Write Like Rowling? A lot of writers wish they could conjure up something as successful as the Harry Potter series.
Recently I visited Edinburgh and happened to stop in a coffee shop called the Elephant House. It claims to be one of the places where Rowling wrote some of her early work. In that era, Rowling was a single mom caring for a small child while depending on public support. Without much money and no good place to write, she started going to local coffee shops where she stayed for hours writing her stories with her baby in a stroller next to the table.
If you visit the Elephant House today you’ll find that it indeed sets the mood for the Potter series since it sits in a quaint Edinburgh neighborhood the is situated in the shadow of an old Scottish castle.
Another thing you’ll find in the coffee shop are would be writers at various tables with laptops or yellow legal pad writing their hearts out. They are trying to capture the magic that Rowling found in the coffee house.
Whether any of them will find it, I don’t know.
As a writer, I too imagined Rowling sitting at one of the tables. I ordered a cup of hot tea and people-watched for a while. The shop was a hub-bub of white noise as people discussed various things from office matters to politics to the little pink nightie that Aunt Betsy bought Sue for the baby shower.
I imagined that Rowling saw some of her characters pass through the coffee shop door, and probably snatched a phrase or two from conversations that surrounded her in the shop. Did see see a Dumbledore or a Malfoy or some other personality in the coffee house's customers?
I wondered what in her background provided her with the ability to create a story that would capture the imagination of millions of readers. In those earlier times she was simply a desperate single mom trying to eek out a living – she was hungry to make something happen. She had no idea at that time that the Harry Potter stories would catch on. Writing is always a long shot. She had to know that. I’m sure she hoped her book might make her a little extra money. Perhaps she had visions of moving into a nicer apartment. But she didn’t know, couldn’t know what was in store.
What did she have? She'd experienced bad times in her life -- the death of her mother, the divorce, the embarrasment of living on welfare. She had desparation. She must had had symphathy for others who were downtrodden. (like Harry?)
She imagined an escape from the bad things in life, as many of us would. For her, reading took her to places of escape. Every good writer must start with that.
While sitting in the coffe shop it occurred to me (since I had recently read Douglas Adam’s book The Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul that came out in the 1989 era -- the same era that the first Harry Potter book was bring penned) that there were some similarities in their created worlds – in Adams' book a man goes to a railway station and somewhere between the tracks steps into a parallel world occupied by old Norse gods. In fact, it is revealed in the bok that many of the "people" walking around the streets of London were really Norse gods.
Could it be that when Rowling was writing the first Harry Potter that she got an idea from Adam's book. It would be no surprise. Virtually every author's work is an almagmation of what he or she has heard or read. It’s what any thinking author does – he reads something that gives him an idea and then turns it around, changes the characters and make it into something unique.
So what did I learn by sitting the Elephant House watching the wannabe Rowlings? I learned that any writer has to find a place – whether physical, emotional or spiritual – where creativity can happen. You’ve got to keep your antennae up – listening for ideas, reading ideas, hearing ideas. You have to actively and purposefully capture those ideas in a journal, on little slips of paper or in a Word document. And you have to be hungry.
How may times have people asked what it takes to get published. I think of the old joke, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” The answer is of course, “Practice, practice, practice.” It is the same with writing. How do you get published? You have to write, write, and keep writing.