Matt Gemmell – His Stories

I’ve just read a blog post by Matt Gemmell entitled “Stories“. Matt is ‘an iOS (iPad, iPhone and iPod touch) and Mac OS X (Cocoa) developer and user experience/interface designer, based in Edinburgh, Scotland’ and not a writer in the sense of being an author of stories – at least not yet.

If you read his other posts – whether you’re interested in apps and coding or not – you’ll find he’s an intelligent and articulate writer. Something we should all be striving to be.

“Stories” is about a cupboard, like the cupboard you and I might have in our own home – the one you rarely go into but when you do it’s as though time stood still in there and there may be something lurking in there that you don’t want to find.

Matt writes elegantly and atmospherically about the cupboard in his mother’s house and his journey into it to find something buried in there long ago. What he eventually pulls out is a box that contains stories he wrote as a child. Stories he wants to re-visit. Stories he wants to write again. New stories he wants to write. It is full of observation and can provide a lesson for other writers. It is also very thoughtfully put together.

He manages to write about something that, I think, all of us can identify with. The mystery of enclosed spaces and the fear and fascination of them. There is something that draws us into these spaces and yet we can be afraid of them (or the contents) at the same time. In these spaces are buried the memories and paraphernalia of childhood and history. The cupboard is his Narnia.

Read it and enjoy it as I did. I’m very interested to see what he writes in the future.

Dreams And Daydreams As Writing Prompts

I’ve been reading the new post on Writing Forward about using dreams and daydreams as prompts for stories. Melissa suggests keeping a journal of dreams and daydreams and using them as a way to inform and inspire your writing.

I’ve written a couple of posts about dreams (Hiram B. Redfern and Premonitions or Dreams) but never used them as stories or ideas in stories. Perhaps it’s about time I did.

It’s not that the whole dream needs to be used. It could be names, places, feelings, or events that are incorporated into a story. Hiram B. Redfern can be a character without the events in my dream or I could use what his wife was doing and turn it into a curious incident that might need explaining somehow. I always felt that Hiram was a real person – perhaps I could turn him into one.

I often find that I conjure up vivid images just before I go to sleep. I’m even awake enough to be able to describe them to my partner. I don’t know whether this is the precursor to sleep or whether I’m just daydreaming. Trying to write them down at this point would be difficult as I want to just drift off rather than bounce up and start writing, but I could jot them down when I remember them. Sometimes this might be a few days after the images come to mind; I’m starting to recall some now because I’m thinking about it. Alternatively I could ask my partner to remind me in the morning.

Dreams are not wholly understood but it is widely believed they are a way for the mind to sift and sort the things that happen to us on a subconscious level. They can be full of mystery, beauty, and the bizarre and this is what writers often tap into when coming up with story ideas. Where else do our ideas come from if not the subconscious, as well as from our own experiences and those of others? The imagination, to quote Wikipedia, is:

… the ability of forming new images and sensations when they are not perceived through sight, hearing, or other senses. Imagination helps provide meaning to experience and understanding to knowledge; it is a fundamental faculty through which people make sense of the world, and it also plays a key role in the learning process.

This sounds a bit like dreaming to me, even if it’s not exactly the same process. Writing (and reading) can also be seen as a way of bringing meaning and sense to the world and both also play a key role in the learning process. We have powerful tools at our fingertips as writers and we provide powerful tools to those who read what we have written. Tools that are not to be underestimated.

So, next time you wake up remembering a dream, write it down – however disjointed and bizarre it may sound. You never know, you might have material for your next story.

Unexpected Writing Prompts

It’s amazing how the most unexpected things crop up and give an idea for a story. I was talking to a colleague at work and the usual ‘Did you see…?‘ conversation struck up. ‘No, I didn’t …‘ because I don’t have a TV. So she told me anyway.

There had been a programme on the night before about grown men who acted out being babies and the women who ‘looked after’ them. While I sympathised that there may be deep-rooted psychological problems, not least for the women concerned, I didn’t really want to know more.

The subject that caught my imagination was about the woman who kept her husband’s ashes and ate them to remain close to him after death. Again, I recognised there are deep-seated psychological problems here, but what an opening for a story. Loss, longing, attachment, separation – they are all here. After all, we all write about the psychological state of our characters.

Without being demeaning and disrespectful to the woman concerned, there are a number of takes that can be gleaned from this; serious and sensitive, homourous and bizarre, or any combination of these. A picture of this woman immediately developed and I felt I wanted to write. I don’t know where it starts or where it’s going but pen and paper here I come.

Secrets And Story

I was listening to the ‘Infinite Monkey Cage‘ on Radio 4 on my home from work this evening. They were discussing code-breaking and the extraordinary achievements of the team working at Bletchley Park during WWII.

There were about 10,000 people working there and all were sworn to secrecy, with something like only 6 people in the world who knew the extent of the work at Bletchley Park in the war effort. This secrecy continued for decades after the war.

As is the way with the Official Secrets Act, there are various time periods when secrets are no longer secrets. As deadlines passed and knowledge could be shared, some extraordinary stories began to emerge. A husband might turn to his wife 30 years after the war and tell her, ‘I have something to tell you. I worked at Bletchley Park during the war.’ To which the wife might reply, ‘So did I. Which hut were you working in?’

This shows the lengths to which ordinary people like you and I would go to to keep the secrets they were sworn to. It also set me to thinking about the secrets people keep from each other and how we choose whether or not to reveal them. My story entitled ‘The Secret‘ was based on a similar idea – two people living with a secret they both knew about. There are always things we do not discuss with others, however close they may be, and it is these things that weave subtly into a story-line to create interest and suspense.

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.