Skip to main content

The Ideas that Inspired The Hobbit, Animal Farm & 8 Other Famous Books

Ideas often percolate and simmer over time, but every once in a while lightning strikes—and a sudden flash of creativity can alter a writer’s career forever. Take, for example, these 10 famous works inspired by unexpected bolts of inspiration.

Ideas often percolate and simmer over time, but every once in a while lightning strikes—and a sudden flash of creativity can alter a writer’s career forever. Take, for example, these 10 famous works inspired by unexpected bolts of inspiration.

1. The Hobbit:

J.R.R. TOLKIEN was grading college exam papers, and midway through the stack he came across a gloriously blank sheet. Tolkien wrote down the first thing that randomly popped into his mind: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” He had no idea what a hobbit was or why it lived underground, and so he set out to solve the mystery.

2. Treasure Island:

ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON painted a map to pass the time during a dreary vacation in the Scottish Highlands. When he stepped back to admire his handiwork, a cast of imaginary pirates appeared. Stevenson recalled, “They passed to and fro, fighting and hunting treasure, on these few square inches of a flat projection.” He promptly traded his paintbrush for a quill and began to write.

3. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz:

L. FRANK BAUM was telling his sons a story when he abruptly stopped. He’d been swept away to a land unlike any his imagination had ever conjured. Baum ushered the young audience into another room and, page by page, began to document Dorothy’s journey along the yellow brick road.

4. Charlotte’s Web:

E.B. WHITE had decided to write a novel about saving the life of a pig, but wasn’t sure who would be up to the heroic task. He was walking through an orchard, on his way to a pigpen, when inspiration hit. He thought back to a large gray spider that had woven an intricate web
in his house: She was perfect for the part.

5. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe:

On an otherwise ordinary day, 16-year-old C.S. LEWIS was seized by a peculiar daydream. A frazzled creature, half-man and half-goat, hurried through snowy woods carrying an umbrella and a bundle of parcels. Lewis had no idea where the faun was heading, but the image was still with him when, at age 40, he finally put pen to paper to find out.

6. Around the World in Eighty Days:

JULES VERNE was flipping through a newspaper in a Parisian café when an advertisement caught his eye. It offered tourists the chance to travel the globe in just 80 days. This was an amazing feat at the time, and Verne’s imagination immediately began to fire.

7. “Rip Van Winkle”:

WASHINGTON IRVING had been suffering from writer’s block. His brother-in-law, Henry Van Wart, was trying to cheer him up by reminiscing about childhood adventures in the Hudson Highlands when, in the middle of the conversation, Irving dashed out of the room. The next morning, he emerged with a new story inspired by the talk.

8. Animal Farm:

GEORGE ORWELL watched as a young boy steered a massive cart horse along a narrow path, and he was struck by an unusual thought: What if animals realized their own strength? His hypothetical question evolved into a metaphorical novella about animals taking over a farm.

9. Anna Karenina:

As he lay on a sofa after dinner, LEO TOLSTOY had a vision of an elbow. The image expanded into a melancholy woman in a ball gown. The mysterious lady haunted Tolstoy and he eventually decided to write her story.

10. One Hundred Years of Solitude:

GABRIEL GARCÍA MARQUÉZ was driving his family to Acapulco for a vacation. As he gripped the steering wheel, the opening line to a novel popped into his head. García Marquéz threw his foot on the brake, turned the car around, and cut the trip short to work on the rest of the story.

—by Celia Johnson

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Dance Time

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Dance Time

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, have your characters dance.

Convention-al Wisdom: Why I Love Attending Cons as a Writer

Convention-al Wisdom: Why I Love Attending Cons as a Writer

Russell James shares how convention act as more than networking events for writers, but as an opportunity to be face-to-face with your readers, to make new friends, and more.

Alicia Thompson: On Writing Romance in Isolating Times

Alicia Thompson: On Writing Romance in Isolating Times

Writer Alicia Thompson discusses what she learned about herself in writing her new romance novel, Love in the Time of Serial Killers.

Examples of Hooks for Books

60 Examples of Hooks for Books

This post collects 60 examples of hooks for books. Also called elevator pitches, these book hooks show real-life examples in a variety of writing genres for fiction and nonfiction books.

How To Turn Artifacts and Research Into a Family Memoir

How To Turn Artifacts and Research Into a Family Memoir

A century’s old family heirloom acted as a clue to the past for author Cornelia Maude Spelman. Here, she shares how to turn artifacts and research into a family memoir.

Miriam Parker: On Writing the Book You Want To Read

Miriam Parker: On Writing the Book You Want To Read

Author and publisher Miriam Parker discusses her surprise at writing her new novel, Room and Board.

Poetry Prompt

Wednesday Poetry Prompts: 622

Every Wednesday, Robert Lee Brewer shares a prompt and an example poem to get things started on the Poetic Asides blog. This week, write a story poem.

7 Tips for Fictionalizing Real Historical Characters

7 Tips for Fictionalizing Real Historical Characters

When to retell history, when to imagine new scenarios, and who’s safe to use as a subject—author Gill Paul shares 7 tips for fictionalizing real historical characters.

A Thief in the Market

A Thief in the Market

Every writer needs a little inspiration once in a while. For today's prompt, someone is stealing from small business owners.