My Inspiration for Writing A Discovery of Witches
By Deborah_Harkness on June 14, 2011
BlogHer Original Post
Inspiration. We all want it to lend that spark to our work, our lives, our families. But where does it come from?
Since writing A Discovery of Witches I’ve been asked numerous times what was THE inspiration for the book (caps mine), as if having an idea like being hit by lightning. But that’s not how inspiration works—at least not for me. There was no one thing that inspired me to write the book. Rather my inspiration came about through a combination of perfect timing, unexpected circumstances, and hundreds of quirky moments stored up from experiences in libraries, museums, and classrooms. It drew on thousands of books, some of which I read as a child. And I wrote every page with music playing in the background like a soundtrack, with either a cup of tea or a glass of wine next to me. The inspiration for A Discovery of Witches was not a bolt from the blue: it was the past forty-odd years of my life.
Take yoga, for example. I’ve practiced yoga on and off for decades but have yet to successfully perform a handstand or even a halfway decent tree pose. One day I was upside down and noticed that the person next to me seemed to be balancing on their ear. To my mind, this person was self-evidently not human. Disbelief at what I was seeing provided the inspiration for the supernatural yoga class in the book.
Alchemy is another example of how something I do nearly every day -- read old science texts -- served as an unlikely storehouse of inspiration. As a historian, I’ve consulted a fair number of alchemical books and manuscripts to try to figure out what people in the past thought they were doing when they put an assortment of natural substances in an alembic and heated it up until it exploded, evaporated, or turned color. But there are always books you can’t figure out, and manuscripts that are missing for one reason or another. Such was the case with a manuscript at Oxford’s Bodleian Library known only as Ashmole 782. I wanted to see it, but the manuscript was (and still is) missing. In this case, my frustration was the inspiration for the missing manuscript in A Discovery of Witches.
And then there’s wine. As a dedicated amateur, I’ve tasted hundreds of ordinary and occasionally extraordinary wines. Since 2006 I’ve blogged about them, inspired by the aromas, the flavors, and the history contained in each bottle. Sometimes I read wine descriptions and compare them to what my poor palate is able to discern in a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon. The comparison never comes out in my palate’s favor. Wondering what a creature with a preternatural sense of taste -- like a vampire -- might detect inspired me to make my central male character a wine lover with a very good cellar full of old and rare bottles to share.
Taking yoga classes, remembering a difficult moment at work, and drinking Cabernet Sauvignon may sound like unlikely sources of inspiration for a novel about a witch who doesn’t want her power, a long-lived vampire, and a lost alchemical manuscript. But inspiration is everywhere: the sound of a baby’s laughter, the smell of a wood fire on a crisp autumn night, or the texture of your dog’s fur. The secret lies not in finding it, but in following it wherever it might lead.