Monday, 9 September 2013

Story Inspiration

"Without making things up, life can be very dull and predictable."

People often ask writers where their inspiration for stories comes from. In my case it can be hard to remember. They often arrive by strange and circuitous routes. With others it's more obvious. Some are more clearly autobiographical, or are based upon events that people know I would be aware of. With many though, people seem to be completely baffled as to how I might have come up with them.

As I have said before, I believe that when you are a story writer it helps to be a bit of a fantasist, and even something of a liar. I have to confess to both, although these days I am known more for tactless divulgence of truths than of lies. But I lied a lot as a child. Probably because real life (whatever that is) was not interesting enough without it. I was a very naughty boy.

Without making things up, life can be very dull and predictable (for everyone), so I take an active role in doing something about it.

So how does this manifest itself? Well I suppose in place of telling lies for some sort of gain, or more often to avoid getting the blame for something, these days it tends to take the form of my throwing in some half-truths - or even blatant untruths - into a situation. I see it as being a little like adding spice or salt to the cooking (rarely sugar). In exactly that way I quickly see how things would be improved with a little of this, or a dash of that. Sometimes I'm wrong. Or sometimes it has a different effect to what I expect. Often it encourages a change of direction - wakes other people from sleepwalking through life. Of course at times I completely blow it and just piss people off - but not often (hah!). But it is this habit that I use as a tool for story writing - with the main difference being that the story creation is conducted in my head.

I can be in the middle of a conversation. Any kind of conversation. It could be with friends, with a my family, perhaps in a formal meeting, I might even be in a shop, or at the bank dealing with some mundane transaction or talking to a traffic warden. All situations have potential for my injecting a diversion into the proceedings and creating some sort of surprising outcome. Very often it is not a situation or conversation I am involved in. I merely witness or overhear it. Sometimes I am immediately struck by the possible deviation or imagined back-story, whereas on other occasions the idea comes to me as I remember the event later - particularly if I am relating it to someone else. And it is the latter circumstances that I find most fruitful. Probably since when I relate a real story to someone, I often feel it is not interesting enough without some embellishment - some poetic license. It is at this point that my wife or children always tell people not to take what I say too literally. They know me too well. It does amuse me when the recipient sometimes asks them not to discourage me. They prefer to hear my embellished version, it would seem.

When I was in Italy recently, I saw a number of those little old Fiat 500's. Topolino's, they're called. They have become collectable. A few years ago I wrote a story about a London builder. A Cockney roofer, in fact, who had been contracted to do a few weeks work re-roofing a restaurant somewhere in rural Italy. The work coincided with the start of the hunting season and he was the unfortunate victim of a shooting accident, where some local hunters had fired celebratory shots through the ceiling of the restaurant. The Cockney roofer was wounded and then fell from the roof. Being out in the sticks he was driven to hospital, in a life-threatening condition, by someone in a Topolino. I won't tell you the full story but you can imagine the scene. He was a large man. Anyway, people I knew were at a loss to see how I might have come up with the story unless it was true. In fact the origin of the story was merely having once seen an elderly lady trying to fit her daughter and her large suitcase into one of these cars outside Charing Cross Station. Eventually the sunroof had been opened and they had driven off with the daughter's legs sticking out the top. As it was it did not make much of a story, but the fiasco remained in my mind. It was a few years before I had the idea for a story about a man injured at work who is encouraged to make a compensation claim by an Indian telesales lady. I often get those calls "Hello Mr Swain, have you had an accident in the last six years?"
Combining the two elements was a useful fit - rather like one of those children's toys where you can add interchangeable body parts to create a monster doll. The car made Italy an obvious choice of location for the story. As it happens, on my recent visit I saw one of these little Fiat 500's converted into an iced cream van. It was comical but it seemed to work and was very popular. It gave me inspiration for a new story. Not about a Topolino iced cream van. A hearse seemed more interesting...

The story 'Topolino' can be found in the book 'Special Treatment & Other Stories'. Special Treatment won the Kinglake Prize for Modern Short Stories in 2010.  The book is available on Amazon. link link
Otherwise go to your local Amazon website and enter the title 'Special Treatment & Other Stories'

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