Demonic Ex-Lovers and Other Sources of Inspiration (by Nancy Ohlin)

Last fall at a literary conference, I was on a panel of YA paranormal authors.  When asked why she wrote in this genre, a fellow panelist replied that she couldn’t imagine going from Point A to Point B in her plots without zombies or space monsters to make stuff happen.


I have always felt the same way about the books I write, which are primarily  paranormal, fantasy, and retellings.  A scene in which the main character kisses her crush for the first time?  Um ….  A scene in which the main character kisses her crush for the first time, and the demonic spirit of his dead ex-girlfriend sets the room on fire?  No problem!

Last year, I published two YA novels:  THORN ABBEY and BEAUTY.  THORN ABBEY is a twisted, creepy retelling of the 1938 novel REBECCA by Daphne du Maurier in which a girl falls for a guy with (you guessed it) a dead, demonic, pyro ex-girlfriend. BEAUTY is a twisted, creepy retelling of the Snow White tale in which the Snow White character deliberately makes herself ugly in order to win her mother’s love.

I was inspired to write THORN ABBEY for many reasons, not the least of which was my longstanding obsession with REBECCA (and with the indescribably great film adaptation by Alfred Hitchcock).  I felt similarly about BEAUTY and the Snow White tale.  How could I not be inspired by a homicidally narcissistic queen, a talking mirror, and a princess who has to die because she’s just too pretty?

Before THORN ABBEY and BEAUTY, my writing career consisted mainly of ghostwriting.  As with retellings, ghostwriting projects have a built-in starting point, whether it’s an established series, the life of a real person, or other.

Which is why I feel completely lost and adrift, now that I am working on a contemporary, realistic, original novel.   I have no easy springboard:  no REBECCA, no Snow White, no series bible, no celebrity bio … not even the pre-existing lore of supernatural beings or the tropes and conventions of a familiar genre.  I have to start from scratch.  And I’m completely terrified.

I know that contemporary, realistic authors can and do draw inspiration from other sources, like, all the time.  And I, too, will learn how to do this—by revisiting my favorite books and movies, by listening to music, by binge-reading Wikipedia, or whatever.

But for now, I am akin to a traveler without a map.  I am so accustomed to the straight lines of inspiration that come with genre fiction and retellings that I don’t remember how to go for deeper, less obvious wellsprings.  

So … time to hit the library.  And the remote.  And Wikipedia.  And hopefully, the end result will be as epic and awesome as a psychotic, supernatural ex or a frumpy princess with mommy issues. 


  1. My tip: Get that first draft down as quickly as possible. Doesn't matter how messy or crazed it is. Just get it down. Then, you ARE working from a built-in starting point!

  2. Thank you, Holly! That is really, really smart advice - and much better than panicking! :)

  3. Loved your post, Nancy! I am also a fantasy writer who is now working on a contemporary novel. I used to be jealous of contemporary writers who already had a world created while I had to spend hundreds of pages discovering the geography, economy, government, and social structure of my world. But now I'm feeling a bit at sea, too! Hang in there!

    1. Thank you, Ellen! We should form a support group: Genre Authors Trying to Write Contemporary. Feel free to email me anytime you need to vent! :)

  4. Regular people can be just as crazy and fascinating as demonic undead pyros. Just saying.

    1. You're so right, Lauren. In fact, regular people are probably even more crazy and fascinating than supernaturals because they can't blame magic or changeling genes or whatever. I just have to learn to write regular people scenes without resorting those devices. Wish me luck! :)


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