Where do writers get their ideas? It’s one of the most common questions we hear at Figment. For Laini Taylor, author of Daughter of Smoke and Bone and its sequel, Days of Blood and Starlight, her Prague-set tale of angels and monsters began with a series of “short, cryptic messages” that she jotted down in an “idea notebook”. And today, we have an exclusive treat — an Instagrammed-up visual tour through Laini’s writer journals! Check out where characters like Karou and Brimstone and locations like the Poison Kitchen got their start. It’s like a sonogram for a novel!
Then stick around, because we have a writing challenge for you, inspired by Laini’s notebooks. You could win both Smoke and Bone novels!
Hi Figment, and thank you for having me! I wish you had existed (and the internet too!) when I was a young writer. Deciding what to write for my guest post, my thoughts kept flocking to Poison Kitchen for some reason, the cafe in Prague where Karou and Zuzana hang out in Daughter of Smoke and Bone. I found myself thinking about when and where the idea for this place was born, and how my excitement over this fun idea gave me a lot of writing energy in the early stages of the book. I have this “idea notebook” that I started a long time ago. It’s not one of my project notebooks that are collaged and dedicated to notes on a particular novel (and which I recently blogged about). It’s this single little unadorned floppy composition book with a bent corner and a coffee stain, that just … is. It’s its own thing, an exercise that worked, and stuck.
Here it is:
It contains simply a long list of things that interest me, things that “light my mind on fire.” An entry might be a single word or a whole page of story notes. Often, what would begin as a list of snippets would coalesce into a story idea.
I don’t open it as often as I used to, and seldom write in it these days, but having just completed the exercise I’m about to tell you about, it is clear I must get back to doing so. Because, apparently, this book was the medium through which my brain delivered Daughter of Smoke and Bone to me in a series of short, cryptic messages! (Thank you, brain.) It really is a little uncanny to see the spinnings of my unconscious mind so plainly displayed.
I went looking for the entry that I remembered as the genesis of Poison Kitchen, and … I found all these other, earlier entries, so many things that had come together to become Daughter of Smoke and Bone, and in turn Days of Blood and Starlight.
On the very first page of this notebook that was begun several years ago:
—masks, elaborately carved masks with bird beaks
—artists, characters who can draw really well
—collectors of wishes, as a kind of rich man’s obsession, traveling the world in search of them.
I like masks. Obviously. It’s the third thing that popped to mind when I first began this exercise! (After, um, sexy fairy tales and marzipan animals? Yes. Marzipan animals are my second favorite thing EVER. Not really. Element of random.) But a bird mask does appear in the ball scene, and Karou is an artist who draws really well, and then: the wishes. This is a recurring theme. I have a thing for wishes, you will see, and long before I had any thoughts of Karou or Brimstone, angels or chimaera, I had this idea of a kind of a subculture of people scouring the world for wishes. I pictured them kind of like birders, or eclipse-watchers, driven by obsession. This idea morphed into a very different form, but it was there before almost anything else.
On page 2:
“Wishbone” was my working title (I was unfamiliar with the TV show of the same name, which made it a no-go as a potential title. Feh, detective dog!), and its appeal to me long predates this particular notebook. Here it appears in the inside cover of my Silksinger project notebook. It’s been in the mental stewpot since 2008 or so:
I just really like the word “wishbone,” and so I was unsurprised when it made an appearance on my first day of writing what would become Daughter of Smoke and Bone. I’ve told this story a lot, how I was deeply demoralized by a different book I was trying to write, one which just refused to ignite, and how I gave myself the gift of one day to write anything at all, just to remember that writing can be FUN. What appeared on the page, immediately and so very vividly, was an argument between a blue-haired teenaged girl and her … father? … who turned out not to be human? And from his first appearance, before I knew anything else about him, Brimstone had a wishbone around his neck that Karou was not allowed to touch.
If I didn’t make these lists and jottings, would that have happened? Maybe, but I bet not, and where would this story have been without it? The question: What’s with that wishbone? And: Why can’t she touch it? were among the handful that arose on the day of writing which had succeeded wildly in the FUN department. It was the best writing day of my entire life. I think my muse had just returned from a long gypsy caravan trip across Eastern Europe and was feeling bad for having left me to my own devices for so long, so she gave me a heavy dose of her rarest potion, Creative Glee.
—What if the main character is working for her eccentric boss, searching for something in a railway station … And something crazy happens … involving a rogue wish-madman with wishes tied into his big, unwashed beard. A weird, weird story, with travel and art and romance and rick obsessives and guarded secrets, and fey … character named Karou? Madrigal?
Ooh! Fun! Yippeeeee yipppeeeee!
Oh my gosh. This is really … I could not have told you that this was all in here. The wishes tied in a filthy beard? And … the names. Way back then. This was before … anything. I picked out those two names long before I had a story? I do not remember this.
These may ring bells:
—the bakery window, before dawn
—chimaeras, strange beasts shaped of many creatures
—pocketful of weird coins + random stuff
—Supernatural Romeo & Juliet — what kinds of creatures? One crashing the other’s party, love at first sight? duel, consummation, death, but with twists. Death [not =] death.
Ha. “Supernatural Romeo & Juliet”. It actually took me a while to fold this idea into the story, and when I did, it became the basis of everything. For a long time I had the notion that I would save it for a later book, something that happens to the next generation perhaps. I’ve had this happen several times, when an idea I think I’m saving for a later book becomes clearly the thing that is needed NOW. My rule of thumb: use anything I’m really excited about in the book at hand. The book at hand is all that matters. Future Laini can deal with future books.
There are a lot more, but I’ll just show you the Poison Kitchen one and move on to the point:
—cool jobs … like what? where? A made-up art museum? Illustration museum, ORIGAMI museum! A cool cafe with weird hats, hookah pipes, a garden full of sculpture — a tea house called GARDEN OF THE STONE KITCHEN — full of ultra-realistic statues of kids. With coffins for tables, and a grand piano in the corner, and resident cats, and a sweeping stairway …
—mannequins (or the statues) have antelope horns affixed, hats, goggles, chokers, gas masks. Or, mannequins in gas masks, creepy. Even creepier would be stone sculptures in gas masks …
I vividly recall a sense of excitement, scribbling this page, imagining this wonderful place. Poison Kitchen is a gift to my own teen self, who had NOWHERE COOL TO HANG OUT. Oh, I would have adored such a place as Poison Kitchen! I still would. Heck. It’s funny to note that Prague appears right here too. You might assume from that that I had Prague in mind as the location of this “cool cafe” all along, but it took me a while to lace these thoughts together. In the earliest appearance of Karou and Brimstone, the portal opened to New York. Then I tried to make Venice fit before Prague clicked. And here it was, all along. Weird.
Anyway, there are a lot more, but I think this gets the point across. The point? What point? Or points?
If you want to write, exercise your brain. Know what you love. Push your imagination. When I started this notebook on a whim, I would force myself to fill several pages at a time, even when I thought I couldn’t come up with another thing. When you force yourself past the border of your easy first thoughts, you start coming up with some rich, weird stuff. Use different tricks and exercises to get your mind moving in different ways. Try these:
Get a new notebook, freewrite in it daily, write whatever, anything and everything. The key: DO NOT READ WHAT YOU HAVE WRITTEN. IT IS FORBIDDEN TO LOOK BACK. After the notebook is filled, put it away for a month or three, then allow yourself to read it. It will seem like something you found in an attic. You won’t remember writing much of it. Strange and beautiful things will be in there, and they will be all yours.
“the book I would write”:
Do this exercise where you freewrite about the book you would write. (“Writing about” is so much easier than “writing”.) Don’t just describe the plot. Try to get at the feeling of it too, the mood and atmosphere. Be fanciful. You won’t have to abide by this, it’s just an exercise. Think about this too: imagine you are browsing in a bookstore or library, reading flap copy. You’ve had this happen before, you read flap copy that makes your heartbeat speed up, your mind brightens. This book is what you want, it is full of things you love, that fascinate you. You can’t wait to read it. What are those things? Come up with your own ideas that will speed up your heart and brighten your mind.
If doing exercises is an act of creation and idea stimulation, then keeping notebooks is the act of claiming ideas, capturing them. I heard Susan Cooper once say, “Job #1 is to keep a notebook. Job #2 is to refer to it often.” Something you jotted down five years may electrify you now.
I’ve heard it said, but can’t recall by who, that “it takes two ideas to rub together to make a fire,” and that is so true for me. Usually a lot more than two! I think there are a lot of story or book ideas are just sitting in people’s minds, inert because they are incomplete on their own, waiting to meet their idea-soulmates and fulfill their idea destinies.
It strikes me, belatedly, that this whole post is a long-winded answer to the question, “Where do you get your ideas?” Well, I get them from my brain, duh, but I get them because I invite them, I hunt them, I harry them out of the shadows, and then I capture them in my notebook and keep them. This idea business is not a passive occupation. You’ve got to work. Luckily, it’s the best work there is.
Complete the writing exercise described above, “The Book I Would Write.” Tag your writing LainiChallenge. Figment editors will choose our three favorites to receive copies of Daughter of Smoke and Bone and Days of Blood and Starlight!
Tag your entry by 11:59 p.m. ET on Tuesday, December 4 to enter. Read the full rules and get writing!
How to Enter:
1. Read the full rules.
2. Create an account on Figment.com.
3. Start a new writing of 250 words or less.
4. Tag your writing with LainiChallenge on the Details tab.
5. Press “Publish Now.”
6. You should receive a pop-up confirmation of your entry, and in about two hours or so, your piece should appear among the submissions.