Do Stories Write Themselves?

I had an idea for a story recently based on one image I saw somewhere. The figure of a woman hurrying through a tree-lined avenue on a misty, rainy evening was very atmospheric. It conjured up questions about where she might be going, where she was hurrying to and why she was hurrying. I wanted to know more.

I started to write and found myself creating a couple of characters and then placing them. I didn’t consciously place them – it just came to mind. The image I saw made me think of Paris and that’s where I imagine the story to take place. I know nothing about Paris beyond what I’ve read and seen in films.

Some of the details I have consciously started to create by researching French female names and places in Paris. The location still seemed to come about without me doing too much work to find it. I now have to find out about the area I am writing about. This shouldn’t be too difficult with the internet at my fingertips, and my knowledge of cities and parks anywhere can do the rest. Fotopedia seems to be a great source of inspiration for locations.

It always amazes me where the ideas come from when I only have a couple of thoughts about a story. Starting to write seems to pull things out of the imagination, but it happens almost subconsciously. From the image of a single figure in a photograph I created a home, a house-maid, a stranger and a situation that is incomplete in my head. There is something going on for this woman but I’m not yet sure what it is. I have to trust that putting pen to paper will pull it out of me.

Lots of partial ideas and fragments of story can seem to be lodged in my head but I’m not sure how to put them together. This is part of the process, it seems. Write and something happens to start linking them together. At other times I have to sit and think about how to link them.

I’ve often heard the saying that a story will write itself. While this obviously isn’t literally true, it does seem to have some substance. Conversation and events can come to mind while I’m scribbling away with my pen, or tapping on the keyboard. In fact they almost seem to be on the page before I’ve thought about them. They seem to come straight off the end of the pen and take me by surprise. I often know where a story is heading but I don’t always know the events that will take over people’s lives in the story and this can sometimes change my perception of where the story is headed after all.

It makes writing almost as fascinating as reading.

My First Story Critique

I submitted a short story to a competition in Writers’ Forum recently and got my critique back yesterday. It’s the first critique I’ve ever had and only the second competition I’ve entered – the first being in about 1985 with A Sunday Visitor. I didn’t win anything then and I haven’t so far now, but I do have something to go on to improve what I’ve written.

The feedback told me my dialogue is good and the tale is poignant with an uplifting ending. I was advised to write from the point of view of one character and everything, including the other character, should be seen through the main person’s eyes and observations as the head-hopping (writing from inside the head of both characters) can be a bit confusing. This will require an almost total re-write.

I have ideas of writing it twice, once for each character, to see what happens. The challenge will be to show the other character’s feelings and reactions from the observations of the main character. As the couple have been together for 45 years they will be familiar with each other to the point of knowing what the other is thinking and feeling – up to a point.

It’s quite encouraging that my writing is good and I found the feedback constructive. It’s giving me a number of ideas of how to approach it differently without detracting from the feel of it. The sparseness and empty spaces and silences is captured in just the way I imagined it and I think I can keep that in the re-writes.

I might leave it for a week or so before going back to the story so that I can look at it objectively. In the meantime I’d better write something else!

Blair Peach and the SPG

In the late 1970s, while the country was run by an evil oligarch, I found myself caught up in a police raid and taken in for questioning.

The Special Patrol Group (SPG) were part of the raiding force and while I was waiting to be released after questioning one of them came up to talk to me. He took great delight in showing me his ID wallet. On one side was his ID card and on the other was a card which said; ‘SPG killed Blair Peach. True?’

I found this chilling for two reasons. On the one hand it seemed to be a clear admission that the SPG killed Blair Peach and on the other it was childish in the extreme; the kind of thing a schoolchild writes, as in; ‘John loves Mary. True or False?’ It also seemed to be such a childish thing for a member of the notorious squad to want to show me.

I never told anyone about this at the time, but I’m sure other people knew about it and this helped the cover up that continued for many years. I’m not even sure that absolute blame ever fell on the SPG, or any one individual. At the time it was fear that stopped me from telling. A tactic I’m sure they were very well versed in.

I’ve told a few people I know about this over the years but never written about it. I’m not even sure where I’d go from here to log it officially – even if it mattered now.

Creative Writing Discipline

I don’t know why, but I’m often amazed at how quickly I can come up with an idea in my Creative Writing Class when given a prompt to complete in about 10 minutes. Sometimes our tutor gives us a selection of starting lines and this can be useful for jumping in at the deep end. At other times I might choose something that springs to mind. Each time we have done this exercise I have written for 10 minutes and often wanted more time to develop what is on the page.

I can sit at home and ruminate for hours about what to write and nothing comes. Of course, this isn’t always the case otherwise I’d never write anything, but I do sit for ages sometimes thinking about how a conversation should go and what the characters sound like and where the dialogue is taking the story.

I can also write for ages sometimes and end up with fragments of a story that seem to have no beginning, ending, or direction. I think this is one of the most frustrating things as I am feeling creative at the time but without an aim in mind. I collect pieces of writing in the hope I can put them together and come up with the story I always wanted to write.

There are numerous websites giving writing prompts –  a quick search on Google will bring up pages of them – but I don’t often use them. Because I have the time to think about it I dismiss some of them as not interesting enough or not quite the subject matter I would have chosen. But I don’t have any ideas of my own so it would be more beneficial to go along with the prompts that not.

Without the constraints of class I flounder. If I were stricter with myself I would set a time limit, find a (random) prompt and write. Who knows, I might eventually come up with my masterpiece.

Writing Characters

An idea came to mind recently about a character who would be engaged in dialogue with the author (me) as part of the story.

I felt I needed to know a lot about the character as I would not only be directing him but he would also be complaining to me if I ‘wrote’ him in the wrong direction. The idea being that I would be writing his story as though it were my story about him but that he would be living his life under my pen with his own opinions and ideas and control over his life entirely separate from me and my pen. Most of the story will run smoothly and in agreement with each other but I would be able to offer bits of advice or steer him into or away from situations. By the same token he would be able to interrupt me and ask what I think I’m doing with him or to suggest situations or chide me about situations that don’t suit his personality.

At the moment I have no real idea what his story is but in building up a picture of the character I am starting to see a story develop around him as his mannerisms, hopes and dreams, habits, and history build up. Looking at his relationships with others is allowing other characters to build around him. Perhaps this is something I might find useful in other stories where I am feeling stuck.

Exploring ideas about his personality and relationships is giving me ideas about his life and what he does. I even got Stephen to give me something about him so that he is not totally my own construct. After all, people come into my life and I have no control over who they are, where they have come from and what they are like. I would like some of my characters to be beyond my control –  as far as they can be anyway. The unknown can be as exciting to the author as it is to the reader.

Writing about someone I don’t know and keeping them in mind so that their speech and mannerisms gives away something of who they are isn’t always easy. Showing a reader who someone is with their internal and external conflicts is done through dialogue and description and it is often the little things that give someone away and make the reader believe in that person.

I have to believe in them as well otherwise it won’t work.