History can allow the imagination to run wild. Anything that shows a snapshot of a life once lived immediately makes me want to fill in the gaps; imagine what might have happened in that place or to those people.
While out walking recently I stumbled on this place:
There was a little bit of information there about what this structure had once been and who had lived there, but not much, and it was left to me to make up my own story about the inhabitants and how they lived, whether a historically accurate telling or a tale of fantasy. Characters and stories can emerge fully formed from a place like this, as the mysteries surrounding it allow the imagination to take over. All this from simply turning down a certain path while walking.
History as inspiration doesn’t have to mean that real history itself is used. Imagined characters fit into real historical settings (Memoirs of a Geisha, The Three Musketeers), and actual historical figures can have their stories told via a novel (Bring up the Bodies, The Other Boleyn Girl), but historical time periods can also provide inspiration for fantasy worlds – from The Lord of the Rings and its roots in European history, to the Tales of the Otori trilogy, taking inspiration from feudal Japan. I’ve written before about history being like fantasy in many ways – the way of life for characters in a story set in ancient Greece or Rome or Tudor England is so different to our own that it is as easy to lose yourself in the strange world they inhabit as it is to immerse yourself in Middle Earth.
As soon as I saw the images of the suitcases in the Willard Suitcase exhibition, my imagination started to stir. The exhibition showcases items found in the attic of the Willard Asylum in New York, each one kept by the staff upon the death of its owner, and only discovered in 1995 after the centre was closed down. In some cases there is little clue as to who the suitcases might belong to, and even when the owners identity is clear, it is still left open to debate as to who this person really was, how they ended up there, how they felt when they packed up their belongings. Each one is like a time capsule of that person’s life at that very moment when they entered the asylum, to be isolated from society, perhaps never having access to these items again.
This is quite a hard hitting, emotive example of literary inspiration. But it highlights the power of the unanswered question – from questions which have no answers, imagined answers start to appear. The very notion of discovering a suitcase full of old belongings could be the start of a story just waiting to be imagined, and then told.