As writers we know that inspiration can come from anywhere at anytime. It’s important to be alert and soak in the details of the world around you. Often times we draw inspiration from our non-fictional surroundings to power us through creating our fictitious tale. In this week’s guest blog, author Alex Dolan shares the story of how he got inspiration for his upcoming novel, The Empress of Tempera, and how you can get inspiration for yourself.
How to Prepare for Accidental Inspiration
How to Prepare for Accidental Inspiration
By Alex Dolan
A few years ago I wandered into the Weinstein Gallery in San Francisco to kill time during lunch. I was staring at the work of an artist I’d never seen, and noting my interest, one of the staff shared his story.
The artist was a man named Rudolf Bauer, a German painter who rose to fame before World War II, and someone who was influential to some artists who have become household names, such as Kandinsky, Chagall and Klee. In fact, Bauer was so significant, his primary benefactor, Solomon Guggenheim, commissioned Frank Llloyd Wright to design a modern art museum on 5th Avenue in Manhattan to house his collection.
Yep, that Guggenheim Museum was built for this guy. So why haven’t you ever heard of Bauer?
He was a popular painter while Hitler was coming to power. As an artist, especially an artist whose primary benefactor was a Jewish American, he was a target. He was arrested for his “degenerate” art and spent several months in a Gestapo prison. With help from Guggenheim, Bauer found passage to the United States, and signed a contract that set him up with a house and Duesenberg convertible.
The problem was, Bauer didn’t read English, and signed a contract he didn’t fully understand. The contract also stated that Bauer couldn’t earn any income in the U.S. as a painter. All of the money he made through his works would go to the Guggenheim family.
Bauer sunk into depression and stopped painting, and the Guggenheims ended up boxing up the collection and storing it in the basement of the museum, where it festered in anonymity for decades. It was only when the museum changed curators and unboxed the archive that they rediscovered an artist who had been condemned to obscurity by one of the wealthiest families in America.
I thought the story was fascinating. I went back several times to get more details, and read as much as I could about Bauer. In the end, the story provided the seed that grew into my novel, The Empress of Tempera (Sept. 13, 2016 release).
I didn’t want to retell Bauer’s story (just in case anyone’s wondering if I just gave spoilers for my own book), but I was driven by the idea that a family with wealth and influence could expunge the memory of a prominent artist. It’s an old story — the rich versus the underprivileged. I played with the idea of what might happen if a painting from a forgotten artist was discovered, and that discovery stirred up a blood feud that had been dormant for decades. David and Goliath. Rocky and Apollo Creed. The underdog story. I added my own spin on it by inserting a protagonist who was a kleptomaniac, who becomes obsessed with the painting and needs to steal it for herself. Then, the mayhem was easy to release.
All of this came from a willingness to go somewhere new and talk to someone.
I believe that fiction and storytelling is a way of mirroring back what’s happening in our world. So it makes sense that the inspiration for your next great story can come from the real world. As part of my show, “Thrill Seekers,” I interview thriller writers who have been at this for a lot longer than I have, and I often hear how they found their initial creative inspiration in a headline, or when they were visiting a new place, or when they had a novel experience. All of these writers seem to have the universal trait of being curious to digest what’s happening in the world. Eventually, something they learned or someone they met worms its way into fiction.
I also think it’s easier to find inspiration when you’re looking for it. So, I’m nosy. If someone’s telling me something interesting, I ask her for all the gruesome details. I’ll let him talk himself hoarse. Maybe this will become the start of something wonderful, and maybe I’ll just learn something interesting to share with another friend. Eventually, when I listen hard enough, I find something.
I recommend anyone who’s trying to come up with new story ideas to soak up as much of the world around you as possible. The more you read, watch, talk, and listen, the more likely the Isaac Newton apple will fall on your head.
Louis Pasteur said, “Chance favors only the prepared mind,” and I agree. Inspiration can find you at any moment. But it helps if you’re looking for it.
Alex Dolan is the author of The Empress of Tempera and The Euthanist. He’s also a California-based musician and the host of Thrill Seekers, part of Authors on the Air Global Radio Network. Reach him here.
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