Sunday, 28 July 2013

Travel Broadens The Story

"There's A Story In That"

If you're a reader or a writer, you must know the experience. You're travelling or on holiday somewhere, sitting at a cafe in a small village square. A group of locals are sitting opposite and begin a heated debate about something. The tempo rises. All of a sudden one man jumps to his feet and begins remonstrating with the others, making hand gestures you may not know but which you can guess the meaning of. You don't know the language well but you don't need to. You can guess what is being said. Not that you will be right – but you don't need to be right. Your version of what is being said could well be more interesting than the real one. Perhaps you are in Corsica and you know the reputation for family feuds and murders. The swarthy man has been accused of not avenging the murder of his cousin, Alberto. He has shamed the family. The sister says she is ashamed to be his sister. The swarthy man accuses her of having had an affaire with said dead cousin. Now the mother is on her feet. "Is this true?"
"No of course not, he would say anything to divert attention from his own guilt. He's a lying dog."
"It's true enough," says another woman, "Alberto promised he'd marry me but she wanted to keep him for herself – her bit on the side!"
"Don't you speak about my sister like that, you lying bitch!" says the swarthy man, "I'll kill you!"
"Yes you would, you bastard," replies the woman, "like you killed your cousin because you were jealous. It's well know that you were infatuated with your ugly sister. You wanted to keep her pure, like a princess, you weirdo!"
The argument continues with various members of the cast restraining each other until finally they are buying more drinks, hugging and celebrating their love for one another. You turn to your partner and say, "God, there's a story in that!"

Of course, many such opportunities are lost. I always used to try to keep a notebook with me to avoid forgetting, but often found myself without one. Nowadays, I nearly always have my i-phone with me so can add it to my 'Story Ideas' within Notes. Sometimes I don't find these notes until a year later, by which time the story has changed in my head. If they were the notes of a police constable that would be a problem, whereas with a writer of fiction it is a positive advantage.

Most of my short stories these days come from this kind of situation. When I first began writing short stories, I had a lifetime of remembered experiences to work with - an early life living in countries not of my own culture - but those mines have probably already given up most of their greatest riches. These days I need to find inspiration from elsewhere, and cafe tables are a good source. I have other favourites. The residents' lounge of an old people's home, where people are desperate to tell someone their story. Transport cafes where truck drivers and commercial travellers regale each other with tall tales of the road. The unemployment benefit office waiting room. Police stations. Railway carriages and buses – these are especially fruitful on market days in rural areas, where gossip among passengers is rife. Park benches where old people and winos congregate. Bars late at night are superb places for story inspiration. A weathered man, hung over a metal counter with a pained expressions of regret. What is his story? An ageing women with badly applied make-up, relentlessly stirring a cup of coffee. Does she have a family? Why is she alone? Sometimes I find a way to strike up a conversation with such people, but it's not necessary. Imagination can fill the gaps. Fiction is stranger than truth, as they say.

"Might one ask what you're writing about?" croaks the woman opposite.
It is 2am at an all night cafe in Pigalle, a seedy red-light quarter of Paris. The lines around her painted lips suggest her voice is the result of a lifetime's dependency upon the Gauloise cigarettes I can see in her cheap plastic handbag. She looks poor but she's drinking a cocktail with all the paraphernalia in it – fruit, mint, twizzle stick, parasol. She was probably beautiful once. Now her hair is growing thin from years of peroxide abuse.
"Of course. They are just notes I make when I have ideas."
"Ah bien sure, cheri," she replies, taking my hand gently, "but what sort of ideas? Ideas for what? Are you a policeman – a detective hunting for a murderer, perhaps? Or do you make movies maybe?"

She smiles as she strokes my hand. Her teeth do not do her any favours.
"I write stories."
"Ooh," she replies, as if with a relish for something mysterious, "detective stories? Des histoire erotique peut etre?"
"Excursions into the lives of others," I reply. I translate it to be sure she has understood.
"Yes I understand," she says. "I have been on many such excursions. I have looked through the windows of so many souls, good and bad. Bad mostly.... Paff, no no it is not true! I have loved many men you see. Women too. They are my constant companions, and yet I remain alone. I have come to prefer it that way. Or perhaps I have no choice – it is my destiny. Tant pis. I share their journey for a while and then we part. It is my life, voila!"
"Why do they leave?" I ask, "Or why do you leave?"
"They die. These days anyway, mostly they die. It is my destiny, and theirs. But they die happy. I no longer have the power to attract young men like you."

She laughs and looks deep into my eyes. Incredible eyes she has. The eyes of a girl.
"So what do you seek in life...I'm sorry, I don't know your name."
"Marielle," she replies. "Enchante."
She performs a kind of childish seated curtsey, which is mor sad than endearing. I tell her my name – except not my real name, of course.
"What are you seeking at this stage of your life, Marielle?"
"The same as always," she says, looking up from her cocktail. "I don't seek wealth, fame or a big house. Just someone who will hold me all night."
"But is that so hard to find?"
"Ah, you would be surprised, cheri!" she laughs. "Men want to jump on your bones and then go. They promise not to – many promise not to. They probably can't help it. Maybe I am hard to love, I suppose? And then the women? There is always a man somewhere who they left behind. They hate them, but when they call they will go."

I thank her for her conversation and go to pay. I try to pay for her drink too but the bearded woman at the counter simply tut-tuts and waves her finger. Despite my desire to close the door gently it closes with a harsh bang. I shudder and get as far as the corner before my conscience gets the better of me. As with her, perhaps destiny drove me back, or a desire to be able to help someone less fortunate than myself. It would cost me nothing to brighten her life just for one night. Arriving at the bar I hesitate before opening the door. Through the condensation on the window, I see her stroking the hand of an elderly gentleman. Her long fingers removing his gloves, the same grey toothed smile. Turning to walk away I catch the eye of the woman at the counter. Again that wagging finger.

If you would like to read the bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons' by Mark Swain, or his collections of short stories (including the prizewinning "Special Treatment"), you can find them on Amazon, Smashwords etc. Click the link:

Please note, you can read an e-book without a Kindle or e-book reader. You can download the Kindle Reader App from Amazon for free, to your Computer, Laptop, Smartphone, tablet or i-Pad. Just google it.

Monday, 8 July 2013

Stories From Real Life

"How Much of the Story is True?"

People often ask me this question. I am told this is because my characters are very vivid – that they are so defined and individual that they simply must be real. I'm told that the situations in my short stories are so out of the ordinary that they are not something a writer could just invent. But this is not true of course.

There is always an element of truth in everything a writer produces. There has to be – we draw our inspiration from what we know in life. One or two of the short stories I have written over the years are very close to the truth – stories where I didn't have to change much from the event and characters that inspired it – but this is not the norm. In my case, a situation arrises – something someone says or does or something I see on the news for example – that sparks my imagination.

A French friend once told me,
"My brother's not that happy in his life. He's married a North African woman with a big family who all live nearby. In their culture they expect the whole extended family to share what they have. It sounds nice but they used to borrow his nice car and it would always come back damaged. It tortured him."
I thought about this brother – a rather obsessional man of habit – and how a man like him might try to resolve this situation. I imagined him arguing with his wife but realising how she would always see it according to her culture – he was being mean. I imagined what he might do to deal with this borrowing expectation – how a man of his nature might develop strategies and adopt strangely complex systems to make it harder for the family to borrow his things, but without demonstrating a lack of generosity. Before long I had weaved a detailed character in my head and a whole set of bizarre behaviours he might adopt. I imagined him with a valuable classic car he had painstakingly saved for as a younger man – his efforts over years to restore it. I imagined him marrying this beautiful exotic creature and then discovering the family culture thing. He would be desperate not to lose her but tortured by the possible damage to his cherished car. He thinks of selling it but can't bear to part with it. He could say it had been stolen perhaps? He begins by saying it's not insured for others to drive, of course, but these are North Africans. Eventually, in a state of mania, he resorts to taking a part (the rotor arm) out of the car so that it won't work. This means he can't drive it either, but it is a price worth paying, he feels.

I wrote down the story and developed it. It seemed like it had legs, as they say. I built up the characters of the man, his wife, her family, the man's work colleagues etc. I described their apartment and the car – it was a Porsche 365 Roadster. The story was set in the UK and the woman became Afro-caribbean. When a few years later the story was published in a book of short stories, I sent a copy to my French friend. Later I asked him how he liked the stories. I waited for him to remark on the character based upon his brother, which he did not. I asked him which of the stories he liked best and he said he loved the one about the guy with the Porsche. I told him this was unsurprising since it was based upon what he had told me about his brother. He was confused. Nothing in the story seemed to him to relate to his brother, he said. I mentioned the car and the cultural issues with his wife's family. He saw the link but insisted it was such a different story that his brother's life was unrecognisable in it.

The above example is typical. Generally it is unlikely that anyone is going to accuse me of making public their closely guarded secrets to my readers. My wife worries about this a lot, I have to say. But the characters and situations are too much changed. They absorb characteristics of other people I have known or heard about. The circumstances and backstory changes. The environment changes and so does the main story – all embellished with things I remember from my past, from films, from television programs and even from other books. Yes, I have a good memory!

You might find it interesting to know, that my French friend told his brother what the man in the story did to avoid having his precious possessions borrowed. His brother tried it out, with some success. I'm very happy to have acted as his therapist in this case.

By the way, for those who are wondering, the story in question is named For The Love of Marsha.  It  is one of the stories in the book, Special Treatment and Other Stories.

The blog about this book and the link to its listing on Amazon is here