The Eureka Moment

Christopher Fowler
IMG_3874Today the T-shirt says it all. I'm not having any Eureka moments. Staring out of the window is what I often have to do as part of my job. And today, the worst part, the staring bit, is here again. A runway of blank white paper stretches before me. I've delivered a new novel, and while I'm waiting for editorial notes on that I start thinking about what I'm doing next. Today I need a new plot. I have my themes, my locations and my characters. What I don't have is the motor that will bring all of these things into play. So I walk. I talk to people. I read and research, and surf the net. I look for clues in human behaviour. This morning I decided to look at the key scenes mentioned in a superb book published by Octopus called 'The Little Black Movie Book' - it's certainly not little, having a startlingly broad range of scenes which annotate important moments in the history of film. Well, not important so much as memorable. So to help jump-start me, I've been matching up the scenes under discussion with equivalent YouTube clips. In Chabrol's 'La Ceremonie' based on Ruth Rendell's 'A Judgement In Stone', the twist - the motor, if you will - to the murder plot is given away in the film's first five seconds, but somehow you miss it. It's right there in front of you, but shot from a distance, a beautiful directorial touch. The moment is so natural, so ordinary that it doesn't assume huge significance until much later. This is a key element in understanding how a plot works; it's there like a skeleton, and sometimes you see it but most of the time it's hidden beneath the fabric of the writing. Perhaps half a dozen times in the past I feel I've come up with something truly startling. Often I feel I've missed the target I set myself, and it's not until much later that I can understand how or why. Recently a reader complained on Amazon that 'Nyctophobia' was not realistic - not because it featured the supernatural - but because the lead character didn't immediately use Google to uncover the history of her house. I replied that a/ it would have been really boring for the reader and b/ as someone who virtually lives online, I know you can't actually find everything you need on Google. Perhaps I'd have considered the point, though, if I'd discussed it with other writers? But of course we don't do that. Why don't writers share anything with one another? The other night I had a drink with Lloyd Shepherd and Suzi Feay, and we talked writing. Lloyd's latest, 'Savage Magic', is his third historical mystery, and looks to be the best so far. Suzi I used to work at Time Out, and she's writing books these days. But we tend to talk about everything under the sun other than the physical process of writing. It's not because we're being secretive, but perhaps because the act itself is weirdly private. I do believe in Eureka moments, those blinding flashes when it all suddenly makes sense. We want to believe in them. There's a moment in 'The Imitation Game' when the Eureka moment hits Alan Turing and you know it's fake, but how much more pleasurable to think it might have been like that - it's just that inspiration never comes from where you'd expect. I'm happy to believe that WS Gilbert was nearly struck on the head by a falling Japanese sword, which gave him the idea for the Mikado - it still didn't write such sparkling, clever lyrics for him! The Eureka moment may provide the ignition, but you have to take the vehicle on the full journey, and that's where the hard work is.


Vivienne (not verified) Wed, 19/11/2014 - 12:37

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Is there a difference between inspiration and work? What is really going on in our brains when we are staring out of the window? I remember hearing about a mathematician who had been working on/thinking about a problem for years, and then his eureka moment came when he was stepping onto a bus one day - when he said he hadn't been consciously thinking about it at all.

Brooke Lynne (not verified) Wed, 19/11/2014 - 14:29

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Poor you. I coach a lot of scientists and entrepreneurs. Guess what... there is a lot of staring out of the window. Eureka moments arrive after a lot of staring, nights spent tossing and turning, days spent making really dumb mistakes (as viewed afterward). When all is said, it's the track record that counts. A string of well-written, funny, clever mystery novels and futuristic thrillers is not a bad track record.
Bleeding Hearts is finally available here in the States...oh, joy and rapture.

Christopher Fowler Wed, 19/11/2014 - 15:04

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Thanks Lynne - I love my job. Between the time I posted this and now, I've written the first chapter of a new novel. The sense of satisfaction is only mitigated by the horrible realisation that I have another 49 chapters to go, four times over (four drafts).

Rh (not verified) Wed, 19/11/2014 - 16:16

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

It's all in the afflatus... for some reason William Godwin's foreword of 1832 to Caleb Williams has always stuck in my mind about this writing process (or more likely my own frequent lack of afflatus!):

I then sat down to write my story from the beginning. I wrote for the most part but a short portion in any single day. I wrote only when the afflatus was upon me. I held it for a maxim that any portion that was written when I was not fully in the vein, told for considerably worse than nothing. Idleness was a thousand times better in this case, than industry against the grain. Idleness was only time lost; and the next day it may be was as promising as ever. It was merely a day perished from the calendar. But a passage written feebly, flatly, and in a wrong spirit constituted an obstacle that it was next to impossible to correct and set right again. I wrote therefore by starts sometimes for a week or ten days not a line. Yet all came to the same thing in the sequel. On an average, a volume of Caleb Williams cost me four months, neither less, nor more.

Xas (not verified) Thu, 20/11/2014 - 04:46

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I seem to recall that Douglas Adams' 'Eureka!' moment involved being legless in the middle of a field in Innsbruck, so that might also be an option?

Anyway, well done on your first chapter, Admin, and all the best for your next forty-nine.

Krishna (not verified) Sun, 30/11/2014 - 14:36

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

You wrote a piece about the Players Theatre in which I was the 'old cow' for a couple of years in the early seventies when the cockroaches danced across the counter of the sandwich bar, halfway down on the right, to entertain the members and their guests and periodically I had to bodyguard Ian Hunter at the interval as he made his way to the bar at the top. Not everyone was impressed by his humour. Aside the memories invoked by your piece during which I had a eureka moment whilst reading, the event remembered which brought this on happened one night at the Players and explains why I am where I am now. Actually I am not sure whether or not I want to thank you for it ! Please get in touch.
I live in deepest Burgundy.