The Alchemy of Influences

By Thomas Sweterlitsch

Where did you get the idea for your novel? is easily the question I’m asked most often by bloggers and readers, and while that question serves as a great start to a conversation about writing, the step that happens immediately after I have that initial idea is just as important to the creation of a novel as the idea itself. 

Once I have that initial spark of an idea/plot hook/intriguing character I want to write about, the first thing I do is spend several weeks curating a small group of “influences,” mostly books, but also films or music, that I’ll reread and study.  These influences will serve as models for how I’ll approach writing my novel.  It’s not so much a process of simply rereading my favorite authors, but rather picking an interesting group of specific books that I want my book to be in direct conversation with.  This step, for me, fills in my initial idea with color, texture and tone.

The initial idea for the novel I’m finishing up now, a time-travel mystery called The Gone World, came during a conversation I had with my brother-in-law over hamburgers at Five Guys in the Tyson’s Corner Mall food court.  My brother-in-law is a special agent with NCIS, so naturally I’m fascinated by his work, and being a science fiction writer it was only a matter of time before I asked him about time travel.  I left that lunch with the basic idea for what would become my second novel, a story about a time-traveling NCIS agent—but it wasn’t until I discovered the particular alchemy of my influences that the feel of what the novel should be began to take shape.

The first, and most important, influence on my novel is Dante’s Inferno.  There is a moment in Canto Ten when Dante and Virgil travel through the Sixth Circle, the circle of the heretics, and meet the shade of Cavalcante de’Cavalcanti, a Florentine who explains to Dante that souls in Hell can see into the far future, but don’t know what is happening in the present.  This scene provides the mechanics of time travel that I use, and also informs the tone and some themes of the novel.

Battlestar Galactica, the newer version, is also important—this was the first show I binged when I signed up for Netflix, and like everyone else, I was obsessed.  Writing about NCIS meant that I would be writing about the Navy, and BSG provided a model for how to write a realistic-feeling space-based military. 

In addition to Dante and BSG, I reread The Glass Menagerie and Strindberg’s Ghost Sonata, “Dream Plays” about the interaction of time and memory.  The Glass Menagerie became especially important, as it helped fill in my thinking about my protagonist. 

The final major influence was Sweet Child O’ Mine, a song I played on repeat for days on end from my car stereo, losing myself in memories sparked by that song, nostalgia for my childhood in Ohio that translated directly into my main character’s childhood spent in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania and her current life in West Virginia.

This isn’t a comprehensive list of my favorite books and TV shows, and when I set out to write my next novel I’ll have a whole new set of influences that I’ll work with, but I used these influences like guideposts throughout the writing of The Gone World, trying to locate my writing in what would be the center of the Venn diagram of these various stories.  As I’m planning and writing initial drafts of a story that will take years to finish, I know that studying what’s come before will help me discover where I should go. 

THOMAS SWETERLITSCH lives in Pittsburgh with his wife and daughter. He has a Master’s Degree in Literary and Cultural Theory from Carnegie Mellon University. He worked for twelve years at the Carnegie Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. Tomorrow and Tomorrow was his first novel, and he is currently at work on his second.

To learn more about TOMORROW AND TOMORROW, click on the cover below: