Category Archives: writing craft

Story Inspiration – Where Do Stories Come From?

This week I have been asking myself: where do I find story inspiration? It’s never been a problem for me. Stories are always queueing up. But I don’t really know how they get into the line in the first place.

Where do Stories Come from RoNA trophyMaybe this is partly because I’m in final edit mode at the moment. I have to admit to a chronic state of excitement, terror and permanent why-on-earth-did-I-think-I-could-write-this-story?-itis.

But no, it isn’t just displacement activity. Honest. It’s That Time of Year. The Goldsboro Books Romantic Novel of the Year short list is out.

Rona 17 Sophia Bennett

Where do stories come from Love SongThere are seven categories. Last year the overall winner was Love Song, a young adult novel by Sophia Bennett. And last Saturday, the author came to the RNA meeting in London to talk about her work. And that was the question she set herself to answer – where did her stories come from?

It was a brilliant talk, full of fun and fantastic energy.  And it had spoilers, and no, I’m not going to reveal them. (If you get the chance to hear Sophia Bennett speak, grab it with both hands. You won’t regret it.)

Her conclusion, if I understood her correctly, is that her stories come from the place where secrets and dramas in her own family meet current issues that move her.

Well, what she actually said was make her angry. I must say I can relate that: a great big dollop of indignation at the unfairness of things is fabulous fuel, I find.

Story Inspiration from Contemporary Issues

Story inspiration ThreadsSophia Bennett told us that her very first book, Threads (2009), was inspired by the plight of young refugees and her own youthful desire to be a fashion designer.

So that’s two issues that wouldn’t have occurred to Jane Austen, Dickens or Dostoievsky.

It won The Times/Chicken House Children’s Fiction Competition. David Almond, author of the heart-wrenching and very contemporary Skellig, wrote that it “introduces us to a bunch of kids in a superficial-seeming world of fashion and celebrity. It draws us elegantly into the dramas and profundities beneath. It shows that Hell and Heaven co-exist. It’s fast and funny, literate and wide-ranging. It’s like a lot of today’s kids, in fact, and they’ll read it in their thousands.”

And I have already written in this blog about The Raj Quartet . Paul Scott had witnessed the beginning of the end of the British Raj in India as a wartime serviceman and that story – or multiple inter-locking stories – had clearly been knocking at the door for a while before he started.

Story Inspiration from Friends

Story inspiration Eaj QuartetScott apparently intended it to be one book, at least when he started. But then he visited India again, he made new friends and ended up with five books and an unforgettable cast of characters.

Looking at my own current work in progress I can see a couple of things that I have borrowed from friends – a painting which made me laugh, a chilly stone-floored wine cellar.

They caught my fancy and I re-worked them to make them my own.


Story inspiration - Sword of HonourEvelyn Waugh happily sketched in friends and foes alike in his fiction, even his masterpiece The Sword of Honour trilogy. Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time  is a straightforward roman à clef . When he holds up the mirror to the age, it is peopled by his personal acquaintance.

But I have never managed to base any major story element on real people or their true stories. To be honest, there isn’t enough room for me. The story is already inhabited and not by characters I have created.

Also, I have slightly squeamish feeling that it would be an abuse of friendship somehow. Didn’t worry Waugh, though.

Story Inspiration from Family

Sophia Bennett has some stonkingly good family stories to tell. I think I may have one too. But…

Story inspiration secretsI uncovered it when a friend who is into family history studies showed me how to use online resources. It was a shock. But it made sudden sense of a remark that I had been told about.

But if my hypothesis were true, it would have been a source of distress and probably shame to the people concerned. I closed the website and looked no further. It wasn’t my business. They were entitled to their secrets.

Narrow road to the Deep North - story inspirationBooker Prize Winner Richard Flanagan clearly considered that issue when he mined his father’s wartime experience as a prisoner of the Japanese in Borneo for The Narrow Road to the Deep North. But he made it clear that it was not his father’s personal story.

“He trusted me,” he told The Guardian. I really relate to that, too.

Though I have, I now realise, borrowed someone else’s relationship with his ancestors. The idea intrigued me, I remember. It was like falling over an alien at an office Christmas party.

I hardly knew the chap. We only met the once, talked for maybe fifteen minutes, mostly about economics. But there was something about the way he spoke of a great, great uncle, dead long before the nephew was born, that set off that little authorial bell in my head.
Ding, ding, what if

So, yes, it started with someone else. But it was a throw-away remark from him. And I’ve reworked it for my own purposes. So now it’s now mine, I tell you, all mine.


Sophie Weston Author


Must You Murder Your Darlings?

Readers - murder your darlingsThis isn’t the first time that the Libertà Hive has pondered the advice to writers to “murder your darlings.”

Indeed, Joanna got seriously confessional about doing exactly that a few months ago. Actually, in her case, it wasn’t so much wilful murder as a contract killing. Editors can be ruthless.


Stephen King On writing, kill your darlingsWell, Stephen King does a pretty good job of it in his On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” He was following William Faulkner. But even Faulkner wasn’t the originator.

It turns out to be Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch — that’s the Victorian Arthur Double-Barrelled who was NOT the author of Sherlock Holmes. He did write novels, lots of ’em, signing himself “Q”. But I’ve never read one. (Hmm. Maybe this year?)

But he was also a serious critic and anthologist. And from 1912 to his death in 1944 he was the King Edward VII Professor of English Literature at Cambridge. I’ve always thought that he pretty much invented Lit Crit, in fact. Continue reading

Creating Atmosphere 2 : Using Light and Shade

Creating atmosphere : with shade in the picture

contrast in shade

Light and shade help to create atmosphere. It doesn’t have to be deep gloom or blinding sunlight, just a degree of contrast.

To see what I’m getting at, have a look at the 3 pictures in the slider  below, showing roughly the same view of a snowy landscape, but in different kinds of light. I reckon the changes of light and shade move the viewer from misery (or at least gloom), through hope, to something much more positive.

The question is: can we do the same thing, subtly, with mere words? Continue reading

Pedantique-Ryter : Between You and I? Better than me?

Between you and I?

telling secrets : between me and you

It’s a secret. Just between you and…er…

According to Fowler’s Modern English Usage, “between you and I” is to be condemned. Anyone who writes that abomination is living in “a grammarless cavern”.
What we should write, of course, is “between you and me”.

How to tell?

Without going into the grammar technicalities, ask yourself whether you’d write or say “between I and you”. You wouldn’t. You’d say “between me and you”. Normally, we put ourselves second but that doesn’t change the rule on whether to use “I” or not.
It’s “between me and you”, so it’s also “between you and me”. Continue reading

Creating Atmosphere : British India Comes Alive

Atmosphere : unspoken unease and menace

At Sophie’s prompting, I’ve recently been reading a new (to me) crime writer, Barbara Cleverly   (a writer who only just missed the cut for 12 days of Christmas). Cleverly’s first 4 books are set in India in the 1920s, after the horrors of the First World War (which haunts many of her characters) but while the British Empire still rules.

Atmosphere: Last Kashmiri Rose coveratmosphere : ragtime in simla coveratmosphere : damascened blade cover

What stayed with me, apart from her genius for plotting, was the atmosphere she created for her pre-independence India — an underlying feeling of unease, even menace.

Cleverly’s British Raj is like a thin and very fragile glass lid on a huge cauldron of broth. Readers can see through the lid to the liquid below. Not quite boiling yet, but with the occasional large bubble forcing its way through the shimmering and (apparently) serene surface. As readers, we sense that it wouldn’t take very much to crack through that flimsy lid from below. Continue reading

The Inner Reader and the Alchemy of Editing

My Inner Reader and Editing have rather taken over my life in the last few months. This is for a range of reasons. The reasons were all pleasant – or , at least, interesting. But her arrival was a surprise. And, as it turns out, a game changer.

Enter the Inner Reader

inner reader, mystery womanI should explain about my Inner Reader. She’s bit of mystery woman. Continue reading

Lessons of a Serendipitous Editing Week

By pure serendipity, this last week has turned out to be all about editing.

It wasn’t supposed to happen. I had finished the substantial edits needed on my new book, The Prince’s Bride. I felt they made the story hugely better. The publisher’s editor accepted them. The book went up on Amazon for pre-order. It should all have been done and dusted.

But … Continue reading

Resolution for Writers?

resolution needed to endI don’t know if I’m a particularly picky reader, but I do like a novel to have some sort of resolution. It doesn’t have to be a traditional happy ending – though, as a writer, I always end up with my characters looking forward hopefully. But that’s my quirk.

I can take bereavement, despair or the end of the world in other people’s books. Even enjoy them in a Having a Good Cry sort of way.

What I can’t be doing with, is to turn the page and find that there’s no more book. And in the last few months I’ve found that happening more and more.

Is a Resolution purely a Matter of Taste?

Continue reading

Considering Cliché: A Writer’s Unforgivable Sin?

The very first piece of advice that I remember anyone giving me about writing was, “Avoid cliché.” I was ten. I had to look up “cliché”. So now I have a question.

Dickens father of clicheA cliché is a word or phrase so worn out by overuse that it has deteriorated until it is meaningless. It may once have been striking. Today it is white noise.

The gentle reader ignores it. The ungentle critic berates the writer for laziness and lack of originality.

Dickens got away with “It is a far, far better thing I do, than I have ever done,” because he thought of it first. After that it became popular, then heard widely, then untouchable by any writer with pretensions to respectability.

Cliché, the Reader’s Friend?

Continue reading

Pedantique-Ryter: Less is More. Or Is It Fewer?

Less? Or fewer? This Pedantique-Ryter post is dedicated to that Disgusted of Chelsea (no names, no pack drill) who had this exchange on Twitter recently, after shopping in Marks & Spencer:

exclamation mark in fire for less or fewerDisgusted of Chelsea:
My faith in @marksandspencer is shattered, I tell you, shattered. Their ad at checkout:
“Less worries. More sandcastles.” AAAARGGH.
Is there anything we can do to help?
Very kind but am in shock. Civilisation tottering.
Ideally change wording to “fewer worries” or “less worry”?
Probably not cost effective?
We’re sorry you don’t feel we’ve got our ad right.
We’ll share your comments with the team. Thanks
It’s like a needle under a nail to me.
Team could try Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage?

Civilisation tottering? Well, maybe DoC’s irony went a bit far there, but Pedantique-Ryter admits to feeling the needle under the nail, too.
Fewer? Less? Are they interchangeable? If not, how and when should they be used?
Read on to find out the Pedantique-Ryter answer. Continue reading