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Where does a writer get their stories?

Where does a writer get their stories? I know one thing: it is different for different writers. What follows is a brief musing about my own story generators.

Perhaps you saw the documentary a few years back about Ian Rankin’s year writing, editing and looking for his next story? Regarding the latter, he showed viewers a scrapbook of newspaper cuttings. One of them, he hoped, would spark the story. Of course, he already knew what a story had to do – putting it crudely, to be a great narrative which is a vehicle for all his central themes. His main central theme, of course, is to dig deep past cosy surfaces to expose corruption and evil, usually in high places.

I do something similar in bookmarking internet sites and news stories. I’ve quite full folders titled murder, bent police, serial killers, forensics, political corruption, and so on. A problem is that my bookmarks multiply by the day: there are hundreds of separate folders or categories reflecting my interests – interests that often have very short lives such as ‘epistemic cognition’. Believe me, sorting out my bookmarks would take a much greater weary effort than sorting out my hundreds of books. In truth, the bookmarking/ scrapbook method works for research after I have the story but not to generate the story.

The novel I have published has as a central theme something urged upon me by someobody, something I knew nothing about – the damage being done to people by electronic gambling machines. Now, I already had a main character from an exercise in a writing workshop the previous year where I’d developed a character with a gambling addiction.

When I sat down to write the story I had no plot and no idea how it would end (and I was intrigued to hear Karen Campbell approaches writing the same way). I had much of what was important already in my head: strong sense of place, a ‘scrapbook’ of characters waiting to audition and be cast, characters from real life and reading, a wicked dark humour and sense of irony, a long-held desire to challenge surface ‘touristy’ images of Scotland, and – a central theme of mine – to complicate the divisions between good and evil.

It was the first novel I have written and it really did feel like it was ‘writing itself’. The characters and situations took on a life of their own. I was surprised (and somewhat pleased) that unbidden surreal elements crept in.

 

Intuition is the Key

 

Currently, I am putting together a collection of short stories on the theme of ‘addiction’. I have already rejected several – because they are very badly written and probably not worth salvaging. The theme gives the energy of finding stories, the short story form constrains so that the story has to be sharp, precise and to the point. I’m looking beyond the stereotypical images of addiction (as well as things like substance and behavioural addictions) to suggest, to hint at, the idea that in basic ways we are all addicts. So, for instance, I’m working on one called The Big Wheel inspired last week by the erection in Glasgow’s George Square of a magnificent big wheel, roundabouts and other fairground attractions. I’m exploring the consumer cycle over a year as a big wheel that folk are caught upon. That’s the central image, and the story will be full of other wheels, cycles, hamster wheels that one of us, some of us, all of us are attached (or addicted?) to.

Now, the reason I’m writing this post at this time is because something happened in my head this morning to spark a new novel (although I’m already working on one).

Firstly you need to know that I love the Orkney Islands, not only being there but the history, culture, literature, music. I’m currently reading that great Orkney Bard, George Mackay Brown.

I have read a few decent modern novels set on Orkney – crime stories. When I first went to the main island, as the ferry closed in on Stromness Pier, I saw, on a dilapidated wooden shed the crudely painted words, ‘Welcome to Orkney, Dave.’ Somewhere in a forgotten place will be my notes on developing a story here. Who was Dave? What was he running from? Who wanted to let him know that they knew he was coming to Orkney? I intuitively wanted to write a story set in Orkney and this seemed like a way in. But I have many such ideas for stories and the newest or latest blocks the rest, itself discarded when another comes along.

 

Genesis of a novel

 

So to this morning’s idea. Three elements. The first is described above. I want to spend imaginative time on Orkney.

The second element is from last week when I heard Karen Campbell talk. Her novel Rise is set in and around a fictionalised village, Kilmacarra. This is based on the Argyll village of Kilmartin in Kilmartin Glen, a place with hundreds of prehistoric stone icons. It was the Glen which astounded her when she saw it for the first time in real life. Kilmacarra becomes a stage for a story involving a Glasgow runaway, a fiendish chaser, a claustrophobic marriage and the interplay between different levels of history, from personal to epochal. I remember thinking as she talked, ‘Hmmm. That makes me think of Orkney.’ But it was just a passing thought.

Today it has moved centre stage, this passing thought. For one, part of the cast in Rise is a team of archaeologists. What bigger diggers of dirt and detectives of the past could there be! Anyway, a new twitter friend today – a Norse scholar – mentioned Orkney to me. The two moments cohered with the first element.

So here’s the script. Orkney 2018, Mainland, small settlement near Birsay, so near Skara Brae. Middle aged couple, arty, decayed hippies, incomers. Other relationships, characters (I know these will just come to me; there’s no need to fit anyone into a plot). Archaeological dig. Stromness nights. Tourists. Midsummer. Murder.

That’s it. You may say that’s not a story, or even the basis of one. But I promise you it is. I know it is! You’ll have to buy the book!

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