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Inspiration and Originality - Toby Frost

This week I'm joined by the fabulous Toby Frost, author of the Space Captain Smith books, some of the funniest scifi on the market at the moment. He's also written for the Warhammer 40K universe. 

Inspiration and Originality.

Apparently, authors often get asked where they find their inspiration. I’ve never been asked this, but it’s an interesting question: where does the inspiration to write about going to another planet, or casting magic on dragons, actually come from?

Part of it can’t be explained at all. There are just some things that appeal more than others. You probably won’t want to write about a space battle, or a magical duel with a monster, unless it appeals on some immediate, visceral level. For all that we talk about SFF being able to impart complex ideas and moral lessons, some subliminal part of your brain just has to think that this will be more cool than writing, say, a romance or a western.

That’s fine, and I’m sure it’s how I ended up choosing SFF as a genre in which to write. However, there has to be something more than just the sense that you’ve seen cool things elsewhere and want to do something like that. Every genre has its clichés – or, more accurately, its familiar tropes. There’s nothing wrong with deploying them in your own work, but I think that there needs to be something more than what’s come before. The more niche your genre, the more you need something extra, something nobody else has quite done before. Otherwise, you’ll risk seeming to be just shuffling the same small pack of cards. That, I think, is where inspiration comes in.


I’ve always found a lot of inspiration in real historical events, even if they end up looking nothing like reality when I put them on the page. For me, one of the most effective ways of coming up with ideas is to take things from non-SFF sources and give them a fantastical slant. It clearly works for other writers, too. You could argue that steampunk and dieselpunk work by taking ideas from their historical backgrounds and using them as a springboard to inspire all kinds of weirdness. Take the immense, steam-powered computers of The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, or the occultism of the Nazis, which has fuelled endless pulp stories, most notably The Raiders of the Lost Ark. Books like The Island of Doctor Moreau and Frankenstein may seem fantastical now, but they were prompted by their own times.

My own book, End of Empires, was partly inspired by an automaton called Tippoo’s Tiger, built by Tipu Sultan of India to mark his victory in battle over the British Empire. The automaton, when wound up, makes a noise and appears to claw a model British soldier. End of Empires is partly about the search for the tomb of a rebellious warlord. The tomb needed a guardian. Thinking of Tippoo’s Tiger, I came up with the Mechanical Maneater, a huge robot creature that is part riding beast, part fighting machine. The end result isn’t much like the historical version at all, but that’s not the point. The real world acts as a springboard for the fantastical. 

Transferring ideas

One of the risks of only reading in your preferred genre is that you will either end up being inspired by elements of the genre that have been done to death. There’s a chance that you might get away with it if your readers want a novel much like the last one of its sort, but it runs the risk of creating something stale.
This counts double if your main source of inspiration comes from films or computer games instead of novels, because they’re usually years behind the cutting edge in terms of originality: the Matrix, say, uses ideas that were first being put into print in the 1970s (although not so stylishly!). So if you’re looking for inspiration that’s strikingly new, I would argue that your chosen genre might not be the best place to find it.

If I say “a wizard who heals people”, you’ve probably got one of two stereotypes in your mind: an old hermit with a long beard, or a slightly New Age woman who knows a lot about herbs. That’s fine, but a magical healer doesn’t have to be like that. Why should they? Looking outside the genre, think of all the different ways doctors are portrayed in books and TV shows. If you want your fantasy healer to be inspired by Dr. House, why not?

Last of all, you

Finally, but importantly, inspiration can come yourself. After all, what do you personally want to read about? There’s no doubt that The Lord of the Rings is about themes and ideas that were personally interesting and important to J.R.R. Tolkien. 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale reflect the knowlege, and fears, of their authors. If you want to put it that way, they’re externalisations of what was bothering the author’s mind. What bothers you in particular – you, rather than Chosen One Hero Guy, Devious Queen or Old Wizard Mentor, or any other stock figure? What would that look like translated into SFF terms?

When I was young, I had a book about the Loch Ness Monster. I’ll probably never forget the cover: two terrified people are sitting in a rowing boat which looks as if it’s about to capsize, while the monster glares down at them, having just broken the surface of the Loch. It’s a kind of grey-black colour, with a head rather like a bull’s, and it’s the size of a dinosaur. In the background, a castle looms. This stuck with me as a kid, and I knew that it was going to make an appearance in the fantasy novel that I’ve been writing. I hope that I’ve been able to convey some of the power that the image holds for me in my writing.

If the problems of real people seem petty in comparison to space battles and epic quests, they don’t have to be. Using real-life problems as inspiration for character motivation can bring a personal element into a story and stop it being about huge numbers of faceless pawns blowing each other up. Take the problems of the Skywalker family, for instance. If they were just guys in the real world, their issues probably wouldn’t have much of an effect on global politics. But of course Darth is the right hand of the Emperor, and his feelings for his family could swing the galaxy from one extreme to the other. That personal element brings a new intensity to the story.

Ultimately, being inspired is about discovering out what you personally want to write. Everyone knows a book, album or film that “shouldn’t” work but really does, because it’s been made with such a strong vision behind it. Being really inspired doesn’t just make a story original, but gives it a new level of power and immediacy.

 Links to Toby's books can be found here


wichael said…
Thanks for the recommendations of books. They look funny to read, so I will add them to my wish list😅
Joanne Zebedee said…
Toby's books are really good fun - sort of a Biggles in space vibe. They always give me a giggle or two. :)