People sometimes ask me where I get the inspiration for my stories, because of all the issues I might have with my writing, coming up with story ideas is not one of them. Truth is, I get my inspiration from every and anywhere... the graffiti on a wall, Ghost Hunters, Anime, a trip to Hawaii... but most importantly, I get my inspiration from art and history and I sometimes worry that not enough writers are paying attention to those last two.
I can't stress this enough to writers: I know you're told to read widely, to know the books in your genre, but there's a whole marvelous world out there that you should be exploring too. Visit a museum, tour some old ruins, read up on the French Revolution. Maybe you'll get an idea for your next book. If nothing else, you'll have expanded your understanding and broadened your mind, because ultimately, history is about people and how they react in certain circumstances, art is about human emotion given form. Gain a better understanding of both and you'll become a better writer.
I recently visited the Terra Cotta Warrior Exhibit at the National Geographic Museum in DC (all sold out, I'm afraid). Not only was it an amazing experience, getting to see statues detailed down to the soles of their shoes, with unique faces and hair-dos, but I got inspiration for a story I've been struggling with for over a year. The tentative title of the book is the Walls of Shangri-La, about a boy who lives in a walled paradise that no one has left for a thousand years. When one day a girl in a hot air balloon flies over the city, the boy becomes determined to find out what's outside the walls, even if it means imprisonment and the destruction of his family.
I already have one villain for the story, but with the way I have things planned out, I needed a second villain, bigger and badder than the first and I had no idea what to do. I was stuck, until I went to this exhibit. Now I think I'm going to base the villain on the First Emperor of China. Here are some things I learned at the show that I'm probably going to incorporate into the character and the book:
- The Emperor was extremely paranoid (is it paranoia if they're really out to get you though?). He built hundreds of palaces and slept in a different one every night. Once, when he was traveling and it was clear people had expected his arrival, he had his entire retinue of servants executed to make sure whoever had leaked the information would never do so again.
- There were numerous assassination attempts against the Emperor. In the most famous and nearly successful attempt, the assassin gained an audience with the Emperor after bringing him the head of an enemy general and a map of enemy lands. The assassin lunged at the Emperor with a dagger that was hidden in the rolled up map.
- The Emperor was a tyrant, but an extremely efficient and capable tyrant. Roads were improved, weights, money and writing was standardized, and weapons were mass-manufactured, which gave the Emperor a technical advantage over his enemies. Every weapon had a stamp on it saying where the weapon had been made and by who to ensure quality control. Parts could also be inter-changed, allowing weapons to be quickly fixed.
- The Emperor did not always kill rival rulers. Rather, he would bring them to the capital and keep them as prisoners in palaces designed to resemble their own palaces back home.
There are plenty of more details that I want to put into the book, like the decorated tiles I saw and Chinese symbology. As creative as I might be, everytime I learn about the past, I find something amazing that I could have never dreamed up on my own.