The creative process seems to be quite varied. I find it fascinating how differently writers think about their projects in the initial stages.
* Some writers start with a theme in mind and craft a story to convey a particular message, such as protecting the environment or warding off Communism.
*Others start out with a great idea for a plot suggested by something they've seen or heard, like a news item about a man lost in the Alaskan wilderness who miraculously survives, or a funny story about a friend's disastrous vacation.
"The Other Bolelyn Girl" was inspired by a ship named "The Mary Bolelyn." Author Philippa Gregory came across it in some reseach she was doing on naval vessels during the Tudor period. Curious, Gregory dug deeper and discovered that Mary was the sister of Ann Bolelyn, who had an affair with Henry VII and reportedly bore him two children. She couldn't believe Mary's story had never been told. Mary Bolelyn was so utterly unknown that it never occurred to the author that she was related to Ann Bolelyn until she did the research. How's that for a precious nugget?
* Still other authors spy an interesting person who suggests a colorful character, and the story builds from there. Hercule Poirot, for example, was based on a gentleman whom Agatha Christie observed eating in a restaurant. His particular appearance and manners inspired numerous books about the famous Belgian detective who solves crimes using his "little gray cells."
So, what inspires you first: Setting, Plot, Character or Theme?
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