I first met L. M. Merrington when she came to a writing course I ran at the ACT Writers Centre. I was struck during the few hours we spent together by the clarity of her vision, and by the creative and instinctive way she responded to the writing activities.
At the end of the course, she approached me to ask if I’d launch her first novel. She said, “If you like the book,” and thrust a copy into my hands.
I read “Greythorne” that night and enjoyed it immensely. Thank Goodness!
Here she is, talking about the endless story prospects ahead of her and more.
“I think about inspiration as being in a few stages. First there’s the daydreaming stage, when the endless story prospects swirl all around you, just waiting to be plucked out of the air. I love asking ‘What if…?’ or ‘Why…?’ because I find that opens up a whole bunch of possibilities. It could be about historical events, or the life of a random person I pass in the street. People-watching is great inspiration. I have to travel quite a bit for work, and it’s one of the few good things about having to sit round in airports.
I also love hanging out in libraries or second-hand bookshops. Back when I was at uni, I had a part-time job in a public library, and my two favourite tasks were shelving and covering books. They were both repetitive, mind-numbing tasks, but while my hands worked I could read the blurbs and start to develop my own stories. Just being around so many books all the time was in itself an inspiration, and large collections of books still give me a thrill. I’ve also found that similar boring tasks, like housework, can be a great way of refreshing the mind – if you keep your hands busy, your mind is free to wander where it will.
Museums and art galleries are also places I go when I need initial inspiration. I’m particularly fascinated by the nineteenth century, but any sort of historical museum stirs me up, especially historical sites that have been turned into museums, like Sydney’s old quarantine station at Manly. My current novel, The Iron Line, was inspired by a visit to the Trainworks museum in Picton, which is all about the history of the New South Wales railways. I love thinking about how people lived in different eras, and their joys and hardships. I write very loose historical mysteries (which are more about the mysteries than the history), and I’m also really into steampunk (alternative Victoriana) so I like to take historical facts and make them my own. One of the most inspiring places I’ve been is Venice, because the whole city is an open-air museum. I went there when I was in the midst of a terrible creative drought, and being hit with so much art, history and music was like discovering an oasis in the middle of the desert.
The daydreaming stage is, I think, the bit I love most about writing. I keep a notebook full of story ideas that I add to as the inspiration strikes. Many of them may never see the light of day, but I hope it’ll act as a bit of an insurance policy against that time when (heaven forbid) I don’t know what to write next.
Unfortunately, after that initial rush of inspiration comes the hard work. Like many beginning writers, in my early years I thought I had to wait for the muse to strike before I could start writing. It meant I had a lot of story ideas but generally didn’t finish anything.
Oddly enough, it was a stint in academia that taught me the discipline I needed to complete major projects. I realised that you just have to keep turning up at the desk, day after day, whether you feel like it or not, and that even 100 words written is better than nothing (even if they’re terrible). So I’ve become less reliant on inspiration as a driving force, and consequently I now have one published novel and another on the way. So I guess my first instinct when I hit an inspiration drought now in the middle of a draft is to push through it and see if it’s just a reaction to other stresses in my life or if it’s really a problem.
Sometimes, of course, that doesn’t work. My first attempt at my second novel fell in a screaming heap because it had plenty of initial inspiration but not enough story to push it along. I ended up abandoning it (all two chapters), taking the best bits of the original idea and reimagining it into something different. It was a long conversation with my husband that eventually helped it coalesce into its current form, and it’s not the first time he’s pulled me out of a creative rut.
My husband is a rare breed – a creative engineer. He loves science fiction and storytelling, especially through graphic novels, films and video games, but he’s also highly logical and his brain works very differently to mine. It means that we can have really in-depth conversations about plot and structure – what if the main character did this? But why would the antagonist need to do that? What’s her motivation? – but he’ll often see things quite differently to me, which is a huge asset. He forces me to pick up my story, turn it around and look at it from a different angle, which I think is one of the best things you can do when you’re stuck. He’s my alpha reader – the only person I trust to read my first drafts in all their grotty glory.
I often fall into these creative ruts around the middle of the novel. I’m great at beginnings and ends, but middles are a real struggle. I think of inspiration in this stage as a bit different to the initial daydreaming stage. When you’re daydreaming, what you want is a big idea. It’s quite a creative endeavour. When you’re stuck in a rut in the middle of your novel, what you need is a solution to a problem. For me, at least, it’s less creative and more analytical. How am I going to get my heroine out of this mess? How can I increase the conflict here? Do I need to speed up or slow down the pace? Why would she do this? It’s a technical exercise, very much about the craft of writing.
I generally prefer to write in first person, and I originally trained as a journalist, so one of the things I like to do when I get stuck is interview my characters. I literally imagine myself sitting down with them and asking them questions about the events in the story and what happened next. It sounds mad, but it really works for me. I think it’s something about giving agency to the character and feeling like it’s them telling the story rather than me.
I’ve also had to learn to be a bit kinder to myself. I’ve realised that bashing your head against the wall until the ideas fall out isn’t really the best way to do it. Sometimes life gets busy and it’s harder to write – it’s not the end of the world if you have a few days off. Sometimes you need to keep getting the words out no matter how terrible they are – editing can absolve most sins. Sometimes you just need to go for a long walk, stop worrying and let your subconscious do the work. I also love Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, which is all about unblocking your creativity. Some of the activities she suggests include ‘morning pages’, where you write three notebook pages every morning about whatever you want, and ‘artist’s dates’, where you take yourself off alone regularly (she recommends weekly) to do something that refreshes you. This book was instrumental in unblocking me enough to write my first novel, and I’ve learned a lot from it about how to function creatively in a healthy way.
For now, I’m feeling in a better place creatively than I have for years. I finally have a job with enough flexibility to give me a decent amount of writing time, I’m two-thirds of the way through my second novel, and I have a notebook bursting with ideas for the next one. I’m also realising how much hard work and sheer bloody-mindedness is required to turn inspiration into books, but that’s half the fun! Now, I’m off to the museum…”