Friday, December 4, 2015

The birth of an idea

Where do you get your ideas?

Writers usually hate to be asked that question, probably because it is a question they are asked so often.Whether we are reading John Grisham's The Firm or Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, we readers are inclined to wonder where the idea came from. What prompted the writer to write that particular story?

Sometimes we get lucky and authors volunteer their inspiration. Such a case is novelist Tracy Chevalier, best known for Girl With a Pearl Earring. She talks about her idea for the story in another lecture I caught this week on

That the novel was inspired by the great Johannes Vermeer painting of the same name should come as no surprise. The story is about the painting of that work, and the painting itself  usually appears on covers of the book. Even so, how did the painting provide the idea for the story?

Chevalier says she loves art, but not all art. When she goes to a museum, she says, she usually focuses on just a small number of paintings, those that, in her mind, suggest an untold story. Girl With a Pearl Earring is one such painting. She was delighted to learn, she says, that nobody knows who the girl in the painting was or how Vermeer came to paint her. Thus she was free to imagine and invent.

As she studied the painting, Chevalier says she noticed the "conflicted look" on the face of the girl. Does she feel guilty, ill at ease? Is she in love with the artist? "I wonder what the painter did to her to make her look like that," Chevalier says.

It may be the portrait of one young woman, but the novelist saw it as "a portrait of a relationship." The painting leaves a mystery which the writer sought to solve. She said she looked for "a story to fill in that gap."

The story she wrote, whether true or not, answers the questions she found in the painting. The girl is a pretty servant whose job includes cleaning Vermeer's studio. The painter asks her to pose for him wearing his wife's clothing and earring. The reasons for her conflicted feelings are thoroughly explored.

I love the painting. I love the novel. I love the movie based on the novel. Now I love knowing how Tracy Chevalier got her idea.

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