Wednesday, June 3, 2015

A Thing of the Past: Finding Inspiration from Objects by Susanne Dietze

Where do writers come up with their ideas? Need a writing prompt? Author Susanne Dietze gives some insight into how she came up with her idea for her debut novella. -- Sandy

Susanne: I’m a museum nerd, one of those who loves strolling through exhibits, reading plaques and, on occasion, taking photos of displays (when allowed) so I can soak up every juicy detail of whatever it is I’m admiring. One look at a landscape, snuff box, dress with panniers or potpourri vase and my imagination goes bonkers. Who used the item? How did they feel about it?

Sometimes, that’s how the germ of a story forms. Connecting to Things (for lack of a better word) has set me on paths of research that have molded my stories—including my historical romance novella, Love’s Reward, from The Most Eligible Bachelor Collection.

In that particular case, a hundred-year-old pencil sketch on tracing paper caught my eye and got me thinking.

The premise of my novella required my hero’s involvement in competitions—both professional and personal—which take top priority in his life until a rival offers a reward for the capture of his heart (the only safe female in town, of course, is a charity-minded miss whose only designs are on the hero’s wallet).

Finding a personal contest for my hero was easy, but I wasn’t certain about my hero’s professional challenge. I wanted him to be an architect with a goal, such as winning a commission or a local prize. However, I didn’t know much about his field in the 1800’s. Rather than start looking for articles on the subject, I first peeked at Ebay and Google Images to get a glimpse of architecture tools and buildings from that era.

That’s when I stumbled upon some pencil and pen-and-wash architecture submissions to a global contest held in the 1890’s. (The copyrighted submissions can be viewed here.) In 1896, mining and real estate heiress Phoebe Apperson Hearst (mother of media mogul William Randolph Hearst) granted a gift to the University of California, Berkeley, allowing it to hold an International Architectural Competition to determine a master plan for the campus’s buildings and grounds. Over a hundred architects from all over the world competed for the honor.

I was enraptured by those submissions and could imagine my hero busy with his own proposal—and my story fell into place. I had a time and setting for my novella (1896, in Hearst’s San Francisco), data on how architects worked in the 1890’s, and a conflict with much higher stakes than I’d originally planned—all inspired by a Thing I’d seen online.

Ironically, I fictionalized the Hearst Competition as well as the name of the university for my novella, but I felt confident knowing there was a historical precedent for events in my story.

Not everyone is a visual learner, like I am (some of us are auditory or kinesthetic), and not all of us write historical fiction. Nevertheless, looking at Things related to our stories is a form of research that can add depth and detail to our works-in-progress. Whether it’s found in an illustrated guide (even ones for children!) or a site like Ebay, Things can be used to help guide our investigation—at the very least. At best, a writer might find the item sparks the imagination.

And a Thing of the past becomes a vibrant part of a living story.


Do you have a favorite treasure passed down through your family?



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Susanne Dietze is a pastor’s wife and mom who began writing love stories in high school, casting her friends in the starring roles. Today she writes in the hope of encouraging and entertaining others. You can visit her on her website, www.susannedietze.com.

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5 comments:

  1. I recently toured the history museum in Raleigh, NC. It's amazing how ideas nibble at you as you see objects or read certain facts. Love it!

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    1. Thanks so much for having me today, Sandra!

      I love wandering around museums. So many things to see! I was recently at the Gene Autry museum in LA and spent a lot of time ogling the items people would take with them on a stagecoach (cutlery, toilet kits, etc). The Wells Fargo coach on display was so much smaller than in my imaginings. It must have made for an uncomfortable ride!

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  2. I tend to be visual, too, Susanne. I could sit for hours browsing my grandmother's century-old cookbook, reading recipes for meals and curing ailments. So interesting, and would be great fodder if I wrote historicals. It's amazing how imagination works, isn't it? :)

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    1. Oh, I love old cookbooks too, Dora! They are treasure troves of insight into the past. Not that I've tried too many recipes...my great-grandma had a recipe for Scripture Cake. It's like a Bible scavenger hunt to find the ingredients (ie 4 of X verse; half a cup of X verse, etc). Then you bake it in a slow oven, which I found out means low heat.

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    2. Scripture Cake? Sounds fun, Susanne. I know what you mean about interpreting the older cooking terms and ingredients, but that does make it interesting to go through old recipes. I found a recipe to use with The Yuletide Angel, but had to change it up a bit for contemporary cooks.

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