Finding your Muse – by Sarah Singleton

Today I’m delighted to welcome YA author, Sarah Singleton, to the blog with some very helpful advice on finding inspiration.

Images and Stories

Almost every story I’ve written has emerged from the seed of a visual image, and sometimes a series of images. Usually these images are pictures that flash into my imagination, seemingly from nowhere. Century, for example, began when I saw, in my mind, a spread of frosty fields, a pre-dawn sky, and a small pond lidded with ice beneath which the ghost of a woman in a white dress was floating…

From this image the entire story flowed. I asked myself a series of questions.

  • Who is she and how did she die?
  • Where is this taking place?
  • Who is the person observing this scene and how will it affect them?

In answering these questions I created the story and the novel.

Two years ago the National Trust and National Portrait Gallery invited me to be part of their Imagined Lives project– when six writers invented biographies for unidentified people in Renaissance portraits. The process, of creating a life and a story from an interesting image, was one I use instinctively when writing a story. I visited the National Portrait Gallery to ‘meet’ the two portraits I would write about, and went through the same process of self-questioning.

  • What do I see in this man’s face?
  • What do his clothes tell me about him?
  • What manner of person is he, and why do I think this?
  • What story lies behind the book / flower / sword he is holding?

Through this process I created two imagined lives, which were published along with the contributions of the other authors (John Banville, Tracy Chevalier, Terry Pratchett, Minette Walters and Julian Fellowes) in a beautiful book accompanying the exhibition at Montacute Housein Somerset and then the National Portrait Gallery in London.

I have subsequently used this method often when leading creative writing classes for adults and children – using interesting portraits to prompt questions, make observations and write stories. It is a fascinating – and challenging – process. I never fail to be excited by the way stories spring, instinctively, from the minds of writers and how naturally we create them in the right situations.

This method, of using portraits, also highlighted another truism of writing good stories – the need to show rather than tell. Often this is harder than it seems, and I have learned a great deal myself from the process of teaching.

We may be studying a painting of a 16th century girl in cherry red dress when a student tells me she looks timid and sad. I agree she does, but the much more challenging part is to identify what it is that communicates this timidity and sadness. It isn’t always easy. However when you encourage close observation, students can see the difference between writing:

“The girl in the red dress looks timid and sad.”


“The girl in the red dress fiddles with her velvet sleeves. Her lips are pressed shut, her shoulders rounded, and she looks away from the painter, as though lost in another world.”

At the end of one session, a young writer told me not only did he think his writing had improved, he had also learned to observe the world more closely. That was a very rewarding response.

(Sarah is the author of one novel for adults and eight for young adults. Her latest novel is Dark Storm, published by Simon & Schuster UK. She also had a short story for adults – Long Dene Mill – published recently in the anthology Hauntings published by Newcon Press. Her website is at

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