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