I want to write about finding the inspiration to write. Where, in simple terms, do the stories come from. They say, of the novice writer, write from your own experience but that’s not always possible. Too close, too personal, too inhibited by what other’s might think. So where else should you go to mine the ideas from which you can craft a story?
My first writing experience was at a summer school in July 2006. For three hours every afternoon a somewhat eccentric woman whose name has now faded from memory told us about character and dialogue, the three act story arc and metaphor, the importance of the opening paragraph and show, don’t tell. I’m sure these were excellent lessons, even if she had a tiny little egocentric way of giving us examples of excellence by using her own work. I don’t remember them either.
What does stick, vividly is the class we had on ‘where to get your ideas’. Having met a lot of writers now, both in person and via the blogging world, I have heard a lot despair about finding that source of inspiration. And not just the big picture, the central tenet around which the story builds but also: those off shoots, side lines and sub-plots that enrich a novel; the people who appear within it; the settings. Pretty much everything you have to make up, really.
My tutor – let’s call her Alice because there was a sense she inhabited her own la-la land at times – told us to write down well know phrases. We had to chose 5. I can recall three of mine
- Another brick in the wall
- The light at the end of the tunnel
- A right to roam
Alice asked us to pick one, there and then and imagine two people who might appear in a story with that as the title. We had a few minutes to create a simple pen portrait of each character. We took turns to read out what we had written and then Alice opened up to the whole class to throw out ideas about a story involving this title and these characters. It was extraordinary how, in five minutes the flights of fancy that took hold.
As the class ended Alice gave us homework. We had to take each of the five titles and do five lines explaining the story behind each one. With so much material generated so quickly already we all had no difficulty in doing just that and the next day we read out our five synopses. The class then picked their favourite and our next homework was to write a ten minute play using that outline. Mine was ‘The Light at the End of the Tunnel – a ghost story’. We performed each play on the Friday.
The next week I was still buzzing. I didn’t really think the play I wrote had much more to it, but one synopsis, the one for A Right to Roam, had something. I sat down and started a short story, that grew into my first attempt at a novel.
I tell this story, at some length to show that ideas can come in blinding flashes, epiphanies if you like but also by forcing yourself, by starting with something very general and building. It’s a game of finding the what ifs that are tucked away behind the obvious.
In November I wrote 30 short stories – one a day – and I needed ideas. In many cases I used pictures as prompts. This was the first picture I used.
For each picture prompt I did two things. First I decided on genre. Was this to be a love story or a comedy, a thriller or fantasy, sci-fi or historical? I didn’t stick rigidly to the genre – at least three times I changed it – but it often helped with stage two. With this one, I wanted a contemporary drama, set in a easy to identify setting, some what humdrum.
Second I began to ask myself questions:
- the centre piece is the bike: whose is it and why is it there?
- is it chained to the tree or might it be stolen?
- has it been abandoned – maybe the owner has been taken ill or has run out of the picture to help someone?
- there’s an orange ball there; is someone playing a game, football perhaps?
- there are buildings; is someone from the building involved with the bike
I liked the idea of someone coming upon it – walking their dog maybe – and realising they knew the owner; they were surprised to see it, it jogged a memory.
I thought it might be a child’s bike, so what if the person finding it was the mother of a dead child who used to own it? What would she do? What memories might it trigger? What if she wanted to find out who owned it now? What if she did find tat person, what would happen? How would she approach such a meeting? What might she hope to get out of it?
I briefly ran with the idea of writing from the viewpoint of a thief who took it. Maybe they were chased, a fight ensued and someone was hurt, maybe killed. Maybe something was strapped under the seat – money, a message, drugs – so the thief was unexpectedly in more trouble that just the theft.
Or the owner had left it there to go and help someone, he/she ends up going to hospital with them and has to come back for it when the park is shut. He/she climbs in to collect it and meets… vampires, ghosts, aliens… The house in the background looks old – might something live there and come out at night; maybe the owner of the bike, just as he/she is collecting it realises someone is breaking into the house, or someone – a child perhaps – is being dragged from it, a kidnap victim. Or he/she comes across someone burying something. Or his/her boyfriend/girlfriend is kissing his/her best friend in the dark shadows.
I went with the bereaved mother in the end. The fantasy, aliens were too far removed from my initial genre choice but I could have moved. I needed a surname. I have lots. I visit cemeteries when I walk the dog – only occasionally, but London has lots and if there’s one thing about cemeteries it is names. Mrs Pickwick emerged as the favourite.
Once I had the outline, I imagined Mrs Pickwick with her dog – Pollen, the dog’s name came later – entering the park and seeing her dead son’s bike. The story of how she needed to know who had it, what they were like and what happened next came fairly easily.
There is, of course, one feature that none of this gives you.
That’s for another post.