Wild Days


Living out in the sticks (as my sons often say), and on a hill (lovely view, the estate agents said), we catch the wind. The rain sweeps over the valley, the buzzards get blown off course and I've had to give up my office chair to allow the cat to remain undisturbed. The house is quiet but for the moan of the wind through the chimney. It's on days like this that my mind can wander. Dilemmas, scenarios, book titles that might catch a reader's eye, feverishly checking the internet to check if it's already been done. Coming up with ideas for a new project is daunting but fun.

How about "Problem Child": what if a family turns on its youngest child and she fights back? Or "The Cull: what if population growth forces the government to instigate a "cull"? Will you work for the government or run? "Cassandra": what if you speak the truth but will never be heard? Delving the newspapers, history and myth can all be great ways to find ideas; the tricky bit is trying to encapsulate it in one or two lines. Especially if the story relies on a hidden twist. I put great faith in knowing the end before I start to draft - because it gives the story purpose and direction. But I know that doesn't work for everyone.

Telling stories helps. Working as an oral storyteller (as Sophie Snell), has taught me that simplicity is often best. A lot of traditional stories were recorded in the 19th century as short snippets with huge gaps, forcing the teller to grapple with the concept and fill them in. Or passed on by word of mouth. Crucially, you remember the stories as images, not scripts. So again your imagination fires up the tale and then you find the words to tell them. With that comes all your personal baggage, experiences and thoughts, but also those of the listener. A storytelling performance is all about the imagination of both teller and audience.

Take, for example, Grimm's tale of The Willful Child. A woman goes to a grave and sees a hand clawing through the mud. She takes a branch and whips the hand and it disappears again. Who is the woman, why did she do that? What is going on? Was that (gulp) the child's mother? It's dark stuff. And how many film makers have since used that image of a hand reaching from the grave?

Or try telling a joke. For example: Why did the chicken cross the road? We all know the poor chicken is probably going to end up dead (or at the very least traumatised). And how about a hedgehog...? Not very nice. But the joke is based on subverting expectations, a visual or verbal pun. And the very pain of it is what puts us on edge and makes us laugh. Not that humour is always the end result and ideas can quickly go badly wrong... 

So ideas for me often come as an image. The edgier, the better. With Cuckoo it was the pear drum, a strange musical instrument that torments the listener. With Magpie it was the puppetrider - an ancient coin depicting a skeletal rider. Suddenly my pear drum was being used by one family member to wreak revenge on another, and encapsulated the idea of something bad the main character has done. And the puppetrider is linked to death, home, where we belong or reluctantly end up - the journey none of us can avoid. 

A Jewish storyteller once taught me a technique called midrashing - a way of analysing a thought or idea in order to better understand the "truth". It's a way of alternating perspective so you see things from different angles. In the context of oral storytelling it's about swapping points of view: Cinderella as told by the sisters, or the prince or the fairy godmother, even a little mouse in the kitchen. What do they notice, what's in their head, what are their agendas. 

Or there's the Greek philosophical idea of Socratic argument: two intellectuals "playing devil's advocate" to present the opposite point of view. It's not about verbal acuity and "winning" the debate, it's about generating new and fresh insight. In real life, we often create a narrative to fit with how we feel or to justify what we've done. It's a human failing that shows how stories go to the heart of our communication. But the job of a writer is to openly explore the mindset of their characters, whether or not they agree with them. You suspend judgement, free your mind, go down a few blind alleys and generate the what ifs.

It's too easy to get locked into one train of thought. I go for a walk, drive somewhere, go AWOL for a bit then spend hours browsing the internet. Visit art galleries, read books (fact and fiction), doodle on scraps of paper, write, draw, scribble diagrams until ideas and their connections flow Then I try to translate those initial thoughts into tangible story facts. I stand at the white board with loads of different coloured pens, but the best tool is the cloth I use to scrub things out with. What if this happens and then that. Nope. How about... Consequences, clues, red herrings, truth and motivation. Throw them in, strip them out, rearrange it all, anchor your start and finish, until a plot starts to form that feels right.

It's okay to make mistakes. I dream of the happy mistakes. Oh and drink loads of coffee.

Now all you have to do is break it down into a proper plan and write it - ah therein lies a whole new challenge...

A few of our (much loved) local chickens! Many thanks to: Melanie Bruder, Janet Langford, Katy Radders and Julie Willetts.