Inspiration for The Ice Swan

by J'nell Ciesielski
published in Writing

Toni Morrison once said, “If there’s a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” This is my absolute favorite quote about writing because it empowers me with the courage to try anything. It’s an awesome feeling, this surge of courage, but let us back up a step to the very first part of that quote. A book you want to read. That involves an idea, a spark of possibility for a world that could be dwelling in your imagination. 

But where do these sparks come from? What if yours is feeling more like a fizzle, or worse, crickets of silence? Gasp! What if the muse is refusing to sing for you? 

The only solution is to get her singing again, and sometimes you’ll find inspiration in the most surprising of places if you’re willing to look for it. The best part is that it can come from anything at any time.

Let’s start with the most obvious, shall we?


Reading is the best way for new ideas and voices to infiltrate your mind. Where in real life can one dive 20,000 leagues below the sea, visit a hobbit in his hobbit hole, or ride in a pumpkin coach to meet Prince Charming? Books can transport us to any point in history as well as the great future beyond. There is no shortage of possibilities to be discovered between the pages. All you need to do is pick out the details that spark your imagination.

In my last novel, Beauty Among Ruins, the story takes place in a castle turned convalescent home in Scotland. This idea came from reading The Roses of No Man’s Land by Lyn MacDonald as research for another book I was writing at the time. I stumbled across a very small mention about convalescent homes being set up in the Scottish countryside because the hospitals in England were at capacity with wounded soldiers. A few sentences of casual reference was all it took to explode into an entire novel, The Ice Swan.


Music has a way of touching us in a way that no other thing can. It can recall long forgotten memories, stir passions, and often commands us to headbang when “Bohemian Rhapsody” comes on. Come on, you know you do it. Sometimes it can be a certain chord to strike us or a haunting melody that stirs an emotion deep inside and begs to be explained. 

As a writer you should be asking what emotion did it stir? Why? What does it make you think of? If it’s a concerto from Mozart, do you want to create a sun-drenched field for which your characters can frolic? Or does Beethoven write a rainstorm for a kissing scene under a large oak tree? 

Movie soundtracks are a fabulous way to stoke the creative emotion because they are specially orchestrated to stir certain feelings at certain points in the plot. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve listened to the Outlander soundtrack when I needed to gallop through the heather fields of Scotland, or the live action Cinderella soundtrack while trying to conjure up a ballroom.

Songs with lyrics can be just as evocative, perhaps even more so because they offer up words to stimulate the creative juices. Be it an entire song or one line, a climactic scene can be conjured, if not an entire novel. 

While I was still in the ruminating phase of The Ice Swan (playing with the plotlines, figuring out who the characters were, etc.), I was listening to the song “Believer” by Imagine Dragons and suddenly I knew who my hero and heroine were and what their relationship was going to be like. I imagined the two of them on a dance floor in a room that was completely black except for a single light following them and the electrifying tension sparking between them because of all the unsaid hurts they would need to move past before they could find a happily ever after. I didn’t write that exact scene into The Ice Swan, but it was powerful enough for me to keep dance as a strong element in the story and a way that these two characters come together.


Ah, at last we come to it. My most valuable weapon in my arsenal of inspiration. Being a visual learner, it’s no great wonder that a wealth of inspiration strikes when I watch a movie or TV series. Braveheart, Last of the Mohicans (I will find you!), Downton Abbey, Crimson Field, and countless others have played a part in getting my gears in motion for a novel idea. As I’m watching, I’m completely saturated in another world of muddy trenches, English accents, social conventions, and fashion from bygone eras that helps to bring that world to life in 3-D. 

Sights, sounds, smells. Yes, smells! If you watch enough war movies, you know what those soldiers smelled like simply by observing the filth on their uniforms.

A few summers ago, I was on a foreign-film kick and started watching a Russian miniseries called The Road to Calvary. It’s about two Russian aristocratic sisters and how their lives were turned upside by the Great War and the Russian Revolution. They were absolutely hated and hunted down because of their blue blood. I began to wonder about these Russian nobles who were trying to escape the horror of the Bolsheviks that swept into power. One year later, I typed “The End” to The Ice Swan. An entire novel sparked from one miniseries.

Don’t ever feel as if you are limited to where inspiration may come from and don’t shy away from looking in less than obvious places. People watch, read news articles, listen to podcasts, ask readers what kind of stories they long for because you never know what interaction may plant a seed that could be grown into a fully-fledged novel. That’s the true magic of inspiration.

With a passion for heart-stopping adventure and sweeping love stories, J’nell Ciesielski weaves fresh takes into romances of times gone by. When not creating dashing heroes and daring heroines, she can be found dreaming of Scotland, indulging in chocolate of any kind, or watching old black and white movies. Winner of the INSPY and the Maggie Award, she is a Florida native who now lives in Virginia with her husband, daughter, and lazy beagle. Her latest book is The Ice Swan about the last days of the Russian monarchy and a princess fleeing the Russian Revolution. Learn more at

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