First off: We put the first chapter of A Tale of Two Castles up on my website. Click here to read it: And click here for the cool book trailer that HarperCollins created: If you have trouble opening it, you can also watch it on YouTube:

Also new on the website, we added first chapters to three other of my books, Dave at Night, Fairest, and Writing Magic. We hope to have the rest available soon.

And, if you click here, you’ll see the latest photograph of puppy Reggie, who grows more adorable every day, in our opinion. And housebreaking is starting to take. Whoopee!

February 20, 2011 Piper wrote, …where do you get your inspiration?

I don’t think of myself  as an inspired writer so much as one who plugs away, so when I use the word in the post, I’m not certain I’m using it in the way inspiration is commonly used or even that I’m answering the question, but here’s hoping.

That concern aside, my inspiration for being a writer is my childhood reading. Reading ranked just below breathing in importance when I was little. Privacy was in short supply in our cramped apartment. I shared a bedroom with my older sister, who believed I had been created to plague her. Books pulled down the walls that confined me. The ones I read as a child made me a writer for children. I still love to read, but reading isn’t as important to me now as it was then.

The books I attached to were mostly old: Louisa May Alcott’s novels, L. M. Montgomery’s, Heidi, Bambi, Black Beauty, Peter Pan. I relished books about Robin Hood and King Arthur, tall tales, and of course fairy tales. If I liked a book I read it over and over. Through my favorite books and rereading them I absorbed a sense of plot, character, language, even grammar and usage. The old books didn’t limit their vocabulary to what a child would know. What a gift!

When I write, I’m writing for my younger self, which is probably my most fundamental and continuing inspiration.

There are certainly writers for children, however, who weren’t big readers when they were small, some who may be inspired to write because they disliked reading. They want to write books for their younger selves, too, in their case books for today’s children who pick up a book only when they have to for school. These writers may eschew difficult vocabulary words for the reasonable reason that they hated them. I once got a letter from a child who didn’t like Ella Enchanted because of the made-up languages, which he or she (I don’t remember which) didn’t understand. Hard words can frustrate a child and make her feel stupid. I don’t avoid them, but I understand why some writers do.

In 1987 when I started to write for children, I read the books in the Newbery bookcase at the library. I found in many of them the same old-fashioned approach to storytelling that I knew from my childhood, which made me feel right at home and as if I could join in. Another inspiration.

I took writing courses, too, and met fellow writers. My favorite class was a workshop. Every week our teacher would read three or four selections of student work that had been submitted to her the week before. After she read, the class would comment and then she would. Many published writers took this course. The same writing issues (like the ones that come up on the blog) would appear in different guises week after week, so advice would be repeated. The effect was much like rereading books; I absorbed the comments of the more experienced writers, and now their voices are in my mind when I write. I hear them ask me what my characters are thinking and feeling or if I’ve written information that the reader doesn’t need to know and that only I do. My teachers and my classmates are another inspiration.

Today, my writing friends inspire me. Every month two friends come over for lunch. There’s no purpose. We don’t critique each other’s work. Sometimes we shop talk about publishing. Often our own writing comes up. It’s rarely smooth sailing for any of us, which is a comfort and, in an odd way, an inspiration. My critique buddy and I meet monthly too. My book deadline isn’t looming, so having pages for her is a goal.

I still go to fairy tales for ideas and inspiration. The book I’m struggling with now was inspired by a nineteenth century fairy tale called “The King of the Golden River” by John Ruskin, a morality tale about greed. Two rapacious brothers are turned into black stones and their younger, generous brother is rewarded. What I love about the story is the gothic atmosphere. The wind roars into the brothers’ house; the king of the river is a golden mug that melts; the brothers have to climb a forbidding mountain. I wondered what the story’s sequel might be if the stone brothers came back to life. Then my tale changed, and it isn’t about that any more, but the seed probably remains.

What keeps me writing may be the internal-ness of the process, the communion with myself. Like reading, writing is intensely private. We’re fishing in our own minds, and sometimes we pull out magic fish.

There’s also the fact that I earn my living as a writer, which, if not an inspiration, is a goad. What else? Meditating, which I used to do more regularly before Reggie arrived, sometimes causes ideas to bubble up. Exercise also. Plus the drive that artists have to create. I’m at a loss if I’m not working on something.

So here’s something for you to work on, some classic themes that you may have enjoyed as children. Write a story about one or more of these:

•    a dog, horse, or any pet who thinks in language and is separated from her owners.

•    an orphan traveling to an unknown place.

•    a child separated from her family by war.

•    a stowaway on a ship of the royal fleet.

•    a family struggling with poverty.

•    an outlaw set against an unjust society.

Have fun and save what you write!

  1. This was very inspiring, haha. I've been having inspiration issues lately. I get a lot of ideas from my friends and with the help of my friends but I've been having trouble thinking of ideas of my own lately *sigh*…

    Question for you, Ms. Levine(or anyone else who feels like answering).
    So I have a manuscript that I kind of edited to death- meaning I wrote it and I edited it so it was better but I got so obsessed with making it *perfect* that I kind of sucked the life out of it. Now it's just listless words meandering across the page that are all painstakingly gramically correct and technically *perfect* but it has no life, it has no flare, no sparkle. This breaks my heart to make me think I killed the very thing I wanted to improve, so do you have any suggestions about how to raise my manuscript from the dead? Do you know how I can pump some life back into it and make it my own again instead of it sounding like something any generic computer program could have thought up? Any ideas about how to change my manuscript from being flat stiff sentences to something worth reading again would be most welcome…
    Thanks for the post, Ms. Levine! 🙂

  2. Shakespeare would spell words differently or make up words to make his sentences sound "pretty" and Daphne du Maurier never said the name of the narrator in Rebecca.
    I have a story and I never want to describe her appearance because I want anyone to see themselves as her. With this and the other examples, do you like it or not? Who else did things like this?

  3. Mrs. Levine, if you don't mind answering a possibly off-topic question… I'm doing a project on you for English class and would like to know, Who has influenced you, and what might your writing/life have been like if you had not been in contact with that person?
    Thanks so much! I really appreciate this blog by the way, it's been very helpful to me so far(:

  4. Grace and Chicory, I'm interested to see what Gail says in a future post. However, in the meantime, it sounds like you need to back away from the manuscript for a while. Don't look at it for a few months (or possibly longer). Work on something else while it sits. When you go back to it, you'll be able to look at it with fresh eyes and make more objective judgements.

    Now I'm off to follow the links at the beginning of this post. 🙂

  5. @ April, that sounds like really good advice, and that's probably what I need to do, but the thing is…I have an agent looking at some sample chapters of this manuscript right now and I need to be editing it (well, editing the ending mostly, because the beginning is over-edited and the ending is horrid) in case she emails me back soon and wants to read the whole manuscript. I wish I could do what you suggested, because that would probably work wonders, but alas…well, thanks for the advice anyways 🙂

  6. Grace–It will take me a while to get to your question, so I may be too late to help, if I can help. In the meanwhile I'd go back to the main conflict that fuels the story and see what happened to it in the over-editing. I'd also think about what got you started and made you want to write this in the first place. And, despite the time constraints, I agree with April's advice.

    Bekah–My main influence was my wonderful adult-ed writing teacher, Margaret Gabel. I can't imagine what my writing life would be without her.

  7. I think my inspiration comes when I actually force myself to sit down and write, say, a hundred words. Then, I get excited about my story and keep on writing and writing and writing… The key is starting. I never sit down and just write a hundred words. It ends up being, usually, at least five hundred, or more if it's not a school day. Great post 🙂 Very helpful, as usual.

  8. My inspiration comes from catching a wispy idea of a character and then getting really frustrated until I find a plot for them.

    Since plotting doesn't come as naturally to me, I've worked hard these last few years to learn the skill. I've realized this week that in my zeal to have sleek, streamline stories, I've been too quick to hack away the quirky little interactions that show up in my early drafts. I suspect that's part of my over-polishing problem.

    Maybe one way to avoid over-editing is to take the old saying about `murder your darlings' with a grain of salt?

  9. @ Grace

    The one way to make sure I don't over-edit is to not edit for long periods of time in one sitting.
    If I edit for longer than an hour, then the editing just gets kind of tedious. Try to edit in short bursts, so that you feel always feel refreshed as you read the story.

    When I dislike the stuff I've written, I often step back from it, and try to think back on what I originally wanted to achieve and compare it to what I actually produced. Have my goals changed? What do I want to show in the scene? Character development? An interesting twist to a mystery? I try not to write my ideas and instead just think about it and read and reread the passages. By not writing it, I am so antsy I'll forget it that the ideas run wild in my mind, so that when I actually write-edit, the writing is at its best and most thought-out.

    Printing out the story to edit it by hand is often better, because that way you can see what was there before and how you changed, even days after you edited. I highlight the dialogue that sounds weird, I read passages aloud on both (paying attention to what passages sound awkward and what dialogue sounds stiff) and I bold those parts.

    I take a break, reading a few pages of my favorite books or poems to get inspiration. I do my best effort not think about the story I am writing, but instead notice how other authors write their characters or use dialogue.

    Also, sometimes I ask someone else to read my story and tell them to mark the parts they got bored at or disliked.

    This time edit. Just remember—not for to long.

    Hopefully all this reflecting will put you in the right track. Good luck. Tell me if it helped.

  10. Brilliant first chap!!!=) Reminds me why i love Mrs Levine's book so much.=D I have a question though. The HarperCollins site says Two Castles will be availble here in Australia in ebook format. Will the real book be released late overseas too? I hope not, it's already been a long wait!

    Sigh, I loved this post. Really made me inspired. I have given up writing for a long while, school and daily life seems to sap every creative thought out. Just mundane things everyday, its tiring.

    Well, I'm determined to start a new story soon, right after those wonderful exams this week.=D Childhood inspirations!!! Enid Blyton was my life up till age 6, and then it was Harry Potter, probably like millions of other kids the last decade.=) But the most inspiring were of course, your books, Mrs Levine.

    Creating a new story out of an original fairytale, like Ella Enchanted, the books were done so well. Fairy tales while having intriguing plots but rather stereotypical and bland characters (the handsome prince, evil stepmoms.=D) those books proved that you could put your your spin on the characters and come up with an amazing new story which contained the package deal; romance, adventure, mystery.=D

    Lol that was some raving! Nice post again, mrs levine.=D Cheered me up after a long day.

  11. Thank you bluekiwii and Ms. Levine, I will definitely try these things, this is some really good advice. Now I just need to figure out how to resurect my dead pages, haha….

  12. Gail–I'm looking forward to seeing you at the Wellesley Booksmith in a few weeks!

    @Grace–oh my! Maybe it isn't as bad as you think. I would definitely take time away, and even think about rewriting. It sounds harsh, but sometimes you need to start fresh. And I bet you know that novel backward and forward by now. Sometimes I need to throw it all out and start over. It's always better the next time around.

    @Jill–A friend of mine did this in her MG novel–didn't describe the MC, because she likes her readers to imagine the MC for themselves. The book is coming out in the fall, and the publisher stuck a picture of the MC on the cover. So there you go! The best laid plans…

    It feels very strange putting my two cents in on someone else's blog. I can't wait to see how Gail answers these questions. 🙂

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