Monday, January 5, 2015

Inspiration and Creativity

            Creation remains one of human experience’s unsolved mysteries. Does the thing that has not been before come from outside (inspiration, whose root meaning is a “breathing in”)? Or does it come from within the person (creativity, the ability to make new ideas or things)? Or can it be a combination of both? We will reach no ultimate conclusions on this question today, but we can speculate on several examples.
             Among these, some of the most fascinating occur when someone takes a fresh look at something others have observed for years. One afternoon in Culver City, California, in 1921, the silent film producer Hal Roach was gazing out his office window, watching children at play. Many of us have delighted in sights such as that. But to Hal Roach came the stroke of creativity: If children at play entertained him for a full quarter of an hour, why not film them to entertain moviegoers? The result was the popular series of “Our Gang” comedies that amused audiences until about 1944.

            Something similar happened in 1941 to the Swiss electrical engineer George de Mestral when he and his dog returned from a hunting trip. Burrs had stuck to his clothing and the dog’s hair. This had been happening to people ever since clothing, dogs, and burrs existed, but de Mestral asked what made the burrs stick. He found that burrs had tiny hooks that latched on to any kind of loop. From that discovery he developed the product we now know as Velcro.
            In each of these cases the stimulus came from outside, but the creative act came from inside the observer. These and other instances lead me to believe that some external stimulus is usually required to spark the inner creative impulse.
            Similar things happen to writers, one example being my poem “Married Love.” From graduate school days I had admired Renaissance art, particularly those paintings and schematics that tried to capture all possible meanings of a selected concept within one work of art. And Edmund Spenser had attempted the same kind of structure in The Fairie Queene with extended passages about the House of Pride and the House of Holiness. So I decided to try something similar with the House of Married Love, using images to suggest all the wonders of that love. But the idea would not have been complete without imaging the barrenness of counterfeits of love that lie “outside the house.” Again, the stimulus came from outside, but the creative act to develop something new came from inside.

            Things like that also happen in writing novels. In my thriller The Lazarus File, I had the hero/pilot hijacked in order to arrange his meeting with the totally dissimilar heroine. The only use I had for the hijacker was to make that happen. He held the hero at gunpoint on the airport ramp in Medellin, demanding that he make a flight to move the heroine out of guerrilla territory. As I wrote the scene the hero naturally asked what would happen if he didn’t make the flight. Then this speech happened, totally unplanned: The hijacker looked sad and said, “"Ah, Señor…Before the Sabbath I must attend confession, and some patient Father must hear the tedious catalog of my sins. Why would you add your murder to that sordid list? You should be more considerate of the priesthood."
            After that chop-logic I knew I had to get more mileage out of the hijacker. The creative act had come unbidden, but planning would be required to capitalize on it. So I had the hijacker tackle straightforward problems with outlandish Rube Goldberg schemes that somehow always worked. I had him speak in clichés that he never got quite right: “You will find the grass is greener when you are not straddling the fence.” And readers liked the character so much that I brought him back in Deadly Additive, with a son who boasted, “I am a sheep off the old black.”
            In the end one doesn’t know where these ideas come from. But it seems to me that something outside provides the stimulus, and the creative impulse and craftsmanship take over from that point.
            What are your ideas on the subject?

Monday, December 29, 2014

On Gratifying the Reader


Donn Taylor

            In our most basic instruction on fiction writing we were taught to keep the story moving forward. A codicil to that principle is to maintain the reader's interest on every page. This is usually done by introducing new developments in the plot—an unexpected twist for the reader, or a major character's reaction to encountering something unexpected. These are good rules that should be followed. But in these comments I will argue for the effectiveness of another means of gratifying the reader.

            I first noticed it in an old sci-fi novel by Robert Heinlein. He advanced the plot as he should, of course, but in the middle of the action he made a passing reference to a famous zoologist named Dr. Tiergarten. I found myself laughing because Tiergarten is the German word for zoo. The effect was momentary, but it definitely gratified me as a reader.
            These momentary comic effects in the midst of drama were standard in the classic movies. No one would question the increasing tension in the movie Casablanca. But as it builds, the C.Z. Sakall character turns around and suddenly bumps into a character we already know as a pickpocket. Sakall's hurriedly checking his pockets provides a moment of hilarity in the midst of the growing tension. In the Western My Darling Clementine, as tension builds toward the climactic gunfight at the OK Corral, the Ward Bond character whinnies like a horse at the beautiful Linda Darnell as she carries a washtub of water past him. She responds by dousing him with the water. Neither of these incidents adds to development of the plot, but both gratify the audience with momentary laughter in the midst of the tension.

            I've tried to make discreet use of this technique a standard element of my fiction, though I tend to keep mine understated in the manner of Heinlein. The hero of The Lazarus File finds himself in a corrupt town run by a thoroughly corrupt sheriff, and in need of escaping town before members of a drug ring can capture him. During the escape he sees a billboard that flaunts the town's corruption by advertising exotic dancers from Germany, one of whom is named Kirsten Keinekleider. (The German keine kleider means "no clothing.") The effect is momentary, yet several readers have remembered it and reminded me of it.

            One scene in that novel involves an elaborate hoax perpetrated on one of the villains. The hoax takes place in the Red Herring Bar, and the leading temptress tells the villain she comes from a village named Mirage which, she says, is very close to where they are sitting. Similarly, an incident in my Preston Barclay mysteries has two people mention a rumor that an incompetent psychologist thinks the hippocampus is a zoo. Other incidents of the same kind appear here and there.

            I've used that same technique in my current novel, Lightning on a Quiet Night.

            Needless to say, this kind of thing can be overdone. But, used judiciously, an author can gratify his reader in unexpected ways without detracting from the forward movement of the plot.