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  • Writer's pictureDavid Burns

The Creative Spark

Updated: Jun 1, 2022

“Where do you get your ideas?”

Like a lot of writers, I think this is the question I get the most about my work. More than any question about the craft—or the labor—of storytelling, the thing that most people are curious about when they talk to a writer is the mysterious source of the Idea.

I kind of dread this question. I’ve tried giving it a lot of different answers over the years, but none of them ultimately satisfy—either the questioner or myself. In college, I remember learning of Silvano Arieti’s concept of the “endocept,” the fusion of two ideas into something new, a sort of magic synthesis. While that’s an almost mechanical way of looking at the process, and I think there’s some truth there, this is not typically how my process works.

I usually start with the idea that I want to feel something, some intense emotion, and then I cast about for a vehicle—a Moment—in which to make that emotion happen.

With a short story, the Moment may be the twist, or the “zinger” line at the end, which delivers the emotional pay-off for the reader. With a novel, it may be the final scene or, more commonly, the climax of the action.

Although it doesn’t always work out that way in the actual practice! For example, when I first imagined the story of “Bordertown”—about humanity’s last stand against a vampire plague—I imagined a confrontation scene between the leaders of the two opposing forces. Still thinking this was a short story, I wrote the dialogue, making only vague notes about the setting. I loved the scene, so I backed up and started writing the story to get to that scene.

Except the events needed to set up that scene kept multiplying as the story itself grew, and pretty soon that Moment became like the line of the horizon, always in sight but forever out of reach. My short story became a novel. Okay, no problem, I thought; we’ll get to this scene in the sequel. Everybody likes a sequel... Then Book Two got exciting on its own terms and I realized I needed to push the scene off until the next book. No sweat, I told myself, my eye only twitching slightly as I looked in the mirror. Tolkien did a trilogy; you’re just like Tolkien now…

But though the story kept getting bigger and better and longer—ultimately unfolding across six books—I did get to that scene in Book Three, and used it as the pivot point where everything changed in the war between the vampires and the humans. That scene proved to be the anchor that held the story firmly in place in my imagination and constantly reminded me of what excited me about the idea in the first place.

But where, then, is this “endocept” I mentioned? Well, for me, music is a big engine for the creative process, and frequently provides that other element I need for the “magic synthesis” to occur. And to get there I often cheat; I’m a big fan of scores and soundtracks, so when I’m plotting or writing, I will regularly play a track—or an entire score—because it made me feel something when I saw the movie or TV show, and I want to feel that emotion again, or amplify it with a scene of my own creation. I like to joke that if a story of mine were to make its way to TV or the cinema, it will already have its soundtrack done (which, I’d just like to mention, would be a considerable savings on the production budget, in case a big-shot Hollywood producer is reading this)!

I’ll give an example from my latest book. In the climactic scene of “Heart of Stone”—don’t worry; no spoilers!—I wanted a slow build-up to explosive action, and then a moment of suspension when everything hangs in the balance, and the universe holds its breath, and then a sort of exhalation as the tension drains out. I found two very different tracks that let me “see” the scene in my head and ride the emotions I was trying to convey. One was “Swallowed In the Sea” by Coldplay, and the other was “Darla’s Sacrifice” from the Angel TV series. Both of these gave me the build-up, and the latter one gave me that moment in the middle where you don’t know which way things are going to go, and the tension stretches to a near unbearable point. I must have played these tracks fifty times while writing and rewriting that scene, until I felt like the words on the screen captured the pacing and emotion I wanted.

I also find that using music to set the scene as you’re writing is a great way of breaking through writer’s block. It can help put you in the setting with your characters so that the tone and mood are in synch with the action. Whenever I needed to plug my brain back into the thought processes of my heroine, Kyra Anastas, for example, I would bring up a particular track from the “Diamonds Are Forever” Bond movie soundtrack that, to me, perfectly captured her mysterious and deadly nature when she was on the hunt.

So maybe ole’ Silvano was onto something with his magical synthesis theory. He just didn’t have YouTube.

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