Thoughts on writing, ideas and inspiration…
The question most writers get asked is Where do you get your ideas from? Well, the variety of answers is about as wide as the ocean, so what I’ll do is try to do here, is demonstrate where my ideas come from, and I’ll do that by examining my own work and trying to recall the genesis of each piece.
What works for me, of course, won’t necessarily work for everyone else, but I always think it’s useful to know a little about how different writers work, since their methods might spark off something of interest. The main thing is to do what seems to make the most sense, and you’ll probably discover that through your own writing anyway.
Most writers use notebooks – small ones, tucked away here and there so they can be whipped out and scribbled on whenever the muse strikes. I can’t say this has ever worked for me and the only times I have used notebooks, I’ve ended up using them for shopping lists, which isn’t terribly creative. What I do tend to do is jot things down on one of those little desk-top gadgets that looks like a post-it note on my laptop. It means I never have to look for a pen and paper, and since most of my ideas come along when I’m actually sitting at my desk, it’s pretty handy.
Having said that, I don’t very often make notes of any kind, except in whatever story I’m working on. However, if I do get a flash of inspiration for something (a possible title, or character for a story), I’ll open up a new document, stick it in there and save it in my Stories folder for another time.
A lot of my ideas come from things I’m reading, either in books and magazines or online. I’m not much of an intellectual so I rarely try to analyse what I read, except in terms of the quality of the writing and if there’s anything particularly noticeable about the language or style. What I will notice, is how words are used and the way they’re used, as well as different approaches to punctuation and grammar.
For instance, in Peter Carey’s novel ‘The True History of the Kelly Gang’, he writes in the way the real Ned Kelly might have spoken, so the grammar and punctuation is at times unusual, with sentences rolling on as if unstoppable. Even so, the language is rich and vibrant and draws the reader into its world very easily.
Using language in different ways is one of the things that excites me about writing. Which leads me to my first example. In my story ‘At My Table’, which appeared in 1,000 Words, I dispensed with speech marks and played around with repeated phrases:
Awakened by the up-to-now unbroken silence from the empty flat below, I hover in the shade of net curtains, watch the stranger unload. Three trips from the car and it’s done – she doesn’t have a lot: clothes, books, the hat she’ll always wear. What will she be like, I wonder in the five minutes before she comes knocking at my door.
Just moved in. Away from home. Come for a drink? She says this in her generic English, arty voice, looking past me for the expected but non-existent partner.
This last bit is repeated when the woman’s partner comes round:
He comes round one night after school: the teacher-man, who she met at some conference and who isn’t her husband, is far too clever and speaks through his elongated nose.
How’s tha’ going on, then? He says this in his generic Yorkshire, clarty voice, looking past me for the expected but non-existent partner.
Repetition is one of those literary devices that can be very effective, though unless it’s intentional, it can also be rather irritating.
Going off at a tangent for a moment, some playwrights will tell you that monologues don’t belong in stage plays, so if you’ve ever seen a One-Man-Show such as Guy Masterson’s ‘Under Milk Wood’ (one person playing all the parts or performing one long monologue), they’ll say: ‘Oh, that’s just not theatre, darling’.
Well, they’re wrong. Monologues work perfectly well as one-person shows as well as in stage plays where there’s more than one actor. The monologue gives the writer an opportunity to show the audience something specific that relates to a particular character – what their motivations are, how they got to this place and time etc. It’s also a chance for one character to pass on information to the audience that might be relevant to the play.
Getting back to stories, I think monologues are an extremely useful technique, as they give you an opportunity to write a piece from one person’s point of view. Writing a monologue as an exercise – trying to get inside your character’s head, discovering what makes them tick and so on – can help you work out where your story is going.
Going back to theatre for a moment, here’s a snippet from my play ‘The Body in the Bag’:
Ever wonder what it’s like? Death? I reckon life’s a bit like a clock. Ticking along nicely when it’s new, tick tock, tick tock. But as time passes, you maybe don’t look after it so well. The workings get rusty, start to seize up, the whole lot begins to slow down. And it’s the same with your brain, and your insides. They start slowing down, slower and slower, until everything just…stops.
When I was a lad, we used to go hunting, me and my pals, pretending we were brave Irish warriors, ready to hack unsuspecting victims to pieces. Never killed anything, mind. And then one day we found a deer caught in a snare. The wire had broken its leg and it kept struggling and struggling, desperate to be free. And as we got closer I could see it in its eyes…this…fear. Of death, I suppose. We watched it for ages, not knowing what to do, goading each other, until one of the lads grabbed a stone and smashed it’s head in. Bloody thing started to shake, like it was having a fit, so he hit it again, and again until there was nothing. We all stood there looking down at it. Then suddenly its back legs kicked out. Sort of reflex sort of thing. Scared the shit out of us.
So can monologues work as short stories? I think they can, and here’s why – telling the story from one person’s point of view is nothing new, but doing it in the way that person speaks can give the writing a new slant. This next excerpt is from my story ‘The Dead Wood Option’:
It’s a funny thing, that old probability theory.
But since I’m no intellectual, let’s keep it simple: basically I’m talking about a coincidence, or to be precise, a series of coincidences. Like when something happens that apparently could only have come about because something else happened first. You know what I’m talking about – a set of cogs in a machine, each one relying on the next in order to set something in motion. If that first cog isn’t given a bit of a push to get it going, none of the others will ever move.
Well, that’s how it was with the Agency. At least, that’s how I like to think of it – that it was a single event, a stupid accident really, that set the whole thing in motion and ended up with me killing my next door neighbour…