canadians are the products of, well, pretty much every other culture in the world. It hasn’t distilled into a single culture yet but it’s still young.

As the blurbs on my books say, I attended a murder trial when I was twelve years old. My older brother, an RCMP officer was giving testimony. What I really remember from the day was that the two defendants were laughing and joking. These were two guys, career criminals, who had kidnapped a young boy and in the botched ransom exchange killed two police officers. And they just weren’t taking the trial seriously.

When I talked to my brother about it afterwards he said, “Well, they know they’re spending the rest of their lives in prison, that’s just their final ‘fuck you’ to the rest of us.” I hadn’t really seen that attitude from murderers in the movies or on TV so this attitude stuck with me. And I’ve seen that kind of childish defiance a lot since.

Also in that trial I saw the matter-of-fact approach of the cops. My brother testified about finding the wallet of one of the victim’s near the crime scene when he was one of the cops searching the area.

(the weird thing is I also remember the testimony of the lab guy explaining in detail about how the particular make up of mud that was found in the defendants’ boots could only have come from three feet deep in the exact area where the victims’ bodies were buried, but it has never ocurred to me to use forensics as a factor in fiction. Oh well....)

Those attitudes more than any specific actions are what I’ve used as inpsiration for my writing.

And a lot of real-life events. My wife sends me some of those, “weird criminal” stories from newspapers she finds online. Not the ripped from the headlines page one stuff, that’s usually so odd and out there it’s unbeliveable. More stuff like, Mykal Carberry, 13, was arrested in Hyannis, Mass., in March and charged with arranging for the murder of his 16-year-old half-brother, Jordan, so that, according to police, he could take Jordan's place atop the family's prosperous Cape Cod cocaine distribution ring. (The boss's job was open following the boys' father's recent imprisonment.) [Tampa Tribune-AP, 3-2-09].

But I also get a lot of inspiration from art.

As an angry teenage boy I used to spend a lot of time talking about things I didn’t like. Movies that were, “total crap,” and TV shows that, “sucked bigtime.” And music, oh man, so much music was just awful. We could talk about crappy music for hours. Now I really only like to spend time reading, watching and talking about stuff that’s good. Sometimes I do sit through a movie that isn’t very good and when it’s over I try and pull a few good things from it – pretty much the opposite of what my teenage self would have done.

At a recent family get-together, my brother-in-law, a drama professor, actor, director and writer said he’s constantly hearing conversations and “correcting” them in his head, finding better ways for things to be said, putting the emphasis in different places and so on. Me, when I overhear conversations (and I try to do it all the time) I try to remember them so I can get my writing more the way people actually talk – even if that means it’s sometimes “wrong” with the emphasis in the wrong place.

It’s really just a matter of taste, whichever one you prefer. Inspiration comes from everywhere, then it’s up to us to turn it into something.

Where do you find most of your inspiration?


seana graham said...

That was a very interesting story about being twelve and viewing a court case. I wonder if you won't find forensics work their way into your books now that you've thought about that.

Having attended a trial about a horrific crime myself recently, I think I would write about such things considerably differently than I would have before.

Steve Weddle said...

Interesting that you get your inspiration from bad movies and pop music. I get my inspiration from modern art and classical music. Why, just the other morning, Lord Fauntleroy and I were discussing the merits of Bach's cantatas and how they could be re-imagined to form a series of short stories. Just kidding. I get my inspiration from crap movies, too. Just doesn't sound as interesting.

Books, too, and not just fiction. Sure, I'll read Dirty Sweet or The Good Son and think, "Hmmm, how would my characters have reacted?"
Non-fiction, as well, is a huge inspiration, particularly when you can read something about the location you're working with. For example, Jay has been hard at work researching backstory for his new work. And I've read gobs of stuff on the actual town that is the setting for my current work. I don't think you necessarily have to take a "real" event from the non-fiction piece. Rather, I think it helps create the tone and tenor of something you might be working with at the moment.

Sounds stooopid to say that I get some writing inspiration from reading books, but, well, the other day the museum was closed and I'd misplaced my opera tickets, so I had to do something.

Mike Knowles said...

I'm glad to hear it's not just me. I eavesdrop conversations all the time. I think it is the best way to generate dialogue that is true to life. I also love to watch true crime police shows. The interviews with real criminals give up tons of slang I don't usually come in contact with and help to make what I write a bit more authentic.

Dana King said...

I probably get most of my inspiration from books and movies. Dialog, especially. I'll take good dialog apart to see what made it good, and will read bad dialog and think, "I can write better than that," which then require I actually make an effort to do so.

I have also developed a gauge in my head for when plot gets out of control. The book I'm reading now has crossed that line; I can't say exactly where. It's like pornography: I know it when I see it. This helps me to keep my plots simpler and more plausible. The interest has to be made up in other aspects of the story

Scott D. Parker said...

I carry around a Moleskine notebook that I've hacked to be a day planner. I leave plenty of room for notes and jot down ideas and snippets and 'sentences I hear in my head' all the time. When I'm driving around the city and can't jot down a note, I call and leave myself a message on my home or office voice mail. I get my inspiration from a variety of sources. Sometimes, it's music and the indescribable feeling a certain song conjures. This is most evident in electric Miles Davis or classic late-60s rock. Sometimes a word here or there triggers something. Other times, it's a new item or something I see on the web. Earlier this year, there was a story of a watchmaker who, in 1861 at the outset of the Civil War, engraved a message in Lincoln's pocket watch. That discovery only came to light this year and, for me, a major plot point in my railroad detective novel. I think the key for creative types like us writers is to be able to channel inspiration from any source into something that's complete and ready for the world. It's hard, sometimes, but other times it's so easy.

Jay Stringer said...

I'm obsessed with listening.I store people up and re-use them weeks or months later. It must be weird living with me sometimes, because half the time I'll be loud and talkative and engaged in the conversation...other times I'm sat there simply recording.

I find the key to writing an accent is not to write phonetically overmuch, because it can look bad, but to recognise that different accents structure their sentances differently. I like to listen for that difference.

I find bad movies great for the sort of 'writers block' i mentioned last week, when my brain needs to work. It's no so much inspiration, as seeing something done badly seems to help my brain figure out how to do something (hopefully) well.

And friends. My friends and family have grown used to my weird ways. I have a friend who has recently started working as an undertaker. Most people ask him 'hows the job going?' or 'how are you coping?' Me? I ask 'What does a burned corpse smell like.'

Recently he was in a car accident fresh from picking up 'cargo.' A normal friends first question would probably be 'how are you?' But my first question was 'so, do you have a special ID badge? I mean, if the Cops turn up at the crash and you've got a dead body in the back, do you have a card that lets them know it's SUPPOSED to be there?'

pattinase (abbott) said...

The streets of Detroit, on the bus a lot, signs I see posted on poles, overheard conversations-- often on cell phones now, a line that might be a throwaway in someone else's work, my husband, my son's cases (prosecutor).