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.
Maybe 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
There 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
Sophia 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
Scott 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.
Evelyn 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…
I 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.
Booker 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.