More Short Story Ideas and Inspirations (3)
So if you've been following this (kind of) series of Hubs about writing short stories, you'll know that this is where I blab on about how I find writing ideas and then try to explain how they become transformed from boring old pupa into beautiful butterflies. As always I'll use my own stories, plays, skits, novels etc as examples and before you mention it, yes I did say plays, skits etc because essentially whatever form of literature they end up as, they're all basically the same thing: stories. About stuff.
The thing about writing exercises is they always feel like writing exercises and that's never going to be exciting, is it? And I think that's because if something feels like a writing exercise, the very fact of embarking on it prompts us to take on the mind-set of doing a writing exercise.
So how do we get away from that?
What we have to do is to start writing something that is a story, or at the very least, has the potential to become a story, and the way to do that is to look at everything as an exploration of 'something'. What that something is, doesn't matter that much, so long as it's interesting enough to keep us going in the right direction. But just so we're clear, that 'something' could be the germ of an idea, a name, a place, a bit of furniture, an image or a question.
The Body in the Bag
Back in 2001, I had a yearning to write a stage play. Now, at the time I'd already written several stage plays but most of them weren't finished, and the only one that'd been performed was a children's show ('Shadowsong'), that'd been commissioned for a theatre company in Northumberland (Headway Arts). But being a show for kids, it was short, with a running time of about 50 minutes. What I wanted was to write a full-length play, a play that would run at about 90 minutes or so. My problem was I didn't know what I could write about that would give me enough material to interest an audience for that length of time.
And then I came across an article about Burke and Hare, the Edinburgh serial killers who sold the bodies of their victims to the medical school. It wasn't difficult to find a list of their victims, which I thought would help to move the play along, but what I really needed was a reason to write about them. From what I'd read, I knew that William Hare was generally thought of as being the more dominant of the two, so ideally, I needed to pit them against each other and look at how the struggle for supremacy would affect their relationship. I decided to focus on Burke. Here's an excerpt:
It's funny, I was going over it all in my mind and I think there must have been a moment, a real, physical moment when it could have gone either way, when I had a choice, when Bill and me could have taken different roads. 'Cos even after the first one, there was still time to get out…I mean, even then, we hadn't really done anything wrong…
I don't recall exactly when I first wrote this speech, but it ended up being near the beginning and is essentially my reason for writing. I wanted to ask the question -
Did Burke choose to be a murderer, or was he simply dragged along by the more forceful character of Hare?
More importantly -
Was there a point when he could have escaped the situation he'd got himself into?
A speech at the end of the play provides my answer:
Bit of a bugger, really. Me getting landed with everything. But…if I'm honest, there was a chance to get myself out of it. I know there was. I just didn't take it.
So in this example, I found my inspiration and plumped for what I now consider to be the rather obvious choice of starting at the end - with Burke's hanging. Then it was a simple matter of having him look back on the error of his ways. Etc, etc.
The Hounds of Hellerby Hall
This is a title I dreamed up many years ago and is one of several that I liked because of the alliteration. It was originally going to be a radio play about a well-to-do family whose servants ganged up on them over the rights to a family heirloom. Or something like that, I forget, exactly. But it never got very far because I realised I was trying to write it like a radio play I'd heard, in a similar style etc, instead of writing what I actually wanted to write. Anyway...
Some years later, the title was still hanging around in my head when I'd finished writing my first children's novel and I wanted something else to get my teeth into. I wanted to use the title The Hounds of Hellerby Hall, so the obvious thing to do was to have a murder, or some sort of crime, committed at the Hall, and then dream up a suitably heroic character to investigate.
As my regular readers will know, I'm not a planner. So I didn't want to know what was going to happen. Which meant I didn't know who the villain was. Actually, I didn't even know what the crime was. But clearly I had to start with something, so I decided to have someone wake up early in the morning and make a grisly discovery...
A minute later, he is downstairs and heading for the dining room. The door is closed. Another month or so and the maid would have been in there already to light the fire, but it is only September and Georgie knows his father will not tolerate squandering money on fuel.
He takes hold of the polished brass knob and turns it.
Don't go in.
For a moment, he stands there, unwilling, apprehensive, then with a deep breath pushes the door wide and walks to the table.
And there sitting in the centre, as he knew it would be, is the bowl.
Full of blood.
So now we have a crime, or at least a very strange happening in a large country house, and we have a boy who seems to know something about these strange happenings. This then, gives us a few questions:
What does the bowl of blood mean?
Who put it there?
What are the consequences for the family?
So now I can move on to establishing my main character (Christie McKinnon) and have her learn about the strange goings-on at the Hall and inveigle herself into the investigation. Easy, eh?
Well, okay, not easy, but you get the gist - I'd created questions that needed answers so then I could spend the rest of the novel working out what those answers were. And before you ask, no, I'm not going to tell you.
The Not Mouse
So getting back to short stories, here's one that was inspired by a real event. When I was living in Hull, East Yorkshire, I came home one day to find the kitchen door closed. This wasn't unusual, but it prevented the intruder from hearing my footsteps. Also, because the kitchen door was made of glass, I was able to see the aforementioned intruder quite clearly - he was sitting on top of a bottle of olive oil, and yes, he was a mouse. Naturally, he didn't hang around long after I'd opened the door, but it was only then that I realised why the bread had, for the previous few days, appeared to have disintegrated at the corners.
So here was my beginning:
It was the bread he noticed first.
Which obviously came from my own experience, but the thing is, I didn't really want this story to be about a mouse, so I began to wonder what other sort of creature night live under the floorboards and what sort of attire such a creature might wear. I few paragraphs on, we have:
Sitting neatly by the hole in the skirting board (the hole that had mysteriously become larger since the day before), the perfectly stitched brace of miniature footwear were caked in mud and grime. Crouching down, Peterson picked them up. Each one was about two inches long with what appeared to be silk laces hanging loose from their tiny eyelets, as if the wearer had carefully undone them and slipped the boots off his, her or its feet before retiring to bed for the night. As he stared at these slightly unbelievable articles, Peterson wondered if he was the subject of one of those TV game shows where innocent people are thrown into seemingly improbable situations to see how they react.
The story then becomes about a creature who begins to take over the house and eventually ends up... Well, that would be telling.
Trepanning for the Common Man
This one was inspired by an article I read about a woman who claimed to have improved her general health via a bout of trepanation - or drilling a hole in her head. I liked this idea, though for a while I wasn't sure how to approach it. Eventually I started with the obvious line:
That morning, following the unsuccessful meeting with his new boss, Charlie had decided (again) to drill a hole in his head.
However, as I was nearing the end of the story I decided to take the middle bit out and move it to the beginning, so my secondary character of Mr Majolica allows the story to unfold more slowly, leaving the reader less certain what the story is actually about. The new beginning goes:
Mr Majolica lies back on the chaise longe, the black enamelled cigarette holder wavering slightly in his spidery fingers. He gazes at Charlie over the top of his spectacles and gives him a smile. One of those smiles he's been giving Charlie for each of the last four sessions.
This seemed to work better and their subsequent conversation helped show my character's indecision not only as to whether or not he should drill a hole in his head, but also about his relationship with his ex-wife.
One of the odd things about this one was the character of Mr Majolica. I'd originally given him that name simply because I couldn't think of anything else and intended to change it as soon as a more suitable one came to mind (this is a technique I use a lot - if I get stuck on something, I just write in a word or phrase that can be exchanged for a better one at a later date. And the best thing is, it really doesn't matter if it doesn't make sense, so long as I know what I'm aiming for).
Anyway, so I'd put his name in there and as soon as I started writing his dialogue, an image of the actor Sir Ian McKellen popped into my head, and as his voice seemed to fit perfectly, I carried on writing as if that's who it was. This sort of 'casting' in my writing doesn't usually happen, but when it does, I find it easier to write, since I know who I'm writing for. Of course, strictly speaking, you should only do this if what you're writing is going to be made into a movie with that actor playing that part, otherwise you might end up writing dialogue that sounds exactly like that specific person, rather than creating an original voice with original dialogue, and so on...
The last example this time round is one I started witing ages ago and had originally intended to be a screenplay. For this reason, I'd always visualised it as if it was a movie (which I kind of do with most stories, anyway), but I remember the initial idea sort of germinating away for quite a while before I ever wrote anything. The image I had was of a kid in his back garden with his dad. It was like one of those old home movies, black and white, showing the family 'at play'. When I eventually got round to changing it into a short story, it began like this:
It's that dream again - where he's a kid in the garden at home and Dad's there in his stage gear, trying to get him to do that card trick. The one he always does. The easy one. The one he should be able to do standing on his head. But little George just can't get it, he drops the cards, picks them up, flustered. Tries again, drops them. And Dad just stands there laughing...
I knew from the start that the story was basically about a man trying to escape living in the shadow of his father. The father, of course, was a famous magician and now the son (all grown up) finds himself still trying to do his father's act, but constantly failing. Having decided to give it all up, he comes across his father's old wand, and strange things start to happen...
While the audience's attention is on the bird, George almost doesn't notice the soft tug on the hat. He looks down, sees his hand clutching the topper between finger and thumb. The hat's empty, of course - with the multicolored handkerchiefs still up his sleeve where they're supposed to be, it can't be anything else. But there's no mistaking - there's something in there, something heavier than a handkerchief - heavier than a dove, for that matter.
The finished story first appeared in an anthology - Fresh Ink Vol 1.
Inevitably, George has to make a decision about continuing with his reinvigorated magic act, or to give it up and move on. In the event, the magic wand gives him the opportunity and the motivation to do something he should have done years ago, which is kind of the point of the story.
Inspiration can come from anywhere. The important thing is to be able to take that inspiration and run with it, wherever it leads you. If the story doesn't work, that's absolutely fine, but so long as you give it the chance to walk, run or leap majestically in whatever direction it wants to go, there's every chance that most of the stories you start, will end up as stories finished.