I was lying in bed last night thinking about where stories start from… you know, those mad things that cause us to lie awake at night; the racing brain, the whirling mind. I’m glad I can still remember some of those thoughts now, a day later. (Sometimes, I can’t remember what I said five minutes ago, so to retain information overnight always feels like a win.)
I will freely admit that I am one of those ‘write what you know’ writers, who can’t invent intricate fantasy worlds about turtles with worlds on their backs, or boys who become magicians, but, whatever kind of writer someone is, a story still needs a starting point, or a moment that kicks it from passing thought to ingredient for a story.
Writers find stories everywhere, in anything, anytime (although often in those long hours where the body shouts ‘SLEEP‘ but the mind shouts ‘BUT WAIT! Let me tell you about this….‘). Aside from in those long waking moments of the night, I also have many of my ideas when I am out walking my dogs. I think it goes like this: The further away from a pen, paper, or my laptop I am, the better and more vivid the idea. On a good day, I still remember miniscule snippets of those ideas by the time I get home, and frantically scribble them down somehwere tangible before they disappear forever.
Often, these initial nuggets of inspriation come from things I see around me; the places I go; the people I see; the stories I hear. Ordinary things and ordinary places and ordinary people. It’s like looking in the fruit bowl and seeing bananas.
I see I have some bananas. They aren’t much good by themselves. They are past their best, going old.
Those bananas are still there a little later. I haven’t forgotten about them.
Ooooh, an ingredient!
I check if I have flour. If I don’t, I ignore the bananas. Their moment in my thoughts end here. If I do have flour….
I find my banana bread recipe. I like this recipe, because I have learned that it’s adaptable. I look at the list of ingredients and start to gather the crucial ones.
Here’s where things start to go astray. The recipe says ‘caster sugar’ but I like to throw in some brown sugar. My recipe says walnuts, which I sometimes add, but then I also might throw in sultanas, mixed seeds, chopped apricots, other things, all or some… a different blend every time. The recipe says things like ‘ounces‘, ‘tablespoon‘, ‘weigh‘; I measure some things carefully, but get random with others.
I mix it all together until everything is combined well.
I cook it. I check it, I watch it, and I dig in a knife to see if its done.
Best part – I eat it. Sometimes, I share.
I use exactly the same method when I write:
I have an untethered thought. It may be about a person, an event, a place, a conversation, anything or something or nothing that seems particularly significant. A single thought isn’t much good by itself. It’s alone, isolated. I need a recipe, some more ingredients.
I check I have something I can add to it. If I don’t, I ignore the bananas – erm, I mean the thought. I may make a note, and save it for later, or I may let it drift away into the wind, to become someone else’s story, or no one’s. Its moment in my immediate thoughts ends here. But, if I do have some flour – erm, something to add….
I get the recipe. Or some other ingredients. I may need to find other ingredients before I know which recipe to use, or I may start with a recipe and find ingredients to fit. I look at what I need to make this idea into a story and begin to order the ideas.
The recipe for writing says ‘plot‘, and ‘character‘ and ‘setting’; ‘problem and solution‘ ‘turning point‘ but the ingredients are up to me. I put in some of my own experiences, or the things I know, see, hear, for some parts. And then I let those things I know grow, turn, change, dilute, expand, twist and change. I measure some things carefully, but get random with others. This helps the story to move along. I can go back later and fix the random parts and make them blend, or pluck out any big lumps in the dough.
I finish the story. I read it. I check it, I edit it, and I dig in a knife to see if its done – oh, no, wait, that’s what my beta readers, editor, publisher will do. The knife part. Sometimes it’s not cooked yet, and needs a change, or a new ingredient.
I finish writing. Time passes…
Maybe someone will read it. Either way, the story is told. I’ve used the ingredients, followed a recipe, mixed it well, and cooked it. The eating part, others can share.
Let me give you an example of how a single ingredient becomes a story, or a story part:
Ingredient: In my village, two lovely women I know walk their dogs together every day. One of the dogs is bad-tempered and unsociable. Although we know each, we can’t speak when we meet because the four dogs we have between us are making too much noise, always triggered by Miss Yappy-Paws.
Recipe: Take two characters and a dog; drop them into a different story.
Mix: In my cozy mystery novel, A Diet of Death, there are two women, Elizabeth and Breda. Elizabeth and Breda are of a similar age to the two women I meet on my own walks around my village. One of the fictional women (Breda) has a dog (Daisy) who is bad-tempered and unsociable. You would be correct for guessing where I took my initial inspiration for Breda and Elizabeth from. And then, I add sultanas and apricots, or brown sugar and walnuts, and Breda and Elizabeth grow and become themselves instead of the two real-life women. They take on a new life, and run away with it. They evolve and change and very quickly move on from the flash of inspiration that led to their existence. I can’t tell you more, without book spoilers, but suffice to remind you that Breda and Elizabeth are NOT the two women I meet when I walk my own dogs.
The yappy dog may be a very small slice of banana; the two ladies a sprinkle of nutmeg I got out of the cupboard.
As the real women evolved into the very fictional Breda and Elizabeth, imagine that I opened the jar of nutmeg, considered it, thought about how it would fit the recipe, then closed the lid and put the nutmeg back into the cupboard, unused. And the selected a jar of cinnamon to add instead. All these thoughts and ideas are part of the recipe, but they are not the finished banana bread.
I never know exactly how a story will cook, but it’s fun mixing up the ingredients.